The pantheon of Jewish-American novelists is as populous as it is distinguished. Among its titans are two Nobel laureates, Canadian-born Chicagoan Saul Bellow and Polish-born Isaac Bashevis Singer; a justly celebrated string of Pulitzer winners from Edna Ferber through Philip Roth to Michael Chabon; and the creators of such works as "The Catcher in the Rye" and "Catch 22."
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Yet, a half-century ago, when a single book transformed American Jews as no other work has done, before or since, its author was none of these.
The book was "Exodus" - and like its creator, Leon Uris, it was savaged by critics and academics, and resoundingly ignored by literary prize committees. When the book appeared in 1958, however, it sold in the millions. It was said that it was nearly as common to find a copy of "Exodus" in American-Jewish households as to find the Bible - and, of the two, not a few Jewish households apparently had only "Exodus."
Tailoring, altering and radically sanitizing the history of the founding of the State of Israel to flatter the fantasies and prejudices of American Jews, Uris succeeded well beyond his own wildest dreams, essentially remaking his eager readers and himself as well. That is, he helped foment a significant change in his fellow Jews' perceptions of Israel and, indeed, of themselves.
"As a literary work it isn't much," sniffed David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, still in power at the time "Exodus" was published. "But as a piece of propaganda, it's the best thing ever written about Israel."
Some 40 years after the novel's publication, the prominent Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would ruefully remark of its demonized treatment of Arabs that "the main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris' 1958 novel 'Exodus.'"
Perhaps the reason that "Exodus" worked so well as propaganda was the extent to which Uris' thoroughly American readers found themselves identifying with such ostensibly foreign heroes as Ari Ben Canaan, the wiry, wily, can-pass-for-Christian New Israeli Jew - exactly as the author's literary engineering had intended.
"At bottom, 'Exodus' is about Jewish empowerment in a Jewish world that was yet emerging from the ashes of its destruction in Europe, and in America from high levels of anti-Semitism and discrimination," wrote author Jerome A. Chanes in the New York Jewish Week, in a review of M.M. Silver's 2010 book “Our ‘Exodus’: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel’s Founding Story.”
"'Exodus,' by validating Jewish peoplehood, validated Jews everywhere; more important, it popularized Jewish empowerment," Chanes wrote, adding that the novel was "just what we needed at the time - the Americanization of Zionism and Israel."
Difficult as it may be to fathom, given the centrality of Jews to contemporary America, the troubled self-image of much of mid-century U.S. Jewry was one of fundamental, in some cases pathological, powerlessness. It was the America that had quashed the every dream and drained the Jewish identity of the likes of Willy Loman, who - as his creator, playwright Arthur Miller, would write in a 1999 essay about "Death of a Salesman" - was "light-years away from religion or a community that might have fostered Jewish identity" and thus left "on the sidewalk side of the glass looking in at the clean well-lighted place."
It was the tantalizing, just-beyond-reach homeland of Philip Roth's ostentatiously neurotic Alexander Portnoy, the America of male Jews neutered, incapable of clouting a baseball or bedding a blonde. Mid-century Jewish American women fared little better, caricatured into a range of unfortunate roles, shrewish and/or frigid, by turns the spoiled princess or the balabusta as ball-buster.
This was an America of quotas still curbing acceptance of Jews into certain universities, neighborhoods and clubs, a country where judeophobes Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh were adored role models. And it was an American-Jewish community haunted by its wartime failure to persuade its own nation to thwart the work of genocide at Auschwitz. This was the America, also, of a doleful child of Baltimore, Leon Uris, growing up in gloom, his immigrant father a bitter study in defeat, his last name shortened from Yerushalmi (Hebrew for "Jerusalemite" ), a remnant of the father's brief flirtation with life in pre-state Israel.
Growing up in the South, Uris, as his biographer Ira B. Nadel wrote, "understood what it meant to be an outsider. Prejudice was a reality, as was failure."
Uris once said that he used to think of himself "as a very sad little Jewish boy isolated in a Southern town, undersized, asthmatic." Nonetheless, in a reference both to the tumult of his own adult life, and his wannabe self-image as the shtarker - the strong-willed, power-savvy Jew that informs the characters of "Exodus" - Uris recalled, "when I read all my correspondence again, I realized I was a hustler. I was tough. I used everything to my advantage. I could be ruthless."
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, Uris embarked on a self-imposed program of reinvention that would last his entire life. He dropped out of high school - he was 17 at the time - to enlist in the Marines. (At his instruction, his epitaph reads "American Marine/Jewish Writer." )
Three years of combat in the South Pacific would provide the basis of his first novel, "Battle Cry," published in 1953. Uris then took on a variety of projects which could be seen as leading him straight to "Exodus," among them interviewing Israelis and living in Israel for months preceding and during the 1956 Suez Crisis, and writing the screenplay for the 1957 Hollywood Western "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral."
The next year, his life would change forever with the explosive reception to "Exodus," which, according to Nadel, sold more copies that any other American book beside "Gone With The Wind" and topped The New York Times best-seller list for a full five months. As of two years ago, it had never been out of print, going through 87 printings and appearing in 50 languages. "Exodus" also had a particularly galvanizing effect on Russian Jews in the latter years of the Soviet Union, where it was declared illegal and distributed underground.
Uris became one of America's wealthiest writers, and also one of its most consistently denigrated. The New York Times once declared that he took "130,000 words to display his incompetence."
But for American readers, particularly Jews, the influence of the book was profound, as was the impact of the subsequent 1960 film starring Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan, the very fictional, hugely iconic Israeli exponent of Uris' uniquely American-flavored Zionism. From the film:
Kitty Fremont [The very American, very Presbyterian, very blonde nurse who becomes Ari's love interest. She is concerned for the welfare of the hunger-striking Holocaust survivors on the Exodus, a ship denied entry into British-ruled Palestine in 1947]: "You can't fight the whole British Empire with 600 people. It isn't possible."
Ari Ben Canaan [in a reference to American troops at the first battle of the Revolutionary War in 1775]: "How many Minutemen did you have when they fired the 'shot heard round the world'?"
Kitty Fremont: "I don't know."
Ari Ben Canaan: "Seventy-seven."
"On the one hand," recalls prominent journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, whose 2006 book Prisoners describes his experiences in the Israeli army as a prison guard during the First Intifada, "Exodus set me, and many others, on a course for aliyah, and it made American Jews proud of Israel's achievements. On the other hand, it created the impression that all Arabs are savages. This was most unhelpful, and the lingering effects of [the book's] sometimes-cartoonish portrayal of Israel's founding can still be seen in the opinions of the more unthinking among Israel's supporters."
And there were apparently other consequences as well, some of them still in evidence. There is, for example, the impact of Uris' depiction of Ari's sister, Jordana Ben Canaan, the gun-toting, makeup-scorning antithesis of the Jewish American princess. As Goldberg notes, "Exodus" also "introduced the name 'Jordana' to the list of Jewish baby-name possibilities, which was a good thing."