Tarzan of the Jews

How the King of the Apes Became an Israeli Craze

By Rex Weiner

Published August 07, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
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It’s hard to picture Tarzan, the iconic ape-man created by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs, wearing a yarmulke, or yodeling “Hatikvah” instead of his usual jungle cry. But when the 100th anniversary of the jungle king’s 1912 pulp fiction debut, “Tarzan of the Apes,” is celebrated this fall by the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate, it will honor not only one of the world’s most recognized heroes, but a hero of Israel, as well.

Hear Me Roar: Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the early Hollywood movies, was believed to be Jewish by many Israelis, strengthening the country’s attachment to the iconic hero.
identification with the jungle character.
getty images
Hear Me Roar: Johnny Weissmuller, who played Tarzan in the early Hollywood movies, was believed to be Jewish by many Israelis, strengthening the country’s attachment to the iconic hero. identification with the jungle character.

“Tarzan was a true cultural phenomenon in Israel,” said Israeli pop culture chronicler Eli Eshed, author of “Tarzan in the Holy Land,” a definitive study published in 1999. “There probably wasn’t an Israeli Sabra who didn’t know Tarzan, or hadn’t played Tarzan games as a child, or read the books and the Israeli Tarzan issues, or not seen the movies. It was part of every Israeli child’s experience.”

Tarzan’s Israeli adventure began in the 1930s, with the Hollywood movies in which actor Johnny Weissmuller played the title role. The movies were based on the Burroughs tale of British Lord Greystoke and his pregnant wife, who are marooned on the shores of Africa by a mutinous crew while sailing to the colonies on a diplomatic mission. Shortly after their child is born, the parents are killed; the Mangani, a tribe of wild but unusually sentient primates, adopt the boy. Schooled in jungle ways while retaining his human skills and wiles, he becomes a heroic adventurer known as “Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle.”

Weissmuller, an Olympic swimmer of the 1920s, was born in Austria-Hungary to German-speaking parents. In 1905 they immigrated with their 4-year-old son to the United States. The family settled in Chicago, where Johnny’s athletic prowess and muscular good looks brought him Olympic triumph and later caught Hollywood’s attention. After starring in “Tarzan the Ape Man” in 1932, Weissmuller became a worldwide sensation, especially among Zionist settlers in the British Mandate of Palestine. Conflating Weissmuller — whom many believed to have Jewish ancestry — with the character he played, they decided that Tarzan was also Jewish, but in a distinctly Israeli way.

“Tarzan was a model for the way the new Jew, the Israeli Sabra, was supposed to be,” Eshed writes, “a powerful man of the land and in contact with nature and the natives and the animals — the absolute contrast to the old weak Jew of the ghetto who was completely cut off from all those elements.”

In his 1979 essay collection, “Beor Hatkhelet Ha’aza,” published in English in 1995 as “Under This Blazing Light,” Israeli author Amos Oz recalled that “Tarzan for us was a Jew since he always fights as ‘one against many’ and because he was smart and full of tricks and his enemies were stupid.”

Tarzan’s appearance in Hebrew pop literature began in the late 1930s with Israeli children’s books, including one by the late Shraga Gafni, best known for his popular “Dani Din: The Invisible Boy” and “The Young Detectives” series. His book, titled “The Young Detectives and Tarzan Attack Solomon Gulf,” presents Tarzan coming to the aid of a band of Israeli children to combat Saudi slave traders, Arab spies and a subversive squad of Egyptians. After triumphing over his adversaries, Tarzan marries his sweetheart and honeymoons in Israel.


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