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.

At the height of the Tarzan craze, a pulp fiction industry boomed in the Holy Land. Several publishers, most notably Karnaf, (Hebrew for “rhinoceros”), competed for young Tarzan readers, putting out hundreds of 24- and 32-page editions, and often suing each other over copyrights — which was “probably a sore point” for Tarzan’s creator, according to Tarzan fan publication ERBzine editor and Burroughs historian Bill Hillman. “Probably none of the Israeli Tarzan publications were authorized by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.,” he told the Forward. “Although he took many countries to task, I’m not aware of a conflict with Palestine/Israel.”

Other Israeli writers who contributed to the ape-man’s mythos included Aharon Amir and Amos Kenan, who were better known for more serious literary work but supplemented their incomes churning out Tarzan stories for the pulps. Many of them were associated with the Canaanites, an edgy Israeli cultural movement whose aesthetic embraced the pre-monotheistic Israel of the biblical past. The Canaanites’ most controversial expression was a statue called “Nimrod,” a carved stone figure of a brawny, naked uncircumcised hunter. According to Eshed, Tarzan could have influenced the controversial work, created by sculptor Yitzhak Danziger and unveiled at Hebrew University in 1939 (it is now displayed at The Israel Museum, Jerusalem).

Fittingly, though Zionists adopted Tarzan, the character was officially banned by the Nazis, who were unhappy that Burroughs, in his 1919 story, “Tarzan the Untamed” (aka “Tarzan and the Huns”), portrayed Germans as stereotypical villains. According to Hillman, Burroughs was no fan of Hitler, either. “He used biting satire in his Venus novels of the ’30s to discredit Hitler and the Nazis… and their promotion of a ‘master race,’ eugenics and their doctrines of exterminating Jews and other European minorities,” Hillman wrote in an email to the Forward.

Following the Jewish state’s founding, in 1948, some of the Hebrew Tarzan stories enlisted the ape-man in the service of the Israeli government as well as in the pre-state Yishuv. In one story, he helped Jews immigrate to Palestine illegally during the mandatory period, for which he was arrested and imprisoned by his fellow Britishers. Another adventure had Tarzan running the Egyptian blockade at Suez, wreaking havoc among the Egyptian soldiers; defying Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and destroying Soviet troops poised to overrun Israel. On yet another mission, Tarzan teamed with Mossad agents in Moscow to trap a Nazi war criminal.

While Tarzan was helping Zionists, he also found fans in Arab countries. One writer of Tarzan stories was Rabki Camal, the Syrian radio announcer, known as the “Voice of Damascus,” for the an anti-Israel propaganda program broadcast in Hebrew. In Camal’s stories, which were published in Arabic pulps, “Tarzan helps the Palestinians fight the evil Jews and their attempt to achieve world domination,” Eshed explained. “Needless to say, this also was all without the knowledge of the Burroughs estate.”

Tarzan’s popularity has declined in Israel from its peak in the 1950s and ’60s, with land and nature bypassed for high-tech frontiers, and global culture displacing old heroes. “Tarzan does not really speak to children who prefer anime and Japanese comics and such,” Eshed said.

But in one respect, Burroughs’s classic stories are gaining a fresh perspective for their 100th anniversary. For the first time since Tarzan saved Jane Porter, a white woman from Baltimore, from jungle perils in “Tarzan of the Apes,” an officially authorized Tarzan novel has been written by a woman. “Jane: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan,” by Robin Maxwell, a Jewish author of historical novels, tells the Tarzan story from the point of view of his famous mate. The book will be released this fall as the centerpiece of centennial activities organized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate. Primate researcher Jane Goodall has supplied a glowing blurb, stating that the story is “finally an honest portrayal of the only woman of whom I have been really, really jealous.”

Porter, a Darwinian scientist in the first Tarzan story, speculated that the ape-man was evolution’s “missing link.” If we hear a slight Hebrew accent in his blood-curdling cry, that might be because Tarzan is also a missing link to a more innocent time in Israel’s history and a reminder that a nation’s malleable folklore can be derived from unlikely sources — a comic book, a Hollywood movie, or just a writer scribbling to make a living.

Rex Weiner is the Forward’s West Coast correspondent.


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