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Novelist Leon Uris Taught Jewish Readers To Stand Tall

I was 10 years old when the film version of “Exodus,” Leon Uris’s epic telling of the struggle for the establishment of Israel, opened in Times Square.

Going to see it was an event of considerable moment. Even as a 10-year-old, heading downtown by subway with a neighborhood friend and his mother, I understood that what I was going to see was more than just a movie. “Exodus” was a remaking of my family’s — my community’s — primal myth. We American Jews were still living in the immediate shadow of the Holocaust, trying to find a foothold in America. In my own Yiddish-speaking, socialist corner of the Bronx, the very idea of a heroic Jewish epic going up in lights in Times Square — a Hollywood retelling of the Labor Zionist chapter in Jewish history, no less — was electrifying.

And not just in my neighborhood. The legend of “Exodus” would inform decades of American admiration for Israel’s derring-do, its greening of the desert and social experimentation, its success in summoning a vibrant state out of the ashes of the crematoria. Even its theme music would resound, attaching itself to soppy lyrics and worming its way into bar mitzvah repertoire.

Uris, who died this week of renal failure at age 78, was a larger-than-life character. A high-school dropout from Baltimore who fought with the Marines in the Pacific, he made his mark with novels that cast episodes in modern history as swashbuckling romance. Married three times, involved in repeated feuds and lawsuits with Hollywood filmmakers and Arab activists, he never stopped marveling at his own transformation, as he once described it, from a “sad little Jewish boy” into a “hustler.”

But it was with “Exodus” that his place in history was secured. Published in 1958, the novel sold a million copies and made his name a household word. Combined with the film that followed two years later, “Exodus” became something of a watershed in the evolving cultural identity of American Jews. Before that, our cultural role models were brainy types like Louis Brandeis and Albert Einstein, clowns like Milton Berle and pampered arrivistes like the fictional Majorie Morningstar. Uris invited us to identify with the warrior heroes who had created Israel. He taught us to stand tall.

Uris’s novel fell on equally fertile soil when it found its way behind the Iron Curtain, translated into Russian and passed along by young, ethnically starved Soviet Jews in pirated typescript from hand to hand. Russian Jews of that generation still tell of the monumental impact of “Exodus,” how it helped to trigger the post-1967 Zionist awakening, which in turn has so radically redrawn the contours of world Jewish life.

If Uris lacked some gifts as a novelist, he was blessed as a storyteller. His characters were all too often one-dimensional stick figures rather than creatures of flesh, blood and soul. Still, his storytelling carries the day. Writing in The New York Times Book Review about “Trinity,” Uris’s retelling of the 1916 Irish uprising, Pete Hamill concluded, “Uris is certainly not as good a writer as Pynchon, Barthelme or Nabokov; but he is a better storyteller.”

His flaws — and strengths — were all apparent in “Exodus.” The 600-page novel manages to reduce the bitter rivalry among pre-state Zionist factions into a family feud. It treats the leaders of the mainstream Haganah underground as if they were bloodless patriots. There is little or no room for political ambition or personal vendetta, and some characters are just too good to be true. Moshe Dayan couldn’t have asked for a better public relations image than the novel’s square-jawed hero, Ari Ben Canaan, played in the movie by a young Paul Newman.

As it happened, the film posed a crisis of sorts in my own circle in the socialist-dominated Sholom Aleichem Houses in the northwest Bronx. The actor David Opatoshu, a family friend and son of the esteemed Yiddish novelist Joseph Opatoshu, played the role of Akiva Ben Canaan, loosely based on Menachem Begin, who was no hero in our neighborhood. But we got over it.

If the arbiters of high literature were less than respectful toward Uris’s writing, most of us were ready to get over that, too. In “Exodus,” his flaws are swept away not only by the great force of the story but by the reality that inspired his words. It was only nine years after the book appeared that its sequel was written by the generation of Israeli founders he so admired, when they led their nation to victory in the Six-Day War. That victory, however, ushered in a new era in which Israelis would no longer enjoy the simple, undiluted admiration they could expect in much of the world before 1967.

In “Exodus,” the bad guys are the British, the Nazis and their Palestinian Arab ally, the mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. (In “Exodus,” true to its period, “Palestinians” refers to the Jews of pre-state Israel.) Arabs not under the mufti’s sway are good Arabs who do not oppose the Zionists. Kammal, the “good Arab” mukhtar, or mayor, of Abu Yesha, tells Ari’s father Barak Ben Canaan, “The Jews are the only ones in a thousand years who have brought light to this part of the world.”

By today’s standards Uris would be seen as having failed to incorporate within his narrative what is now understood as a great human tragedy, the Palestinian Arab dislocation. But Uris was merely reflecting the perception of his time — a perception that remained dominant among Israelis and Jews until only recently. Moreover, it reflected his romantic worldview. From “Mila 18,” his 1960 novel of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, through “Trinity” in 1976 to “Redemption” in 1995, he continued to tell tales of bravery and honor that his detractors would continue to attack as one-sided.

Besides, Uris’s admirers would argue, at least he had a “good Arab” to counter the “bad Arab” in his morality tales. Palestinian storytellers still do even less justice to the Jewish story than Uris did to theirs. If Palestinians could summon even a Leon Uris level of empathy for the Jews, the never-ending conflict might be brought to an end.

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