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Macho Man

Exodus recast Israel’s founders as swaggering heroes and secured Leon Uris a place on the Jewish bookshelf even though, as a new biography shows, he was a mediocre writer and a troubled person

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Leon Uris, 1964. (Getty Images)

Jews take pride in calling themselves “the people of the book,” and while there’s something a little vainglorious about the phrase—all peoples have books, don’t they?—its appeal is easy to understand. For millennia, in the absence of land and power, Jews found a kind of virtual sovereignty in texts, and the history of Judaism from the Babylonian Exile onward could be written as a history of books and writers—the Torah and the Prophets, the Mishna and Gemara, Rashi and Maimonides, down to modern, secular authors like Theodor Herzl and Sholem Aleichem and Primo Levi.

And then there’s Leon Uris. Uris, needless to say, was no Rashi; after reading Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller, the new, distinctly unflattering biography by Ira B. Nadel (University of Texas Press, $27.95), one is tempted to say that he was not even Herman Wouk. But like it or not, Exodus, Uris’ 1958 novel, has earned its place in the history of the people of the book. It might, in fact, be the worst-written book ever to do so. Here, for instance, is how Uris introduces Kitty Fremont, the American Gentile love interest of the Jewish hero Ari Ben Canaan: “She was even more beautiful than he remembered. They stared at each other silently for a long time. He studied her face and her eyes. She was a woman now, soft and compassionate in the way one gets only through terrible suffering.”

Yet despite a style that Nadel describes as “melodramatic and mannered,” full of “repetitious phrasing, unimaginative language, and clumsy syntax,” Exodus became an enormous, worldwide best-seller. A thoroughly romanticized retelling of the Israeli independence struggle, the novel sold millions of copies and was turned into a movie that reached millions more. Nadel credits it with an “incalculable” effect on the way American Jews, and Americans in general, thought about Israel and Jewish history. Jews “were no longer victims but heroes,” Nadel writes. “The sheer number of copies sold meant that many experienced Jewish history and heroism dramatically and romantically.”

Such things are hard to measure, of course, and the turning point in American thinking about Israel is more often dated to the Six-Day War, a decade later. But there is no question that Exodus mattered to American Jews; and it mattered still more powerfully to Soviet Jews. Exactly how the first copy of the novel got into the Soviet Union is a matter of rumor and legend—one story has the Israeli consulate in Leningrad receiving copies in the diplomatic mailbag and handing them out in secret to Soviet Jews. Soon, Exodus became a kind of holy text among the Soviet Jewish refuseniks of the 1960s and 1970s, whose Communist education had left them totally ignorant of Jewish and Zionist history.

For them, Uris’ bold, broad strokes, colored by fervent Jewish pride, were the perfect way to fill in the gap. Samizdat translators spent months turning the book into Russian, and then painstakingly typed out copies to pass hand to hand—the dedication of monks in a scriptorium, lavished on an airport best-seller. Nadel quotes the story of one Soviet Jew, Leonid Feldman, who recalled the danger and secrecy that surrounded “the book”—the title was never spoken aloud. “He waited one night at eleven in a dark corner of a park. He was handed a heavy briefcase. ‘Take a taxi and go home, but you must return with the manuscript to this spot by seven a.m. finished or not,’ said the courier. ‘No one must know what you’ve done.’ ” (It all sounds rather like a scene from a Leon Uris novel, in fact.)

What did the American and Russian readers of Exodus get from it? First, there was the action-packed story of Ari Ben Canaan, a heroic Haganah commander who outwits the British to bring illegal Jewish immigrants into postwar Palestine. Ari has a lost love, Dafna—after whom he names a children’s kibbutz, Gan Dafna—and a new love, Kitty, whose heart he wins with feats like escaping from a British prison. At the same time, Uris introduces the history of the Holocaust through another character, Dov Landau, who survives the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Auschwitz to become an Israeli freedom fighter.

Most important of all, however, was the way Uris turned these unimaginably tragic and complicated events into a clear-cut and inspiring tale of good against evil—a Middle Eastern Western. Before writing Exodus, Nadel shows, Uris had spent time as a screenwriter in Hollywood, thanks to the success of his debut novel, the World War II saga Battle Cry. He was not nearly as successful writing scripts as he was with books: The directors he worked with, including Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, complained of his inability to pare down his stories to the requirements of the screen, or work collaboratively.

Uris’ one unambiguous success as a screenwriter was Gunfight at the O.K Corral, a retelling of the Wyatt Earp story, and he learned its lessons well. “You can write westerns in any part of the world,” Uris remarked, and he did: Mila-18 was a Warsaw Ghetto Western, Topaz a Cuban spy Western, Trinity an Irish Western. Nadel shows how he adopted the genre’s themes: “brotherhood, heroism, the sacrifice of women to a greater cause, male stoicism masking anger,” and, of course, “heroes and antiheroes, strong men of virtue and weak men of anger.” If Uris never really mastered the screenplay, he did import many cinematic techniques into his novels. “Often, his novels seem storyboarded,” Nadel writes, “as if the plot had been rendered in a series of sketches with a line or two under each drawing expressing the main action.”

This helps to explain why his books were so easy to read, even though they were so terribly written—and why they were critic-proof. One of Nadel’s section headings, “The Critics Are Again Unkind,” says it all. Indeed, reviewers seemed to treat each new Uris book as a contest to come up with most imaginative insult. (About QB VII, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times, “One can read it and simultaneously work out tables of actuarial statistics … or iron out the snags in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.”) Even David Ben-Gurion couched his praise of Exodus carefully: “As a literary work it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” Menachem Begin was less pleased by the way Exodus transformed the Irgun into a fictional underground group called the Maccabees: He wanted full credit for his exploits.

American Jewish intellectuals were frequently appalled by the way Uris turned the Israelis into fantasies of toughness—what one critic called “Jewish Tarzans.” To Robert Alter, Exodus was a clinical case study in “what Americans would like to think about Jews and what American Jewish intellectuals would like to think about themselves.” Yet as Nadel shows, this view doesn’t get Uris quite right. It’s true that Ari Ben Canaan was a wish-fulfillment figure, a clichéd expression of Uris’ lifelong admiration for tough, fighting Jews. But Uris’ whole emotional and mental life seems to have been animated by clichés, and he took this particular one seriously enough to become a fighter himself, for good and bad.

The good came early on, when the 17-year-old Uris enlisted in the Marine Corps just after Pearl Harbor. He was eager to escape a thoroughly miserable childhood, spent shuttling back and forth between his divorced, bitter parents. His father, William Uris—formerly known as Wolf Yerushalmi—was the bane of his existence, as he explained in a late, autobiographical novel, Mitla Pass. William came to the United States from Belarus by way of Palestine, but he did not find America a golden land. He drifted from job to job, had a half-hearted career as a Communist organizer, and married and divorced Leon’s mother, Anna Blumberg. His attitude toward his successful son was a mixture of narcissism and criticism. Freud would have had a field day with the story, told by William in all guilelessness, about how he autographed Leon’s name in a fan’s copy of one of his books.

Joining the Marines was a godsend to Leon—“the war came along at a time when I needed to go to war,” he said—and he identified with the Corps for the rest of his life. (His tombstone, in a military cemetery in Virginia, reads “American Marine/Jewish Writer.”) Uris’ experiences in the South Pacific, where he saw action on Guadalcanal and Tarawa, also gave him the subject matter for his first novel, Battle Cry. From the very beginning, Nadel shows, Uris saw it as his mission to offer an unambiguously patriotic account of the war, in contrast to writer-veterans like Norman Mailer and James Jones. He provided “patriotism not nihilism, heroism not cowardice.”

The secret to Uris’ success was that he applied this same uplifting formula to every conflict he treated, from the 1948 war (the Jews were good, the Arabs evil) to Northern Ireland (Catholics good, Protestants evil). To Jewish readers, Uris’ message of Jewish toughness, repeated in book after book—even Battle Cry featured Captain Max Shapiro, who dies heroically—was a welcome antidote to anti-Semitic stereotypes. And it was only because Uris genuinely believed in this cult of toughness that he could so earnestly create heroes like Ari Ben Canaan.

Yet as Nadel shows in his account of Uris’ private life, masculine toughness is generally a way of concealing insecurity and confusion. After hearing about Uris’ rages, bullying, grandiosity, and infidelity, it’s no surprise to learn that his first marriage ended in divorce. His second wife committed suicide just months after their wedding; his third wife, who was the same age as his grown children, also left him in the end. By the book’s close, when the aging Uris, no longer a best-seller, is seen bragging about getting beaten up by a prostitute (she apparently found him “too aggressive”) and asking his (female) editor to “procure him some women,” he seems a pathetic, ugly figure. It might be fun, or even therapeutic, to read about Jewish Tarzans once in a while, but you wouldn’t want to live with one—or be one.

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David Gleicher says:

The reaction to this Uris bio can be summed up as: So what? As you pointed out, the influence of Exodus on both American and Soviet Jews was so great that it is bigger than, and outlives Uris. It may upset people that the most unfluential American Jewish novel is poorly written, but that’s irony for you.

Jonathan D. Sarna says:

I recommend balancing Nadel’s book with M.M.Silver, OUR EXODUS: LEON URIS AND THE AMERICANIZATION OF ISRAEL’S FOUNDING STORY (Wayne State University Press, 2010).

What a snooze! Surely it can come as no surprise to anyone that a book can be both successful and poorly written. And anybody who has read QB VII, Uris’ roman a clef about being sued over a passage that appeared in Exodus, knows that Uris was well aware of his own emotional and behavioral baggage.

michel wandel says:

o.k., the war he needed came at the right point in time. but the book(s) the jews needed also came at that right point. so, what if…

Bennett Muraskin says:

We needed that book like a hole in the head. It promoted the “Israel right or wrong” and “the only thing they understand is force” attitude that plagues us to this day.

Here’s the part I don’t understand. So Uris didn’t write very good prose and his books are mere page turners. So why does an academic waste his time writing about him and why does a university press publish the book? Sounds as though the groves of academe might be suffering a blight.

Leon Uris would not mind this review. He transformed the image of Jews at a moment when transformation was in order. The fighting Jew is a good concept, when coupled with humanitarianism side-by-side (as in the Ari Ben Canaan character) and when not applied to the brutal post-’67 occupation.

Exodus was one of the first “grown-up” books I ever read — found it in the synagogue library. I was 10 or 11. I couldn’t believe adults nodded approvingly upon seeing me read it — did they know there was SEX in it?! Lots and lots of sex!? Even as a tween I could tell the book was trashy, cliched and sexist…but hey, it was about ISRAEL, so it had educational value. And dayum, it was romantic and suspenseful, a real page-turner. Final verdict: Good for the Jews. (Didn’t hurt that Paul Newman played Ari Ben Canaan in the movie, either.)

Phillip Cohen says:

The Adam Kirsch review of the Ira B. Nadel Biography of Leon Uris was informative. Reading that we were the people of the book(s) because we spent centuries without land or power, in and of itself, was insightful.
The details about such an injured soul who developed a Western writing template as a formula for each of his books makes the Exodus phenomena ever more interesting.

Interesting how the Uris comment “You can write westerns in any part of the world,” becomes “Exodus transferred the American cultural mythology of brave pioneers and cowboys confronted by hostile, savage Indians to the Middle East conflict” in James Zogby’s recent book ARAB VOICES.

Of course, Arabs are not the main enemy in EXODUS. Over 80% of the film’s exhaustive 207 minute runtime is devoted to Jews battling the British (first in Cyprus, then in Jerusalem, and finally in Acco), but ignoring the Jewish fight for independence from the British fits nicely into the current attempt to define Israel as a “colonial entity.”

The film version of EXODUS premiered in New York on December 15, 1960, & I was proud to celebrate this particular Golden Anniversary. No matter how many times I’ve seen it (and yes, I’ve seen it several times in the last decade), watching EXODUS always fills my heart with pride!

Mark Shechner says:

Nadel’s book is a revisionary look at the life of a Jewish writer whose career, anomalous at first glance, may be more typical than literary scholars care to admit. Think of Uris not in the company of Bellow, Malamud et al, but as a prototype of the Jew as writer-entrepreneur, in a company that includes Herman Wouk, Irving Stone, Irving Shulman, Irving Wallace – writers who were in tune with Hollywood and whose books were written for film adaptation. Nadel gives usa view of Jewish writing as not only a popular art but also as a business, a very profitable business which was carried with a high degree of idealism and principle. Uris was one of the pioneers of the mass market paperback. In that sense, Uris more resembles the studio moguls than he does his fellow writers, for whom in any case he had only contempt. The Uris-style writers, like the Hollywood producers, were in the edification business, with a clear sense of their audience as willing to pay a premium to be edified. In that way Uris might not only be thought of as a novelist-businessman, but beyond that as a novelist-businessman-rabbi: the writer, wheeler-dealer, moralist. The khokhem of Aspen. A mover and a shaker. A brute with women. And a star, who walked the red carpet many a time with a beauty on his arm. He was all that, and if he wrote clumsy sentences along the way, that might have been all to the good: a part of the rugged writer-warrior and semper-fi ski-bum that he adopted as a story-teller. Clumsy sentences for clumsy readers. And yet he preached a timely gospel: the gospel of the tough Jew, from the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tel Aviv. It was what the age demanded.

greeneyeshade says:

Anybody notice the moment in Allegra Goodman’s “Kaaterskill Falls” when the rabbi’s daughter is overwhelmed by “Exodus”? Not because it’s great writing (Uris himself might not have claimed that; I wouldn’t know) but because it’s Zionist, a world she doesn’t know? Might be Uris’ greatest monument.

Westsider says:

It hardly comes as a shock that a novelist had social problems.
As someone who was a budding Hebrew school student and just ten years old when Exodus debuted, I lapped it all up. It definitely helped as I started to learn about and comprehend what had happened in the concentration camps of Europe just twenty years before.
On a lighter note: The impact of Exodus was so great in my early 1960s world that I remember being shocked when I found out that the national anthem of Israel was Hatikvah and not the film’s theme music. I remember thinking Israel made a bad choice there. I have since recanted.

When I was a twelve-year old child I read “Exodus” and loved it so much that I immediately re-read it.The Sex,Melodrama,Adventure,Sex,Heroism,Pathos,History,Passion and,yes,Sex all stimulated my pre-teenaged interest.It also provided me with an introduction to Jewish History and the founding of the State of Israel.Fifty years later,I can appreciate that the prose is banal,the politics simplistic and the history one-sided but it was a huge influence on the start of my understanding of the Wider World and I love it for that reason and because,even today,cognizant of all the faults in the novel, it’s a useful,defiant corrective,especially for the young, to the virulent Jew-Hatred still extant in the world.

edythe khazzoom says:

Exodus was a major turning point in my life.

The first time I heard about Israel was fifty years ago from palestinians.

I was filled with a mixture of lies half truths and some truth and sent out into the world to spread the word.

While I was waiting for a friend, I found Exodus on her coffee table and begin reading it. I realized that there was another truth out there and went to Harvard summer school where I took a course from a professor who had been an officer in the british army and hated both sides so he gave another truth.

I was very impressed by what I learned about Israel and was planing to go there and see for myself when I met my husband who was an Israeli graduate student at harvard.

Hersh Adlerstein says:

So Uris was a lousy writer, so what. The shelves of bookstores have always been filled with best sellers which, as often as not, were poorly written, soon forgotten, and remaindered quickly. But why bother writing a biography of Uris, when I can’t imagine an academic wasting time writing a biography of probably 59% of the fiction writers on today’s best seller list. Is it something that will be studied in university courses on 20th century American literature? For that matter, will Uris be so studied> Is EXODUS a great novel, no, but it served ats purpose and is now forgotten. As for Uris and his personal problems, we need to realize that even great writers (Philip Roth
or Norman Mailer, for example) have also had multiple divorces, acts of violence, etc., though their lives are worth examining precisely because they are great authors. Will I read more Uris novels, never again; will I read this biography, never.

Michele says:

Exodus, which I read when I was 12, made me proud to be a Jew and spurred my aliyah (and some of my friends’). It motivated Jews around the world to help build Israel. If that’s not a type of greatness, I don’t know what is.

I read Exodus on an airplane from Israel to the US. I had never seen the movie. The book changed my life. Mila 18 was equally profound in shaping who I am. I don’t know anything about Leon Uris’ life or character, but to say he was bad writer is just ludicrous. Why even write such a useless article, like you have made some great discovery.

barrygoodlife says:

From Season One of Mad Men:

Draper:
I’ve read Exodus; there’s not as much action in it as I’d have expected. And I understand that they’re making it into a movie starring Paul Newman.

Wealthy female client/assimilated Jew:
So now there are two reasons for me to see it.

Peter Pex says:

Summer 1956 I arrived as an immigrant from the Netherlands in suburban Philadelphia and came to work for Thos.Cook & Son/Wagon Lits Travel Agency in the Sun Oil Building on Walnut Atreet in Center City Philly,I was 24 years old.
Very Soon I met Mr.William Uris and his wife who operated a very small cigarette and newspaper shop in the main part of the building and apperantly someone had told him a little about me as he shared that he too had spent time in a concentration camp of some sort in Europe and he showed me his tattoo number on his arm.I think that he was able to escape.
Although I was a Dutchman, had I spent all my life in the Dutch East Indies now called Indonesia and the last eight months of the Japanese Occupation ubtil their capitulation did I spend in a jail cell at age 11-12 alone seperated from my mother and just about everyone else.This was in the Bantjeuj jail in Bandoeng and you can read more about it when you put that in your browser.A lady whom I did not know wrote something. I have never written anything about it;perhaps I should.
And so we had a lot to share but never really talked about it.
He told me about his son and at some point he showed me and everyone else a very high stack of yellow pages which was the original script in handwriting of Exodus….he was so proud.
Soon he also had a stack of the books themselves which he sold to interested parties and my copy includes a message from the writer and a shalom from Leon Uris.I am now 77 years old and still have the book.
I am glad that Nadel came up with this critique.It has brought Leon and his oevre back in the limelight.His writing brings back a lot of wonderful memories as your response shows.
For me at that age was it the first clear history and circumstances of Jews and Israel.And how about Topaz…what a story and what a revelation how the French goverment was saturated with Soviet synmpathisers!…and US haters!!
Have fun and much success with Tablet!!
Shalom,Peter

Nina Bryna says:

It was Mohammed who named us People of the Book, meaning the Bible, that we were not idolaters, but believers in the one God.
Exodus may have been a trashy book, and a lousy movie, but it Paul Newman certainly challennged the Der Stuermer image.

Nina Bryna says:

P.S. I am a European-born Israeli and a holocaust survivor

Bottomline — the story is engaging and exciting to a young or inexperienced mind (and the film was also, though a young person might become lost in the scenery). I fell under the spell of both of them at 12. The issues of accurate/inaccurate, well written/poorly written are academic and are of no importance to the general reader. They are the masses, and the masses, as we all know, ultimately control the argument.

“all peoples have books, don’t they?” Uh, no.

Abie Dee says:

As proud as many of us felt after reading “Exodus”, growing up we realized perhaps that much of it was propaganda and one-sided. For many of us,though, being exposed to other narratives certainly rounded out our knowledge of this exciting period in Jewish history. Compare that to the many millions of Arab children who have grown up with only one narrative…one filled with extreme fabrications and hateful depictions of Jews and Israel. Coutering such propaganda today has proven very difficult and, in my opinion, remains one of the main reasons why peace in the middle east still aludes us.

walter rand says:

No mention is made of one of Leon Uris’s great novels, The Haj, in which he captures the essence of the Israeli-Arab conflict of cultures when he describes why the two families, who lived as friendly neighbors in Palestine for several generations, became strong antagonists because of the fear of the Arab patriarch that he would lose control of his family, especially the women, if the Jewish values of human rights were to influence their relationship in a predominantly Jewish state. Uris captured the whole concept of Arab resentment to a Jewish State in this story, and not just because of the loss of Arab land to Jews, but how it posed a threat to the loss of traditional Arab patriarch control of the family. From this concept has arisen the current Islamic terrorist battle cry of Jihad which the rest of the world has to contend with. Uris certainly had his finger on the pulse of this antagonism and anticipated its consequences in this book. Until I read the book about 60 years ago, I was unaware of what was at stake, but was enlightened by it as to the nature of Muslim motivation for Jihad.

Peter Pex says:

hi

Peter Pex says:

hiiii

Shlomo Goldberg says:

Who cares one way or the other what Uris was like. And why would someone want to pontificate on it so much to write a book.

Dov Hatzafon says:

Hey MJ Rosenberg, was that you, reduced to pushing the “brutal occupation” line in an Internet talk-back? Does this mean that the people who were paying you to lobby for the Oslo accords finally realized that game ended with Intifada Al-Aqsa?

First, Walter Rand, if that’s the Haj’s theme, Uris anticipated Reading Lolita in Tehran, a feminist classic by a Muslim intellectual. Nafisi argues (and proves) that modern women are not an accidental target of Islamism, they are seen as the main threat to what little dignity the Muslim underclass male has managed to retain. I have to read Uris’s book now. Second, I admire both Adam and Jonathan Kirsch’s work (particularly Harlot by the Side of the Road) but Nina Bryna makes an important point that Adam is slightly too young to know about: the Fascist era image of the Jewish male: effeminate, cowardly, cringing like a rat caught by a flashlight. Nobody used the honorific word “survivor” for concentration camp survivors till the Seventies. (I ghost wrote one of their early memoirs, in fact.) In my youth gentile kids mocked Jewish kids by calling them “lampshades,” and if you were a boy, you felt the Jews had been rescued by the Gentile Americans the way John Wayne rescued the heroine in movies. Uris gave my generation of boys an heroic picture as a counterweight. It had to be exaggerated. It was fighting a whole discourse, as we say now. Norman Mailer was creating a Hemingway-esque persona for us we valued the same way. The stage was full of Woody Allens and Buddy Hacketts saying, quote, “I don’t ski. I got liddle Jew bones in my feet.” The joy of discovering Paul Newman was Jewish! Uris must be seen as part of that era. If not a master novelist, he was a master psychologist. And if the Haj anticipates Reading Lolita, as Walter Rand implies, ahead of his time.

Shalom Freedman says:

How many writers really have an influence on the world? How many influence for good?Leon Uris had as this article indicates tremendous influence on Soviet Jewry. He also influenced quite a few American Jews like myself. A few of us even made it to Israel.
Uris was not a ‘great writer’ or even close. But he really could tell a story. And in ‘Exodus’ he told it in such a way as to capture the heart and imagination of thousands of Jews.
I wonder if it is completely fair to focus on sordid details of personal biography when the really important thing is that he did so much good for the Jewish people.

M. Burgh says:

Exodus, for all its faults is comparable to another book of the 1960′s, The Autobiography of Malcom X, written by Alex Haley. While Haley’s book is much better written than Uris’s, both books sought to change both the self-image and public image of their respective subjects. For Uris, the primary audience of American Jews subjected to years of second-citizenship, resonating with the knowledge of the Holocaust, and yearning to take a serious place in American culture, lapped up Exodus’s mixture of bravado, sexual adventures, and pure schmaltz, with a Shiksa goddess to boot. The Autobiography of Malcolm X had the same function for African-Americans, although with different agenda: to radicalize. That both these books reached wider audience aided the breakdown of Anglo supremacy. Anyone questioning the need for academic study of Exodus, does not realize that any text that influences culture is worth studying, but a loaded text like Exodus is an academic goldmine.

S. O'Brien says:

In 1961 I was 9-year girl living in a small farming community in rural Wisconsin – not Jewish and not aware of the history of Israel. I knew no one who was Jewish, knew nothing of the Jewish faith. My only frame of reference was the holocaust and WWII taught in history class. While in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy I was given a copy of Exodus by the grandmother of my 9-year old roommate. This was in Eau Claire, WI and at that time I suspect the Jewish population was as it is today – around 35 households. Exodus was the first adult novel I ever read and it transformed my life – reading it began my life long passion for reading. I devoured Exodus and every Leon Uris novel forward. I exposed me to the world beyond my small town existence.
I was a painfully shy girl and the only child in the entire school with a single parent. In my sophomore year of high school my English teacher, a friend of my mother’s, cajoled me into joining the forensics (speech) team in an attempt to bring me out of my “bookish” existence and I suspect as an attempt to help my shyness. When it came time to choose a dramatic reading to take the local competitions I chose the scene where Karen Hansen finds her father in Israel after having been separated from him during the war. He is ill and broken and unable to communicate. Karen attempts to reach through to him, to get him to recognize her. My own father had abandoned us when I was baby. My reading of this scene from Exodus won me 2nd place at the Wisconsin State Forensics Meet in 1967.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that reading Exodus changed the life of a small, lonely, shy mid-Western gentile child. I left my hometown in 1969 and have experienced life in a way that would in all probably never have happened had I not been given the gift of Leon Uris and his “literature”.

Dear Ms. O’Brien, thank you for that post (and for your goodwill.) You offer evidence that Uris cannot be correctly estimated until one understands the role he so successfully played in the sentimental education, as Flaubert might have put it, of his era’s Jews and Gentiles. This list has inevitably overlooked the important topic of what Uris’s representations of Jews meant to gentiles, approximately 98.2 percent of America. Again, thanks.

Ron Rockman says:

Stupid article!

“… masculine toughness is generally a way of concealing insecurity and confusion.”

Too much cant.

I also want to thank Ms. O’Brien for her very moving post, which brought tears to my eyes. I appreciate your sharing such an intensely personal experience. Exodus also had a profound impact on me and helped engender a life-long love of Israel and a fierce pride in its founders and the Jewish people. I know it would seem simplistic and idealized to me now, but when I first read it, I was too young to judge whether it was a great piece of literature. I think it served its purpose at the time. What is wrong with pride and hope after the devastation of the Holocaust?

Joel Lewis says:

The fact that so many have commented on this review indicates Uris’ continued influence on mainstream American Judaism. I think the reviewer and the author miss point — Uris really had an impact on how Jews saw themselves and saw the state of Israel. I doubt that he saw what he was doing was great literature and saw himself as a storyteller.
It is worth noting that many Irish hold his Trinity in great esteem and that the IRA hunger strikers, including the martyred Bobby Sands, memorized whole chapters of the novel and recited it to each other to give courage to one another.

A useful bit of Uris’ writing was his non-fiction postcript to Strike Zion, a Bantam paperback that was issued in then-record time in the wake of the Six day War. Uris talks about the anti-semitism he faced growing up and lays out plainly his vision of the Tough Jew and its actualization in the Israeli Army during the Six Day war.

In retrospect, he spoke directly to the then-large community of working class Jews unmoved by Philip Roth, Mailer or even Malamud. Growing up and visiting the homes of my parent’s frinds, Exodus & Mila 18 was in all their bookshelves

Bryna Weiss says:

I too knew that Uris’ writing skills when it came to the personal relationships and romance, were rather simplistic. But his telling of the historical situations and his descriptions of the Country and the battles with both the British and the Arabs, were incredibly enlightening. They changed my whole attitude towards this brilliant little Country and our many visits to Israel since, have only strengthened our respect and love for Israel and Israelis- a strong, resilient, humane society for the most part. And Ms. O’Brien, I too, was brought to tears by your very beautiful comments.

I for one have read and re-read Uris’ novels with great enjoyment.
His work inspired many to reconnect with their Judaism and to connect with modern Israel. I predict that the inspirational works by Nadel will fall short.

S. O'Brien says:

The denouement to my story, which I hesitated to add to my post but after reading the nice comments, is that in 1980 I married John S. O’Brien who in 1970 discovered the enzyme defect in Tay-Sachs disease and along with Drs. Michael Kaback in Baltimore and Charles Scriver in Montreal, developed the first genetic screening program for a human disease. So if you believe in fate, or destiny … is it possible that my reading Exodus and other Leon Uris books fueled my desire to escape my small town confines in 1969, to attend University in Madison, Wisconsin where I worked as a sec’y in a genetic research lab to help pay for my education. In 1975 after my mother died I moved to San Diego and I was given a letter of introduction to another genetic research lab at the University of California, San Diego – John O’Brien’s. John and I were married for 21 years until his death in 2001. My life with him was joyful, interesting and an education in itself.
I spent time today with a childhood friend and as we looked over our 40-year high school reunion materials and talked about where everyone was I was struck by how few of us actually moved out into the world. Thank you.

M. Brukhes says:

I think this just about sums it all up:

“Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy
Lincoln, Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy
To my knowledge there’s just one man
That’s really a true American: George Lincoln Rockwell
I know for a fact he hates Commies cus he picketed the movie Exodus”

–”Talkin’ John Birch Society Paranoid Blues,” Bob Dylan

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I’m a big fan of Leon Uris’ book “Exodus.” I’ve always been interested in the Jews’ migration to Israel. I’ve read a few books about it, and “Exodus” is one of my favorites, along with “Rebirth” by David Longueay (http://rebirthofisrael.com). Although it’s the only Uris book I’ve read, I think he’s a great author!

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Macho Man

Exodus recast Israel’s founders as swaggering heroes and secured Leon Uris a place on the Jewish bookshelf even though, as a new biography shows, he was a mediocre writer and a troubled person

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