Creating Jewishness in a post-religious age: Leon Uris’ Exodus and S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday paint Israel’s history in broad and fine strokes
It is tempting to say that Judaism has always been a religion of stories. After all, what stories are more familiar or beloved than the ones in the Hebrew Bible: Adam and Eve, the binding of Isaac, Joseph and his brothers, Daniel in the lion’s den? These stories are certainly Judaism’s greatest legacy to the world; adopted by Christianity, they have been told in every language, not to mention painted, acted, and set to music. Even in a post-biblical culture like our own, they remain the closest things we have to universal myths.
Yet the truth is that for most of the history of Judaism it would have been an insult to reduce the religion to its narratives. Until the destruction of the Second Temple, in the first century C.E., cultic worship and sacrifice were the heart of Judaism. After that trauma, for the next 1,800 years, it was the interpretation and practice of law that defined a Jewish life. It is only in the modern, secular world that narrative, the simple fact of storytelling, could be considered the supreme human method for making meaning, including Jewish meaning.
That is because, for modern people of all faiths, stories are often the only part of religious heritage that still seems valid. We no longer believe in laws dictated from heaven, or even in heaven itself; but we allow ourselves to feel that ancient religious stories have a numinous power, if only as a residue of the faith that so many generations invested in them. For many Jews today, reading biblical stories, or retelling them on Passover or Hanukkah, is the only part of Jewish tradition that still seems available, or necessary.
This new focus on story as the heart of Jewish experience can be dated to the beginning of the 20th century. Chaim Nachman Bialik mined the Talmud for its legends and tales and published them as Sefer Ha-Aggadah in 1911; Louis Ginzberg’s even more broadly based collection of midrashic tales, The Legends of the Jews, began to appear in 1909; Martin Buber performed a similar task for Hasidic stories, publishing Legend of the Baal-Shem in 1908. All these works reflected a growing tendency to divorce law from literature, halakhah from aggadah, in keeping with the positivist spirit of the 20th century.
Despite his contribution to this movement, Bialik, in a landmark essay called “Halakhah and Aggadah in Jewish History,” expressed a fear that aggadah—the inner, spiritual, narrative legacy of Judaism—could not survive in the world without halakhah—the outer, material, legal practice of Judaism. Depending on how you look at it, this fear has either been justified or refuted by the course of Jewish life in the post-Holocaust world. There’s no denying that rabbinic Judaism as it was lived for 18 centuries is no longer part of the lives of the large majority of Jews. Yet this secularizing process is not peculiar to Judaism: The vast majority of Western Christians, too, no longer lead lives as defined by ritual practice as they were two or 10 centuries ago.
To the extent that there is a Jewish culture or identity that cuts across national boundaries, it is defined largely by storytelling. Just as many Jews now consider scripture to be what Wallace Stevens called a “supreme fiction,” so fiction has become our contemporary scripture—a body of texts that creates Jewishness in a post-religious age. When we read the major Jewish writers of the last 60 years, we inevitably think about what they have in common and what we have in common with them, as Jews and interpreters of Jewish experience.
These are the questions I will explore in this space over the next year, in a monthly series on postwar Jewish fiction. Some of the writers I will discuss are well-known to American Jewish readers—Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick—while others may be new discoveries—France’s Romain Gary (born Roman Katsav), Brazil’s Moacyr Scliar. They write in a half a dozen languages (though I am reading them in English), and they occupy every point on the spectrum of Jewish identification. By reading them together, it may be possible to get a new sense—less authoritative but more intimate than those offered by politics and religion—of what it means to belong to the Jewish people today.
In the postwar world, it has hardly been possible to think about that question without thinking about Zionism and the State of Israel. In fact, if you wanted to name the most influential Jewish novel of the last 65 years, a good case could be made for picking Leon Uris’ pulp epic about the founding of the Jewish State, Exodus. Published in 1958, it has sold 7 million copies in the United States alone, and the movie version has reached millions more around the world. Samizdat copies of Exodus helped inspire the first refuseniks with the dream of going to Israel. That was exactly the kind of reaction Uris must have hoped for. As David Ben-Gurion put it when the book came out, “As a literary work it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.”
Uris engineers the book according to familiar Hollywood formulas, in particular the formula of the Western. Ari Ben Canaan, the novel’s hero, is a classic cowboy—ultra-masculine, brave, and taciturn, he defends civilization without quite joining it. To be complete he needs the love of a good woman—in this case, Kitty Fremont, an American Gentile who gets caught up in the Zionist movement largely out of unadmitted love (and lust) for Ari. And of course in a Western there must be Indians, the savage enemies of civilization. This role is played in Exodus by the Arabs, and the novel is never more propagandistic than in its unapologetically hostile caricature of “the Arab world”: “unspeakable disease, illiteracy, and poverty were universal. There was little song or laughter or joy in Arab life. It was a constant struggle to survive. In this atmosphere cunning, treachery, murder, feuds, and jealousies became a way of life.” The message Uris wanted the American reader to take from the book is unmistakable. Kitty Fremont states it on the last page: “Israel stands with its back to the wall. It has always stood that way and it always will … with savages trying to destroy you.”
But it would be too easy to say that the message, or the battles and love scenes, is what explains the success of Exodus. In fact, Uris, like Dan Brown today, is so popular because he delivers something like an education—or at least, great heaps of more or less accurate historical information. In Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, it’s the history of Christianity and the Catholic Church; in Exodus, it’s the history of Eastern European Jewry, from the rise of Zionism in the 1880s through the Holocaust and the birth of Israel in the 1940s. And reading Exodus is not the worst way to get an introduction to this period. It teaches the reader about Bilu and Hovevei Zion and kibbutzim and the Haganah—and about the Nuremberg Laws and the Warsaw Ghetto and the postwar DP camps. This is one of the most fascinating and tragic periods in modern history, and millions of people, including many Jews, got their first introduction to it from Leon Uris.
The problem with Uris’ history is not inaccuracy, though of course there are errors. It is that he can find in all of it only a single meaning: the importance of Jewish toughness. This is not a value to be scorned, and it is true that it inspired much of the urgency and success of the Zionist movement. But with Uris, it becomes something monomaniacal and amoral—an obsession with proving that Jews can and will use violence. Take the scene where the young Ari, having been robbed by Arabs, is instructed by his father Barak in the use of a bull whip, Indiana Jones-style. “The son of Barak Ben Canaan is a free man! He shall never be a ghetto Jew,” he bellows.
Until the widow of Yiddish writer Chaim Grade died last year, his archive was kept locked away in their stuffed apartment. Now it’s up for grabs.