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
By a natural extension of this principle, Uris reserves his greatest admiration for Jews who are tough enough to commit suicide. One of the novel’s Jewish heroes, wounded in battle in the War of Independence, lures a platoon of Arabs to him and then pulls the pin on a grenade. Another launches a doomed attack on besieged Jerusalem (“They didn’t have a chance. It was a suicide mission”). The climax of the first part of the novel comes when Ari Ben Canaan, trying to get a ship full of Jewish children out of Cyprus and into Palestine, threatens that the whole group will starve themselves to death if they don’t get visas. Today, we are used to Hamas killing Jewish children to make a point; it is shocking to see Uris, 50 years ago, imagining that this was also the practice, or the meaning, of Zionism.
This honoring of suicide—and of terrorism, in the form of the “Maccabees,” the novel’s lightly fictionalized version of the Irgun—is the clearest sign that Exodus is not interested in the Jewish life Zionism built. It is only interested in the effect of Zionism on the way the world perceives Jews. Indeed, Uris writes with remarkable frankness, or naiveté, about the psychic benefits American Jews derive from the sacrifices of Israeli Jews. Here is Bill Fry, an American Jewish ship’s captain who volunteers to run immigrants into Palestine:
All my life I’ve heard I’m supposed to be a coward because I’m a Jew. Let me tell you, kid. Every time the Palmach blows up a British depot or knocks the hell out of some Arabs he’s winning respect for me. He’s making a liar out of everyone who tells me Jews are yellow. These guys over here are fighting my battle for respect … understand that?
This passage is the psychological key to Exodus, and it explains why the novel has so little interest in what Israel is actually like. Ari Ben Canaan declares on the novel’s last page that “Israel is the bridge between darkness and light,” and if that sounds like a place without a latitude and longitude—much less car-rental agencies and zoning codes and divorce lawyers—Uris doesn’t mind. After all, he has all those things, the appurtenances of real life, back home in America. The more Exodus claims to be a novel about Israel, the more clearly it reveals itself to be a novel about the self-image of American Jews—a problem that continues to plague American Jewish thinking about Israel and Zionism.
It would be hard to imagine a book less like Exodus than Only Yesterday, by S.Y. Agnon. This modern Hebrew classic also deals with the prehistory of Israel—in this case, the period of the Second Aliyah, in the first decade of the 20th century, when hundreds of idealistic Zionists came from Eastern Europe to Palestine “to build the land and to be built by it.” First published in 1945, three years before Israel achieved statehood, Only Yesterday was not translated into English until 2000, by Barbara Harshav. It would be surprising if it has had one American reader for every thousand of Exodus’.
Yet looking at the two novels side by side reveals a certain kinship. Just look at the minor character of Gorishkin in Only Yesterday, a writer who, Agnon says, “has already left behind all his own thoughts and wants only to be the writer of the Land of Israel. A new life is taking shape in the Land and it needs its writer.” He sounds like a version of his creator: Agnon moved to Palestine in 1908, at the age of 21, and went on to become a modern Hebrew classic, and the only Israeli writer to win the Nobel Prize. But in his nationalistic fervor, Gorishkin also sounds a bit like Uris, who designed Exodus to be a Hollywood-scale myth of the “new life taking shape in the Land.”
When we encounter Gorishkin, however, he hasn’t yet figured out the right way to write the epic of Eretz Yisrael. As Agnon writes, “he hasn’t yet made up his mind whether to write things as they are, that is, to copy from reality, or to make his books novels. On the one hand, his heart inclines to things as they are, for there is no truth like the truth of actions, and on the other hand, novels are likely to appeal to the heart and lead to action.”
Try to decide which of these categories Only Yesterday belongs to, and the strangeness of the book becomes clear. Of course it is a novel, with certain clear literary antecedents. Its hero, Isaac Kumer, is a minor-key Don Quixote, making his way through Palestine circa 1908 and having seriocomic adventures along the way. Yet in his temperamental passivity, and the way he prefers having conversations to doing things, Isaac also resembles Hans Castorp, the tubercular hero of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And in the book’s strangest, most powerful section, Agnon leaves Isaac behind and starts writing at length about a dog on the streets of Jerusalem—a story-within-a-story that can only be compared to Kafka’s opaque parables.
Still, for all its novelistic qualities, Only Yesterday is not at all the kind of book that Gorishkin says a novel should be. Very often, it reads more like a book that “copies from reality,” since Agnon poured all his memories of the early Yishuv into Isaac Kumer’s story. He catalogs the neighborhoods and buildings and notable characters he knew in Jaffa and Jerusalem in the early 20th century, at times reciting Homeric catalogs of street names. And Only Yesterday surely does not “appeal to the heart and lead to action,” as one might expect from a novel about Zionism by a Zionist writer.
Agnon’s ironic understanding of Zionism can be glimpsed from the first paragraph, which describes Isaac’s idealized vision of the Land of Israel:
A blessed dwelling place was his image of the whole Land of Israel and its inhabitants blessed by God. Its villages hidden in the shade of vineyards and olive groves, the fields enveloped in grains and the orchard trees crowned with fruit … every man under his vine and under his fig tree, his wife and his sons and daughters sitting with him, happy at their work and rejoicing in their sitting, and they reminisce about the days of yore Outside the Land, like people who in happy times recall days of woe, and enjoy the good twice over. A man of imagination was Isaac, what his heart desired, his imagination would conjure up for him.
The sting is in the tail: Only Yesterday, Agnon hints, is to be a novel about the gulf between what Isaac’s imagination conjures up and what reality delivers. Isaac makes it to Palestine, but his Labor Zionist dream of working the land is disappointed. Jewish farmers, he learns, prefer to hire Arab laborers, since they accept lower wages and are better at taking orders. Instead, Isaac ends up working as a house painter in the coastal city of Jaffa. And “ends up” is the right phrase: Everything in his life, from work to friendships to love affairs, seems to come about by chance. Agnon compares him to “a tree with few roots, and every wind that comes along uproots it and overturns it.”
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.