In the early 1970s, Jewish middle-schoolers at home with mono read Exodus, and then Mila 18, and then Wouk, Levin, Potok, Singer, Malamud, Wiesel, Schwartz-Bart. (Kafka and Bellow, Babel and Agnon, Yezierska and Ozick and Schwartz all came later.) If, 40 years later, we are still giving Exodus to our kids, it’s not because of the writing (meh), or for the 100-proof Zionism (even then one knew it for at least partial hokum), or for its treatment of the Holocaust (insidiously pleasurable, and bad for you). We give Exodus to them because, at 14, we loved it and wanted to read more books just like it. It is the quintessential gateway book, an addictive plot-driven read that is also a Jewish book. Even without Paul Newman as your Ari Ben Canaan, its message is that Israel is sexy. And even without that music (ta TA ta TA ta ta ta ta ta-ta), it’s bound to convert you.
Elisa New is the Powell M. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard.