Leon Uris's "Exodus" Shaped Jewish Identity for a Generation—Does it Matter Today?Breaking News
tags: Jewish history, Israel, Zionism, cultural history, Leon Uris
Terry Kraus was a 12-year-old transfer to a new school in Arizona in the 1960s when a classmate picked on her for being Jewish. A sympathetic teacher saw the exchange, and slipped her a book: Exodus, by Leon Uris. After school, Terry went to her friend’s house for a playdate. But she ended up so engrossed by Exodus that she spent the afternoon reading the book, instead of playing with her friend.
George Cox was a Christian teenager in Oklahoma, the son of an American soldier who helped liberate Dachau but never spoke of his time in the war. Reading Exodus in 1958, the year it was published, Cox was enamored by the book’s depiction of a struggle between good and evil. He saw the founding of Israel as a continuation of the themes of World War II — the next stage of the fight for good.
Sue Reinhold, now 58, was in her 40s when she read Exodus in 2007, around the time when she converted to Judaism. Her girlfriend at the time, a Jew and the child of Holocaust survivors, told her that in order to fully become a Jew, “You gotta read Exodus, and you gotta watch Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Reading Exodus, it was kind of like: whoah,” Reinhold said. History books, Wikipedia pages, Golda Meir’s memoir — none of them came close, she said, to presenting Israel with a narrative as vivid as that of Exodus.
I was studying for my bat mitzvah in 2006 when my dad, a Reform rabbi, pressed a battered paperback into my hands. The cover of my copy of Exodus showed what looked like a Swedish Barbie in combat gear, standing next to a Clark Gable-look alike holding an M16.
I experienced the phenomenon for which the book is famous: a longing to live in the righteous, bloody, world Uris created. And with that feeling, the strength of my attachment to that fictional Israel transmuted into an attachment to the real Israel. Except the thing I loved did not quite exist — a fact that united me, I think, with many Jews who care for Israel.
Published in 1958, 10 years after what Israelis call the founding of their country and Palestinians call The Nakba, or the catastrophe, Exodus is one of the stranger artifacts of 20th century literature: a 626-page novel that, in fictionalizing many of the historic events surrounding the formation of the state of Israel — Holocaust narratives, independence battles, sensual encounters in Tiberias — ended up shaping not just generations of American perceptions of Israel, but policy, too.
After its publication, Exodus immediately rose to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, where it stayed for a year. The publisher claimed that the advance paperback order was the largest in history. In 1960 the novel was adapted into a movie starring Paul Newman, which was a box-office smash. Even the movie’s theme song, “This Land is Mine,” charted in the Top 40. Its lyrics: “This land is mine! God gave this land to me.”
Never mind that since the novel’s publication, historians have said that Exodus is more fairytale than documentary: Uris’ seductive narrative clearly fostered fidelity to the Jewish state. Running for president in 2008, both Barack Obama and John McCain wooed Jewish voters with mentions of reading Uris. In 2015, then-Vice President Joe Biden introduced Obama at a celebration for Israel’s independence day, saying, “As a young man, he grew up learning about Israel from the stories of Leon Uris in Exodus.”
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