Biography as History: Leon Uris's Exodus

By Schmidt, Sarah | Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Biography as History: Leon Uris's Exodus


Schmidt, Sarah, Jewish Political Studies Review


Biography as History: Leon Uris's Exodus Our Exodus: Leon Uris and the Americanization of Israel 's Founding Story, by M. M. Silver, Wayne State University Press, 2010, 266 pp.

M. M. Silver, an American Israeli who heads the General Studies Department at the Max Stern College of Emek Yezreel, has written an extensively researched and heavily documented study on how Leon Uris's own biography shaped both his desire to write the novel Exodus and his approach to presenting Israel's founding story. By showing how the representation of historical events in Exodus reflected Uris's need to define for himself a stronger identity as a Jew, one that would also bolster the morale of American Jews in post-Holocaust America, Silver frames his central argument: though in Exodus Uris simplified some facts and distorted others, he provided a vast amount of information about Jewish history and popularized the Zionist narrative, providing examples of Jewish heroism that erased more conventional, "lachrymose" accounts of Jewish history.1 Thus Exodus played a vital role in the recovery of Jewish self-confidence after the devastation of the Holocaust and inspired American Jews to display openly their ethnic pride in a Jewish state.

Leon Uris grew up in an assimilated Jewish family in Baltimore. His closest relationship was with his father, William, who had fled from Russia to Palestine during the Third Aliyah, working there for several months on a Labor Battalion road crew and later as a watchman in Petah Tikvah. William, however, was critical of the pragmatic adaptations of socialism then current in the Yishuv and was unable to adapt to the primitive conditions of pioneer life. Disappointed, he left for the United States in 1 92 1 . As a child Leon looked down on him as a shtetl Jew, unfit for success in the modern world. This image left a lasting impression on him both in his life and especially in his fiction, with its overwhelming preference for action. According to Silver, action is what Uris wanted in all his novels' characters precisely because it was so lacking in his father's life story.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor provided Uris with an opportunity to see some action of his own. In 1942 he enlisted in the Marine Corps, and his first novel, Battle Cry, is a vivid account of his service in the Far East. His interest in Palestine was still minimal, despite the fact that his father's four siblings lived there. After the war, however, one of his uncles sent Uris a manuscript describing his service in the British army with the Palestine Brigade. His uncle had been captured by the Nazis, escaped, was recaptured, and finally freed himself in time to participate in the Allied landing in Italy. This story provided Uris with a close-up picture of personal courage in the face of Nazism; and after reading it he became obsessed with what had happened to the European Jews during the war, especially with the heroism of Palestinian Jews who had tried to help them.

By the mid-1950s Uris felt a deep need to write about empowered, courageous Jews like his uncle. Thanks to arduous research and a proven knack for writing a narrative focused on action-driven historical materials, Uris succeeded in telling a story in Exodus that caused millions of readers to discard images of Jews as defenseless victims of the Holocaust and instead to see themselves as masters of their own fate. But Uris also had other motives. As he wrote to a friend, "I am not writing this book for the Jews or the Zionists. I am writing this book for the American people in hopes I can present what Israel needs badly - understanding. I am writing this book to bring a major film company into Israel... that will present this story to a billion people around the world. …

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