Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller

Ira B. Nadel
  • Review
By – September 13, 2011
Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture is rife with sto­ries of the Holo­caust and the estab­lish­ment of Israel, but Leon Uris’s 1958 nov­el Exo­dus used his­to­ry to make his­to­ry. A world­wide phe­nom­e­non, Uris’s Exo­dus gal­va­nized world­wide Jew­ry and helped estab­lish an inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. After World War II, most nations, includ­ing British con­trolled Pales­tine, were sur­pris­ing­ly unwill­ing to accept Jew­ish refugees. A tes­ta­ment to Jew­ish resource­ful­ness, the Jews of the world worked togeth­er, often ille­gal­ly in the eyes of their respec­tive nations, to shut­tle their brethren into the land that would become the State of Israel.

Exo­dus fic­tion­al­izes the inspi­ra­tional sto­ry of the ship Exo­dus 1947, which car­ried more than 4,500 dis­placed Holo­caust vic­tims to the Holy Land. Three books on Exo­dus have recent­ly been released, prov­ing its impact some 50 years after it first went to print. When viewed togeth­er these three schol­ar­ly vol­umes, not unlike move­ments in a sym­pho­ny, paint a com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of Exo­dus: Gor­don Thomas’s Oper­a­tion Exo­dus depicts the his­tor­i­cal events of the har­row­ing episode, Ira Nadel’s biog­ra­phy, Leon Uris, illu­mi­nates the man behind the phe­nom­e­non, and M.M Silver’s Our Exo­dus focus­es on the aston­ish­ing impact of the nov­el on world­wide Jew­ry.

Gor­don Thomas’s non-fic­tion­al account­ing weaves myr­i­ad sources and leads the read­er through the ship’s chill­ing jour­ney. Jux­ta­pos­ing the var­ied roles of Jews across three con­ti­nents, Thomas builds sus­pense as each piece of the scheme comes togeth­er, then sud­den­ly unrav­els with the ship’s cap­ture. Mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions have expe­ri­enced the sto­ry of Exo­dus 1947 through Uris’s book or the film adap­ta­tion, and it is illu­mi­nat­ing to con­trast this ver­sion with the actu­al events.

Some­times, though, the truth isn’t as impor­tant as the emo­tive qual­i­ties of a sto­ry. In Our Exo­dus, M.M. Sil­ver takes the posi­tion that Uris shat­tered wellem­placed bar­ri­ers, and blast­ed open new cul­tur­al pos­si­bil­i­ties.” Focus­ing on the cul­tur­al impacts of the nov­el rather than the event itself, Sil­ver posits that Exo­dus was not only inte­gral to boost­ing Jew­ish self-con­fi­dence, but also a Zion­ist pub­lic rela­tions coup, instru­men­tal in form­ing a com­mon iden­ti­ty among Jews across the globe. The most engag­ing of the three books, Silver’s crit­i­cal essay strikes a healthy bal­ance between the­o­ry, analy­sis, and sto­ry-telling.

Nadel pulls back the cur­tain to reveal the mas­ter behind the nov­el, along with the skele­tons in his clos­et. Uris’s life is filled with impres­sive events that helped lay the foun­da­tion to the cre­ation of Exo­dus— unfor­tu­nate­ly Nadel’s Leon Uris flows like most biogra­phies, slow-paced, exces­sive­ly focused on time­line, with a dearth of enthu­si­as­tic prose. Read­ers inter­est­ed in delv­ing deep­er into his life and the events that allowed for the cre­ation of his sem­i­nal work will do best focus­ing on Silver’s offer­ing.

Over­all, Silver’s book com­bines the pri­ma­ry focus­es of the oth­er two, and then builds on their premis­es. He pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive read­ing expe­ri­ence, offer­ing insight into the life of Leon Uris, the his­to­ry of Exo­dus 1947, and most engag­ing­ly, the rip­pling, lay­ered effect of Uris’s impres­sive nov­el on world­wide Jew­ry. M.M. Sil­ver deliv­ers a clar­i­ty and inti­ma­cy rarely found in a work of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review

Robert Cohen is Exec­u­tive Pro­duc­er for InThe­MO. He grad­u­at­ed with a B.A. from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty in His­to­ry in Eco­nom­ics, and an MBA from Salzburg Man­age­ment Busi­ness School with a focus in Cul­tur­al Management.

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