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August 3: Leon Uris

August 2, 2015

Fig 01Leon Uris, the bestselling author of Exodus (1958, about the founding of Israel) and Mila 18 (1961, about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), was born in Baltimore on this date in 1924. A high-school dropout who failed English three times, Uris enlisted in the Marine Corps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; his first novel, Battle Cry (1953), was based on his war experiences in the South Pacific, and was adapted as a movie, for which he helped write the screenplay. (Uris also wrote the screenplay for the Western, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). Exodus, which ran to 600 pages and involved intensive research, including interviews with 1,200 subjects in Israel, was translated into fifty languages. “Critics winced at his status as ‘master storyteller,’ ” writes Eric Homberger in The Guardian, “but readers found in his books a world of vivid causes, largely new to popular U.S. culture. He mixed nonfiction, mainly political and historical exposition, with artless dialogue spouted by stereotyped characters. Through flashbacks inserted in the narrative, he told his readers, in some detail, about the ‘living history’ of Israel, and its nearly-forgotten roots in the Balfour Declaration, the Dreyfus case and the hard life of Jews in Tzarist Russia.” The novel electrified American Jews, especially young readers, and then became a mawkish blockbuster movie starring Paul Newman. Through Exodus, writes Homberger, Leon Uris educated American Jews in Zionism’s “muscular reinterpretations of the modern Jewish identity.” To see the trailer for the movie, look below.

“The most disturbing facet of the book is Uris’ depiction of Arabs. In fact, the word ‘Arab’ rarely appears without the adjective ‘dirty’ or ‘stinking’ appended.” —Alan Elsner, Jewish Journal