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This article was originally published on the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, an online magazine exploring Jewish life and thought.
Anyone who has been in Israel during the remarkable nine-day period ushered in by Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and escorted out by the paradoxical twins — Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day), can readily testify to the spiritual intensity of this season.
Following on the heels of Passover (Pesach), which marks the birth of the Jewish people, Israel takes stock of its more recent history by first commemorating the Holocaust, then those who have fallen in its innumerable wars, and finally the re-birth of the independent Jewish State.
For those of us born in the era of a secure and thriving Israeli state, Israel Independence Day, Yom Ha'Atzmaut, has been a day of joy and celebration. Whether getting clonked on the head by noisemakers wielded by happy celebrants, pulled into a spontaneous hora at a public party, or singing songs of the Zionist pioneers around a bonfire, Yom Ha'Atzmaut has been an affirmation of our nation's independence, our freedom and our shared future.
Eighteen months ago, our reality began to change. Israel began to endure innumerable assaults to her populace. Global anti-Semitism was aroused. The dangerous conditions in Israel transformed the country from our home away from home into a war zone. The Palestinian propaganda machine revved up its presence on the American college campus. History was distorted, denied, rewritten. Increasingly, Israel was equated with its worst foe — Nazi Germany.
Observing this nightmarish reality, we are stunned, for we never believed Israel would be fighting for her survival in our lifetime.
We suddenly understand that our blissful existence as passive heirs has ended and we are being tapped to take our place in Jewish history.
As we set out along this path on Yom Ha'Atzmaut 5762, I can think of no better reading material than the internationally-bestselling Exodus, by Leon Uris, first published in 1958.
Exodus is an epic novel, taking us deep into the events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel. If you were snoozing during Jewish History class, rest assured that you can catch up on years of delinquency by spending a week with this astonishingly detailed, meticulously researched work of historical fiction.
Wondered what went on during the era of the British Mandate in Palestine? Suspected complicity between Hitler and certain Arab leaders? Puzzled over how a handful of Jews were able to develop the land and defend themselves against ongoing Arab attacks? Curious how those Palestinian refugee camps came to be? The answers to these questions and scores more are to be found within the pages of Exodus.
To write this book, Uris conducted years of research, traveled over fifty thousand miles and spoke to dozens of people. The result is an encyclopedic work, which spans centuries, probes family sagas and skips across continents always to deposit us back upon the arid, impossibly rocky terrain of the Land of Israel where the Jewish people had come to declare an end to their suffering, wandering and persecution.
While Uris' strength is in his narrative overview, he builds credible characters and allows much of the drama of this nation-raising to unfold through them.
Beginning with the gripping clandestine mission to sail the Exodus — a boatload of orphaned Jewish child survivors of the Shoah (Hebrew for Holocaust) — to the British Mandate of Palestine from their refugee camp in Cyprus, Uris takes us back to the squalor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the horror of the gas chambers of Bergen-Belsen. We continue the journey into British military command posts and aboard other, doomed ships of Jewish refugees bound for Palestine. Uris takes us deep into the Jewish military underground and aloft on an aircraft filled with newly-rescued Yemenite Jews, higher and higher up so that we ultimately gain an aerial view of the complex and nuanced struggle of the Jewish people for a homeland.
It is a dizzying, dazzling view. It is filled with yearning; it is drenched with blood. It is branded with the fire of conviction, belonging especially to the young people who worked unceasingly, fought and gave their lives for the dream of a Jewish homeland.
Though I had first read Exodus in my middle teens, the book was nearly unrecognizable to me upon my recent re-reading. Twenty-five years ago, I regarded the novel as ancient history, a disturbing story that belonged to the world of the past. Reading it as a teen, I was less touched than repelled. As an American Jew, a New Yorker, no less, I could hardly relate to this burdensome history. Ghettos, gas chambers, yuck! No anti-Semitic act or sentiment darkened my happy existence, I was free — a new breed of Jew.
It was not that I lacked maturity; it was that the novel lacked a relevant context.
Our context has radically changed. Twenty-five years after my first reading of Leon Uris' Exodus, and 54 years since Israel's War of Independence, Israel is once again in a fight for her survival. Across the street from our apartment on Amsterdam Avenue in Manhattan, Palestinian students call Israel a Nazi state. Our beloved State of Israel is imperiled, our Israeli friends and family dodge death at every step. Awakening from our blissful slumber as heirs to the Zionist dream, we see that we have been tapped to enter the ring of Jewish history.
To put Yom Ha'Atzmaut 5762 in context, add Exodus to your "must-read" list.