Leon Uris wasn’t a critic’s darling. But for millions of readers, he was an entree into modern Jewish history.
Uris’ books “appeal to people who want a good read,” said Bonnie Lyons, a professor of English at the University of Texas-San Antonio.
Through Uris’ works — which included “Exodus,” a 600-page novel on the Jewish struggle to establish the State of Israel after World War II, and “Mila 18,” a chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — people could develop a sympathy for Israel and Jewish history, said Lyons, who has written widely on American Jewish literature.
Uris died Saturday in New York at 78 of renal failure. He was known for writing books that were long and obsessively researched — and, once they landed on the bookshelves, were obsessively read.
None of the criticism matters “as you are swept along in the narrative,” Pete Hamill once wrote in The New York Times.
Uris’ parents were immigrants from the Russian Empire. His father had spent a year in Palestine before moving to the United States, and derived his surname, Uris, from Yerushalmi, meaning Jerusalemite, according to The New York Times.
The story of European immigrants making their way to Palestine and establishing the State of Israel was the basis of “Exodus.”
The story makes heroes of the Jewish underground fighters trying to smuggle Jews into Palestine in the years leading up the creation of the State of Israel — and uses this tale to retell Jewish history and Zionism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The mythic Israel he presented is still the mythic Israel in the heads of many American Jews,” said Sanford Pinsker, the Shadek professor of humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
Uris is not well regarded by critics, many of whom consider his writing crude and simple.
People who think Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick are major Jewish writers “would say he’s just a popular writer,” Lyons said. “He tells a good story, but he’s not of lasting literary value.”
In the world of American Jewish fiction, Uris is likely to be remembered as a step below Chaim Potok, perhaps on a par with Herman Wouk.
But readers around the world didn’t seem to care.
“Exodus” was translated into dozens of languages and even smuggled into Communist Eastern Europe.
” ‘Exodus’ has been the Bible of the Jewish dissident movement in Russia. It’s referred to as ‘The Book,’ ” he once told The Associated Press.
It later was made into a movie by Otto Preminger.
After “Exodus,” Uris continued to explore Jewish themes.
He traveled across Eastern Europe to collect material for “Mila 18,” which focused on the ghetto uprising. This novel proved so successful that Joseph Heller reportedly decided to change the name of his novel from “Catch-18” to “Catch-22.”
“Mitla Pass,” published in 1988, starts out in Israel in 1956, during the Suez Canal crisis that led to the Sinai Campaign. Focusing on a journalist named Gideon Zadok, the book traces Zadok’s ancestry back to the 1880s.
Among Uris’ other novels was “Trinity,” about Ireland’s struggle for independence, and “QB VII,” a fictionalized account of a lawsuit filed against Uris by a Polish doctor who had been called a war criminal in “Exodus.”
Uris was born in Baltimore and grew up in Norfolk, Va.
“I used to think of myself as a very sad little Jewish boy, undersized, asthmatic,” he once said.
His father was a storekeeper whom Uris remembered as a failure — which he said motivated him to succeed.
“I think I can say that from earliest memory I was determined not to be a failure,” he said.
Uris quit high school soon after Pearl Harbor and joined the Marines. He served as a radio operator in the campaigns at Guadalcanal and Tarawa.
His last book, “O’Hara’s Choice,” a love story involving the history of the Marines, is slated to be published in October.
Uris was married three times and had five children.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.