Ari Ben Canaan. The man with nothing to lose.
MAJOR Exodus (the novel) spoilers. If you haven't read it by now, you're probably not planning to.
My father gave me Exodus the novel by Leon Uris when I was a kid, maybe 13. (I was taught that you underline book titles, but there is no underline option in Substack and I read recently that you actually italicize them. Can someone like a law professor or professional editor chime in here? Y’all know things.)
I loved that book and recently reread it. My father and stepmother sent me a new copy, which we briefly thought had been stolen off my porch. Packages are routinely stolen off porches where I live. As it turns out it wasn’t stolen, but it is amusing to think out what would happen if someone had stolen it and read it.
Ari Ben Canaan is one of the major characters, perhaps the major character. His birth story is way more impressive than Jesus’. His father literally walked from Russia to the land of Israel. His mother fled Poland. His father was running from people who wanted to kill him and was in Europe when he was born. While she was pregnant, his mother was tortured by people from neighboring Arab villages who wanted to know where her husband was. She never told them anything, but never completely regained the ability to walk. Ari was born unbreakable.
He’s actually a rather flat character. When I was 13 or so, I thought he was fascinating. Now I admire his strategy and bravery, but it certainly helps that he’s a fictional character.
He pulls even further into his self-contained shell when his young love Dafna dies. The scene is disturbingly similar to October 7 in the way she was tortured and raped before being murdered. He does not visibly mourn but goes on fighting for the cause.
The woman who eventually melts his heart is an American Christian nurse named Kitty. I will admit that I don’t like her at all. She is a caricature of a midwestern white woman of the time, and pages are devoted to how she doesn’t feel comfortable with the Jews and how she is trying to maintain her “neutrality.” She is also a bit of a prude, which is understandable for the time period, but I honestly think there is no excuse for any straight woman, real, fictional, alive, dead, Christian, Jewish, or any religion or ethnicity to throw Ari Ben Canaan out of bed, which she literally does. WHO DOES THAT? I can agree to disagree with any number of people on any number of things - reasonable people can disagree - but you do not throw Ari Ben Canaan out of bed. I didn’t say you have to marry him. But not sleeping with that guy shows a lack of respect for the universe that will always be punished.
Ari does not precisely have nothing to lose - he loves his parents and his sister and his comrades. But he has very little to lose. He has no children. He has no wife. He has no tenured position. As far as I can tell he doesn’t even have an apartment. He rarely appears to sleep.
After at the end he finally gets together with Kitty, on the very final pages of the novel, I wonder, will he become less daring, less willing to risk his life, now? Will the enemy find out that he has a love, and try to capture her or kill her?
I had an interesting conversation with this on Facebook with an old friend. We were trying to guess if they would get married and if she would convert. These were two very stubborn people. I think they would secretly get married and she would convert, but that’s just me. He would definitely insist on hiding it, for her safety.
I have often contemplated the question that goes something like this: Does having more to lose make you less driven, less willing to take risks, and ultimately less effective, especially when winning will have a price?
In the 2010’s I wrote a long novel that was about two fictional medical schools and followed generations of characters from 1967 until an imaginary 2033. One of the characters married a woman he was madly in love with, became a very successful oncologist, but never did any real research until his wife was diagnosed with a rare cancer that almost killed her. A whole series of improbable events occurred, and at once point the character reflects that if he had not been so happy in his domestic life, he might have discovered great things in medical research. His happiness with the status quo led him to live a life that was not aimed at trying to change it.
I have been both fine economically at times and really not at other times. While being too desperate, not knowing how you will pay for rent or healthcare or food, makes it extremely hard to even function, having security can put limitations on too. I think a bit of a sweet spot is knowing that you can survive on very little, having confidence in your ability to make it out of a tough patch (or years of it), but being in a place that is secure enough that you can function at a healthy level without clinging too much. Clinging eliminates choices.
“Love no one but your children,” says Circe in Game of Thrones. I paraphrase, but she goes on to say that everyone you love makes you weaker.
I’m not so sure about that. I have found that loving people makes me stronger. In fact, there’s a simple formula for getting me to do something that is scary but important and that I believe in - just say you need it. I get my courage to the extent I have it from love, much more than from abstract concepts.
Circe has a point, however. Ari would never let it be known that Kitty is his wife or at least girlfriend (I am so old fashioned! I am really pushing for the fictional characters to get married! But wait, what if she does convert and they have children, then what? What will that do to his commitment to the cause?) He will probably have to do what he appears to be good at, compartmentalization, as he keeps focused on winning and only lets himself see Kitty from time to time. As the novel closes, you don’t get the sense that Ari has thought through the implications of their last encounter, but Kitty has. She expects him to disappear again. But I also suspect that she expects him to reappear. Hopefully not with a near fatal gun shot wound the next time…
Do you have a favorite piece of historical fiction? I may go wildly off script and talk about mine, a series of novels about the Church of England, and lose every one of you except my father and perhaps our friend who is a subscriber from North Carolina (hi!). Or maybe I could get you addicted to Church of England novels? I could make a little cheat sheet of important titles and historical events, subscribers only!
I’d love to know who else out there read Exodus the novel. If you did, do you think Ari and Kitty got married? Does stubborn Kitty convert? Do they have children? What do they name the kids? Does Jordanna find someone else? Sarah Ben Canaan deserves grandchildren. Far be it for me to pressure anyone to have children, but since these are fictional characters in 1940’s Israel, I feel that I can assert that one of those kids should give Sarah grandchildren.
If you are struggling with the question of whether you should get married, have children, whether your children will provide you with grandchildren, or whether you should hang it all up and go to fight for Israel, I apologize if this was triggering. But fiction exists in large part to help us think out the possibilities of our choices before we act on them. And to inspire us to greater, if improbable, things.
No, I have no immediate plans to marry, have children, or move. Though I do note that it is extremely cold where I am.
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