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NT CI VA R_T I S
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December 27 • 2012
arts & entertainment
Centenary of fictional hero reminds us
of his influence on Jewish history.
ike American boys
and girls, youngsters
growing up in British
Mandatory Palestine or the
new state of Israel experienced
thrills through the adventures
of Tarzan, the immortal Edgar
Rice Burroughs character whose
100th anniversary is celebrated
American Tarzan movies
with Hebrew subtitles attracted
standing room-only audiences,
and Hebrew writers churned
out a torrent of unauthorized
Tarzan stories, sometimes
with a Zionist twist — such
as Tarzan helping to smuggle
Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan
Jewish refugees from Hitler's
Europe to Palestine.
But the writers and their
readers alike would have been very
His athletic prowess brought
him to the attention of William
surprised to learn that one of the
Tarzan movie producers was actu-
Bachrach, a Jewish swimming coach
ally involved in sponsoring the real-
who became Weissmuller's mentor.
life rescue of Jews from the Nazis.
Weissmuller set numerous world
Tarzan of the Apes debuted in the
records and won five gold medals at
October 1912 issue of The All-Story,
the 1924 and 1928 Olympics.
an early pulp magazine.
From 1932 to 1948, he starred in
12 Tarzan movies. They were hugely
It was only the third fictional
piece ever written by Burroughs, a
popular, not only in the U.S., but
36-year-old pencil sharpener sales-
also around the world.
man who, after reading a number
As a boy in Tel Aviv, I saw every
of pulps, concluded — as he later
one of them, sometimes more than
recalled — "If other people got
once," says the award-winning
money for writing such stuff, I
Israeli filmmaker Moshe Levinson.
might too, for I was sure I could
"My friends and I also gobbled
write stories just as rotten as theirs:' up the short Hebrew-language
The story of the English infant
Tarzan books that came out almost
raised by apes in Africa was so suc-
every week. We loudly imitated his
cessful that Burroughs authored
famous 'jungle roar, although the
more than a dozen additional
neighbors weren't always happy
Tarzan novels in the years to follow.
about that. We just couldn't get
enough of Tarzan."
The character soon made his way
to Hollywood, with the first Tarzan
Levinson recalls that many of the
film appearing in 1918, starring
Hebrew Tarzan stories were written
by young authors who would later
But it was the portrayal of the
emerge as giants of the Israeli liter-
Lord of the Jungle by swimming
champion Johnny Weissmuller that
"People like Amos Oz, Amos
brought Tarzan to the pinnacle of
Keinan and Yeshayahu Levit were
moonlighting — they needed to
Born in Hungary to eth-
pay the rent while they were wait-
nic German parents in 1904,
ing for their big break — so they
Weissmuller was, according to some wrote these Tarzan stories under
pseudonyms, glorifying a character
sources, of partial Jewish descent.
As a child growing up in Chicago,
who was deeply rooted in nature,
vibrant, unafraid, scornful of the
he contracted polio and took up
swimming to counter the effects of
intellectual life," he says.