Tarzan in Israel
by Eli Eshed 1
Published in the Burroughs Bulletin
No 84 fall 2010
THE Burroughs Bulletin had republished this article of mine originally the introduction to the Hebrew book TARZAN IN THE HOLLY LAND.
A much longer and academic version of this article written with Alon Rabb will be published at 2012 the centennial Tarzan year at a academic collection of articles about Tarzan around the world.
Tarzan in Israel
by Eli Eshed
Published in the Burroughs Bulletin
No 84 fall 2010
While not remembered by many today, the fictional character Tarzan was extraordinarily popular in Israel beginning in the 1930s and lasting into the 1970s. The peak of Tarzan’s popularity in Israel was between 1954 and 1964, with a particularly extreme mania in 1960 to 1962. The public demand for Tarzan stories would result in the publication of over 1000 unauthorized pastiches.
There were various interpretations of the character over the years, driven in part by cultural and religious movements in Israel and pre-Israel Palestine, which at times made Tarzan a symbol of their particular beliefs. One very unique reason for Tarzan’s popularity beginning in the 1930s was the widespread belief that athlete and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller was Jewish (a belief still held today), and a worthy role model for Israeli children and adults.
In the 1930s, the Zionist movement was searching for a suitable role model of a “new” strong Jew close to nature. Weissmuller’s image appeared on Zionist propaganda posters as the face of the ideal Israeli sabra,2 and various teachers and youth movement guides presented Tarzan specifically as played by Weissmuller as a way to encourage children to enjoy the strenuous life of the outdoors. Weissmuller’s characterization as a strong nature lover who relied on few words greatly influenced the behavior of many sabras who tried to emulate him.
The result of the great popularity of the Weissmuller movies and image was the publication of Burroughs’ Tarzan novels translated into Hebrew at the end of the 1930s and early 1940s. The books were immediately very popular, and other novels by Burroughs in the Pellucidar and Venus series were also translated, but they were never as popular as Tarzan, for whom Israelis felt a special bond as an “honorary Jew.” Fighting and taming savage natives and evil Arabs in Africa were seen as clearly parallel to their own experiences in “wild” Palestine. [An independent Israel was announced on 14 May 1948, and the United Nations accepted the state as a member on 11 May 1949). The stories of Tarzan even inspired great interest about Africa in children and adults.
As his popularity continued to increase in the 1940s and 1950s, author and playwright Yigal Mosinzon wrote what would become Israel’s most famous adventure series for children, with the purpose of countering Tarzan’s “damaging” influence on Israel’s children, not only according to the author, but to the characters in these stories. The Chasamba stories featured a group of heroic children who sometimes stated that it was better for the nation if Israeli youth would read their adventures rather than those of Tarzan!
But all of this was for naught. The translated Tarzan novels remained extremely popular. The demand for new stories was so great that enterprising Hebrew publishers began to create their own, and these were immediately very popular, as well, boosting Tarzan’s iconic status in Israel to a peak between 1954 and 1964
Yet these were not the first original Hebrew stories featuring Tarzan. As far back as 1939, writer David Karsik (using the female pseudonym Sulamit Efroni) produced a number of Tarzan tales that were part of an extensive series about a brother and sister exploring Africa.
But the Tarzan pastiche boom in Israel began in 1953. One company, Defus M.L.N., established imprints using the names of jungle animals, such as Karnaf (rhinoceros), Namer (leopard), and Bardalas (panther). Defus, along with a growing number of other publishers, eventually published hundreds of original Tarzan stories, usually put out weekly in issues of 32 pages.
Karnaf was both the first and most prolific of these publishers, creating the longest running series, which numbered some 500 titles. They published another 165 titles under other shadow imprints, totaling seven series of Tarzan stories.
The symbol of the CANAANITES "" movement
The creator and editor of the first series, Aharon Amir, has since become one of the most celebrated editors and translators in Israel. He was a member of a very unique and influential literary and cultural movement called the Canaanites, which included writers, poets, and artists who believed that in Israel there should arise a completely different type of secular Jew, a “Hebrew” who would be a return to the strong pre-monotheistic people of the far past of Israel. This would be as different as possible from the “weak” religious Jews of the diaspora, and would be close to the land and to nature, and as far from religion as possible. The influence of the Canaanites is still felt in Israel today in anti-religious circles.
The Karnaf Tarzan pastiches were mostly written by people from the Canaanite movement. One of them was Amos Keinan, today a well-known writer and journalist. Others included Yesayau Levit and Chaim Gibori. They all wrote under the pen name “Yovav,” chosen by Amir as the embodiment of Hebrew nativism. Their interpretation of the Tarzan character was a person full of vitality, close to nature and animals, and free of over-intellectualism. When Amir left Karnaf, the character of Tarzan was changed somewhat to a person who was literary – he had many books in his jungle home and could even speak Latin. This version resembled Gordon Scott in his later Tarzan films more than Weissmuller.
In later years the quality of the Karnaf stories dropped sharply. Many of them were exact plagiarisms of westerns and detective stories, with the original name of the hero simply changed to Tarzan. But at their height, the Karnaf series was enormously successful, and soon other publishers decided to compete with Karnaf with their own pastiches.
The best of the competitors was Hapil, published by Ezra Narkis. Nearly 200 issues were written by Miron Uriel (who at the same time wrote westerns and stories featuring the American comic book superhero, Captain Marvel). Uriel’s tales were perhaps some of the best Israeli Tarzan stories, far longer than usual, typically requiring two or three issues to complete. Many of them were true horror stories in which Tarzan fought living mummies, Frankenstein monsters, Count Dracula, and even a mad murderer reminiscent of Hannibal Lekter. Hapil also created a serial form that required multiple issues to run a story, in one case 30 issues for a single serial story. They also ran two series about the adventures of Tarzan’s son, Bo
Other publishers included Ramdor, which published a series of 32 issues between 1965 and 1969, most under the pen name I Held, used by several writers. Their best feature were the covers, often reproducing Manning and Marsh art, but also presenting original work by Asher Dickstein, considered the best of the Tarzan illustrators.
Altogether, more than 1000 issues in some 18 series were published by at least 10 rival publishers. Competition was so great that unauthorized publisher Karnaf brought a lawsuit against Hapil to force them to cease publishing their Tarzan books on the grounds that Karnaf had been putting them out first. The courts, however, permitted Hapil to continue. The intellectual property rights of ERB, Inc. were ignored altogether all those years, and it would seem that the corporation was unaware of any of the unauthorized publishing endeavors that went on for decades.
Meanwhile, Tarzan had become a national obsession. Tarzan was part of the culture, referenced in many jokes, popular songs, and caricatures. Karnaf organized events where fans would go to the woods to live like Tarzan. A series of books was even published by Karnaf that featured the adventures of Tarzan fans. These books served as a counter to Mosinzon’s Chasamba series, which were attacking the Tarzan stories and their readers. Karnaf’s tales explained that children who read Tarzan were better and had greater adventures than those who didn’t read Tarzan or read only Chasamba. A favorite subject of Israeli humorists and comedians was Tarzan living in provincial Israel and struggling with the hazards of bureaucratic red tape.
While the vast majority of Tarzan pastiches were published in magazine format, there were hardcover children’s editions, written by a number of well-known authors. “The Young Detectives and Tarzan Attack Solomon Gulf” was produced by Shraga Gafni, an extremely prolific children’s writer using the pen name Avner Carmeli, and who created Israel’s most famous child hero, Dani Din, in a series that is still running today. Gafni was also a member of the Canaanite movement. “Tarzan and the Atom Mystery” first appeared in a children’s magazine, and then in book form. This story was by Pinchas Sade, under the pen name Yariv Amazya. Sade was one of Israel’s most famous writers and poets.
Many of the earlier Tarzan pastiches were adaptations of the Dell Comics stories written by Gaylord DuBois, with Argos the giant eagle a particular favorite, but soon were entirely original. Except in just one or two cases, ERB’s own stories never inspired the Hebrew derivatives, even though many of his original novels were well-known. The only character that survived from Burroughs’ mythos was Jane, but she was treated as a minor character. On the other hand, characters like Cheeta and especially Boy from the American movies were prominently featured. In fact, Boy starred in two of his own series by Hapil.
As noted, the characterization of Tarzan had evolved over the years. Used first as a symbol of the religious Zionist movement decades earlier, he had become an icon of the secular Canaanite movement, and this is how he was presented in most of the stories in the 1950s to 1970s.
Interestingly, the theme of at least a quarter of the Tarzan stories in Israel was science fictional. Tarzan fought many, many invasions from space, and even received a knighthood from the British queen for stopping one such invasion. Several times he traveled to other planets, sometimes finding that the inhabitants were already familiar with him since they were readers of his sundry adventures. He also traveled in time both to the far past and the distant future, anticipating by many years the novels of Philip José Farmer about a similar time-traveling Tarzan.
In many of the Israeli stories, Tarzan was presented as a super agent akin to the American “X-Files” TV character Fox Mulder, the world's number one expert on monsters and aliens. It was Tarzan upon whom the government always called when the world faced insurmountable dangers, such as an indestructible mummy, gigantic ants, a murderous Godzilla, living skeletons, or an army of Draculas. All these and much more were presented as the daily routine for Tarzan. These were perhaps the first true original SF stories written in Israel, and for years the one accepted outlet for such imaginative fiction in a genre otherwise frowned upon in the nation.
there were some Tarzan stories in which his desire was to help the Israeli government. One story had him aiding illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine at the time of the British mandate, and for which he was thrown into prison by his fellow Britishers. On another occasion he singlehandedly broke the Egyptian blockade against Israel at Suez, killing many Egyptian soldiers in the bargain. At other times he stopped various Nazi-aided Egyptian schemes to conquer Africa and the world.
Yet other tales had Tarzan regularly aiding British imperialism against the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, and French imperialism against Algeria and Vietnam. But he also helped black freedom fighters against Spanish and Portuguese imperialism. He also dealt with the changing situation in Africa and the emergence of new black government, particularly in Congo and Kenya – one story had him the personal friend of the Kenyan leader, Jomo Kenyata. Tarzan even helped the Dalia Lama against the Chinese, and personally destroyed the despotic Trujillo government in the Dominican Republic.
Some of the Israeli Tarzan stories described his meetings with other well-known fictional characters, including Count Dracula, Doctor Fu Manchu, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, Flash Gordon, and Captain Marvel. He even encountered characters which were themselves originally imitations of Tarzan in print or on film, such as the lion boy Kaspa, the jungle girl Sheena, and the Indian jungle man Zimbo, the latter having appeared in a series of Indian jungle movies.
Ironically, during this same period of heightened popularity of Tarzan in Israel, he was just as popular in the Arab world. The original Tarzan novels first appeared as illustrated serials in Lebanon in the 1930s, even as the Hebrew translations were being published in Palestine. While Tarzan pastiches were on the rise in Israel, similar unauthorized stories in Arabic were being issued in Syria and Lebanon, but in these Tarzan was fighting the evil Jews and their attempt to achieve world domination. Why the stories were also so popular in Arab countries is an interesting question. The original stories by Burroughs definitely included anti-Arab stereotypes. But, then, there were some not-very-nice Jewish stereotypes, as well. A 1981 article by James R. Nesteby, “Tarzan of Arabia,” published in the Journal of Popular Culture (Vol 15, No 1) described the great popularity of Tarzan in Yemen at the time, but also touched on the Tarzan pastiches published in Syria and Lebanon, which were popular throughout the Arab world.
The great popularity of a secular Tarzan in Israel prompted some to find a religious Zionist counter, and one who was Israeli. One such character, called “Dan-Tarzan,” appeared in a series of his own in 1960-61. This series was written by Amnon Shepak and later the religious journalist Zeev Galili. Galili had read the Karnaf stories and was angered by their “leftist-Canaanite” nature, and so wanted to see stories that relayed a rightist nationalistic message
. Dan-Tarzan was an Israeli boy who crashlanded in the African Jungle, where he was reared by the granddaughter of Kala the she-ape, who had raised Tarzan. Dan-Tarzan becomes a new Tarzan (who according to these stories “died many years ago”) and eventually comes to Israel, where he is enlisted as a Mossad agent. He even catches Adolf Eichmann and brings him to Israel! – a story which engendered many comments in the Israeli newspapers at the time. In a sequel, Dan-Tarzan catches Eichmann once again after the Nazi criminal escapes his prison to Egypt. Other stories in this series were just as fantastic as in the Israeli Tarzan series, describing Dan-Tarzan’s voyages to another planet, his war on space invaders, his finding a lost city of ancient Hebrew warriors at the Dead Sea, and so on.
Why was Tarzan such an inspiration to the early state of Israel? In Israel at the time, there was a great interest in the continent of Africa, as Israel was trying to forge relationships with newly independent and emerging nations by forming diplomatic contacts, by sending teachers and doctors, and by other means. In some way the original eleven Tarzan stories and the character both symbolized and nurtured this interest in Africa, even though the Africa in Burroughs’ original stories was mostly colonial and ruled by the British. However, later stories presented Tarzan as helping the black freedom fighters in places like Biafra, a nation which Israel had helped a great deal in real life. In some way many Israelis identified themselves with Tarzan: the civilized man who brings culture and freedom to the savages and along the way stops various schemes of evil Nazis and Arabs.
On the other hand, Tarzan became, in Israel, the kind of fantastic character caught up in all kinds of science-fictional situations which had no relation to the original character and novels. These stories became the channel for the growing interest in Israel for science fiction tales. Because SF as a genre that was frowned upon as too frivolous, the Tarzan stories were almost the only outlet for that kind of imaginative entertainment.
But by the 1970s the popularity of Tarzan had declined. The books that appeared were mostly translations of American newspaper strips and comic book stories by Russ Manning, John Celardo, and Bob Lubbers, as well as reprints of Burroughs’ novels. New prose pastiches were no longer printed, although there was an aborted try at reprinting old Karnaf stories. Done without Karnaf’s permission, this effort was stopped by court decision. Ironically, these were the worst of Karnaf’s work, plagiarizing westerns and detective stories and using a trademarked character. Then the comic book stories ceased in the 1980s.
There was one nostalgic effort to reprint some of the better Karnaf stories in 1988, but despite Karnaf’s approval and much publicity they didn’t sell. The stories didn’t interest the new generation. And doubtless ERB, Inc. was still unaware of these unauthorized tales.
Yet the character of Tarzan was not forgotten. When Weissmuller’s health went into decline in the 1980s, there was new interest in him in Israel. The newspapers wrote of him wistfully as a symbol of a period that had passed by. Probably no other American actor’s decline received as much attention as that of the former Tarzan actor. His death prompted critical works, stories, and poems based on the theme of the fall of the once great Tarzan/Weissmuller, a message about the corresponding fall of the once dominant Israeli sabra culture, of which Weissmuller was one of its ultimate symbols.
While popular culture in Israel has largely left Tarzan behind, as the nation fought a series of major wars with its enemies and dealt with modern realities since the 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War, he has not been completely forgotten. One legacy of the unique bond that had existed between the Israeli people and the fictional character is the single greatest set of Tarzan pastiches, authorized or not, ever seen in any country.
1. © 2010 Eli Eshed. This article is derived from a 1999 online essay, “Tarzan in Israel,” by Eli Eshed (http://www.violetbooks.com/tarzan-israel.html), and the follow-on extended introduction in English for a special limited edition of Eshed’s Tarzan in the Holy Land: The Adventures of Tarzan in Israel (otherwise written in Hebrew); the version in this Bulletin is used by permission. Mr. Eshed is a researcher of Israeli popular culture who has focused on the Israeli pulp magazines and paperbacks of the 1950s and 1960s. Besides his study of Tarzan publications in Israel, in 2002 he published From Tarzan to Zbeng, about the pulp literature of Israel, which earned him the title of “Writer of the Year” from Maariv, one of the leading newspapers in Israel. Featured in the book is a very long chapter about Tarzan in Israel, which is abundantly illustrated with art from Hebrew editions. His 1999 online essay not only morphed into an introduction for Tarzan in the Holy Land, but continued to evolve into this chapter for From Tarzan to Zbeng. One version of the expanded presentation is posted on ERBzine at http://www.erbzine.com/mag9/0991.com.
2. The term sabra is normally used to describe a Jewish person born in Israeli territory, but it was also applied by the Zionist movement to celebrate the “New Jew” which the movement espoused.
3. Jessica Amanda Salmonson, under her Violet Books imprint, published in 2000 the very limited special-edition of Mr. Eshed’s Tarzan in the Holy Land: The Adventures of Tarzan in Israel. Ms. Salmonson has commented about this “thoroughly mutual use of Tarzan for opposed political expression among Israelites and Syrians.” She suggests that, “Even the obsession with alien invasion from outer space is easily read as an allegory [in Israel] for the fear of Moslem opposition and terrorism, striving toward the destruction of ‘the world’ symbolized by a young and vital Israel. There is nothing surprising in Syrians using the same character to stand against what was, from their point of view, a Jewish desire to destroy Islamic Palestine.” (http://www.violetbooks.com/tarzan-israel.html)