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March 15 (?), 2003

A fast friend

By Daniel Gavron

Dogmatic and dogged, best-selling American author Howard Fast, who died last week,
was 'passionately engaged' with Israel.

Howard Fast
American author Howard Fast, who died last week at his home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut at the age of 88, was something of a paradox. An avowed left-winger – indeed a doctrinaire Communist – he never forgot his Jewish origins, was suffused with an intense loyalty to all things Jewish and remained passionately engaged with Israel through all its travails.

Although his best-selling books were a series of novels about San Francisco, "The Immigrants," "The Second Generation," The Establishment," and "The Legacy," which were subsequently made into a successful television mini-series, most of us who grew up in the Zionist youth movements remember him for his fervent historical romances, such as "Freedom Road," "Citizen Tom Paine," "The American," and (above all) "My Glorious Brothers," an inspired saga of the Maccabees. Translated into Hebrew, this last was also read by several generations of Israeli children.

In the early 1950s, Fast fell foul of the Senator Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee, investigating suspicions of alleged Communist subversion in the U.S. He actually spent some months in jail, on a charge of contempt of Congress, for refusing to incriminate his comrades. Consequently, publishers refused to touch "Spartacus," his fine novel of the slave revolt against Rome. It was privately published and was sold in advance to 1,000 friends and supporters. Only in 1960 was "Spartacus" made into a Hollywood epic, starring Kirk Douglas.

Fast parted ways with the Communist Party following the Soviet suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, outraged by the executions of Imre Nagy, and other Hungarian Communist leaders two years later, but he never gave up his fervent belief in socialism. In his foreword to my book, "The Kibbutz: Awakening from Utopia," published in 2000, he wrote:

"Of all the sociological experiments of the 20th century, I consider the kibbutz movement in Israel the most important, and believe that some day it will become the way of life for a goodly part of the human race. As I write this, in December 1999, I live in a world where the worship of greed and money reached heights I never knew in eighty-five years of living. Gavron's history of the kibbutz comes as a breath of clean fresh air, a hope and dream for the future of mankind."

My personal friendship with Fast began in 1980, when we shared the same publisher. I was surprised and thrilled to receive a letter from him: "When I was young, I had my own dream of walking on foot from Galilee to the southern end of Israel. Like so many dreams it never came about, but in 1944, during the war [World War II], I talked a pilot, a fundamentalist Christian, into flying me up to Lebanon. He willingly accommodated me by flying in circles at a very low altitude. We circled over Jerusalem and then made our way north. I looked at Israel - mostly desert and wasteland, with here and there the green spot of a kibbutz. You can imagine the difference when I returned thirty-five years later."

One of Fast's most endearing characteristics was his modesty. In one of his early letters, he wrote: "I met an Israeli historian, Zvi Yavitz, who impressed me with the paucity of my knowledge of ancient times." But then he went on with characteristic humor: "When the truth of what happened last week is often impossible to discern, what hope have we of discovering the truth of two thousand years ago?" His sense of humor was also evident in the letter he sent me the following year, welcoming me, "with open arms," to visit him. He added:

"Of course, the way things are these days, April is not only months away, but possibly a whole world away, what with the new President [Ronald Reagan] we have decorating the White House."

Meeting Fast face-to-face for the first time, I discovered a man of exceptional warmth and cordiality, who bore a distinct physical resemblance to Yigael Yadin, the Israeli general-archaeologist and one-time deputy prime minister. He was a superb raconteur, and I found myself laughing out loud at his account of his appearance before the Un-American Activities Committee:

"Mr. Fast, is your loyalty only to the United States of America?"

"No, Sir."

"You have another loyalty?"

"Yes, I do."

"And this loyalty supersedes your loyalty to the United States of America?"

"Yes, Sir, it does!"

"Would you care to name this entity?"

"Gladly. I call it 'God.'"

Howard Fast was not a great writer. He was so committed to the values of honesty, fairness, social justice, and equality, that his books tended to be didactic, strongly putting forward his very clear point of view. His characters were black and white: very black and very white. He was, nevertheless, a superb storyteller, and his books were, without exception, page-turners. He was extraordinarily prolific, producing over 80 books, and continuing to write on an old typewriter, without letup.

His vivid autobiography, "Being Red," was lambasted by several New York Jewish intellectuals, many of them former friends, who had by then become neo-conservatives, but was pronounced by John Kenneth Galbraith to be "the finest political biography of the era."

In 1994, Fast lost Betty, his wife of 50 years, to cancer, and seriously contemplated suicide; but he found a new love with Mimi, his literary assistant who was of Irish origin. He terribly wanted to visit Israel again, and the couple planned to visit Ireland and Israel in 1999. He didn't manage the trip, writing two years ago:

"I long to come back, but I am afraid that's only a dream. After all, I'm 87 this coming November. I walk slowly and tire easily, and, as we both live in a world that has gone insane, neither I nor anyone I know is doing much traveling. I feel I will never see Israel again, and that's a heartbreaking thought."