Herman Wouk: A Proud Champion of Judaism
Herman Wouk, who died recently at the age of 103, was one of the most successful American novelists. Surprisingly, he was also a practicing Orthodox Jew.
Unlike the current crop of American Jewish novelists (some of whom love to demean and diminish their Jewish heritage), Wouk was proud of his Jewish religious identity, and supportive of traditional Jewish values.
During World War II, he had a distinguished career in the Navy. His experiences there were the background for his first novel, Aurora Dawn, and then his roaring success, The Caine Munity. That book won the Pulitzer Prize and was on the best-seller lists for over two years. It was turned into a very successful movie.
Then came another best-seller, Marjorie Morningstar, in 1955, also turned into a successful movie. It was the love story of a beautiful, naïve New York Jewish girl from a wealthy, traditional family. She falls in love with an assimilated Jew that her parents disapprove of, because he wants to be in the theater rather than become a doctor or lawyer.
After Marjorie graduates, she decides to be an actress. Their relationship blossoms, but then falters and collapses. In the end, she finds love with a conventional man. In the book, scenes from Jewish religious life introduced Judaism to the wider American public. And the book and movie established Wouk as the leading pro-Jewish writer in the English language. But soon he would be overshadowed by Chaim Potok (author of The Chosen) who wrote about life in the Hasidic community and the tensions between modernity and tradition.
Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth were great writers and magisterial figures on the world literary scene — all much more acclaimed by the literati and critics than Wouk. But they all rejected their Jewish religious identity.
Wouk’s significance for me lay in a small book he wrote called This Is My God in 1959. In it, he explained Orthodox Judaism to the wider Jewish and non-Jewish world. In simple prose and without preaching, he described beautifully what living as an Orthodox Jew meant to him, and how it contributed in a meaningful way to his life. He described the richness of traditional ritual and practice in ways that made them accessible to those on the outside. Fifty years on, it is still highly readable and relevant. And it is still in print.
TIME wrote a profile on Wouk, which said, “He is a devout Orthodox Jew who had achieved worldly success in worldly-wise Manhattan while adhering to dietary prohibitions and traditional rituals which many of his fellow Jews find embarrassing.”
Throughout my career in the rabbinate and education, I have always recommended This Is My God — and I still do, whether to a Jew or non-Jew, as the easy first step along the way to learning more about Judaism. Wouk’s death made me feel that I have lost a close friend, even though I never met him.
The American world that Wouk grew up in was still heavily antisemitic. Preachers and politicians openly railed against the Jews and their supposedly hidden and venal influence on American life. Even so, hard work and success could overcome a lot of prejudice — as Wouk demonstrated.
When Wouk wrote, Reform and Conservative Judaism were completely dominant in the US. Orthodoxy was a very minor unimportant sliver of the Jewish population. There were still limits on Jews at Ivy League universities, in the major professions, and in government. This explains why so many American Jews feared drawing attention to themselves, and tried to hide their Jewish identity. It also explains why so many were anti-Zionist. That was why Wouk was so remarkable — because he was proud of his Judaism and Israel.
Fifty years later, much has changed. Orthodoxy has grown exponentially. It is the only sector of American Jewry that is expanding in size and influence. You can now see Orthodox men and women in all the major professions, proudly displaying their symbols of Jewish identity in public.
Sadly, though, the old Jew haters remain — Farrakhan, Duke, etc. In Europe and Britain (assuming it leaves the EU) the threat comes from the fascist right, the radical left, and now the UK Labour Party.
Whereas Jews are doing well and thriving through their own efforts, and most doors are open to them, the other side of the coin is all too obvious. Now, on campuses, many young Jews are scared to speak up against faculties and student bodies determined to attack and silence them. They often feel they need to hide their Jewish identity in the way they did in Wouk’s early days. And antipathy towards Jews is rising in may communities.
Just as “the poor will never cease from the land,” as the Torah says, so hatred of Jews will never cease. But proud spokesmen like Herman Wouk, who can reach a wider audience, not just preach to the converted, are worth their weight in gold. We have lost a great one. Let us hope that a new generation will emerge.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.