Remembering Herman Wouk, the Zionist, on His First ‘Yahrzeit’
JNS.org – Herman Wouk, the famed novelist who first became a household name for his 1951 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Caine Mutiny, died one year ago this month — on May 17, to be exact. In addition to his remarkable endurance as a professional writer, he was also a lifelong Zionist. But Wouk’s love affair with Zionism and the State of Israel was mostly absent from the coverage of his passing. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and most major US news outlets failed to mention it. Whether deliberate or not, this missing element in the portraits of his life surely matters, as one simply cannot understand Wouk without realizing the central place that Zionism occupied in his life — no less than his love of Torah and his deep faith.
In his “Historical Notes” epilogue to The Hope he told readers: “Like my father before me I have been a lifelong Zionist.” And he made sure that there could be no doubt: The author’s photo on the novel’s dust-jacket shows a widely grinning Wouk with several Israeli flags fluttering behind him.
Again and again — from his 1959 first non-fiction work This Is My God: The Jewish Way of Life, through his pair of books about modern Israel The Hope (1993) and The Glory (1994), until his second and final non-fiction book The Will to Live On: This Is Our Heritage (2001) — Wouk focused much of his literary talent on Israel.
Perhaps no line in any of his books demonstrates his love of Israel more than this one from This Is My God: “The first time I saw the lights of the (Israeli) airport in the dusk from the descending plane, I experienced a sense of awe that I do not expect to know again in this life.” Wouk, an Orthodox Jew, synthesized his love of Torah with his love of the reborn Jewish state.
And his view of Zionism is also clearly laid out in This Is My God: “Zionism is a single long action of lifesaving, of snatching great masses of people out of the path of sure extinction.”
Herman Wouk penned the introduction to the 1980 English version of Self-Portrait of a Hero: The Letters of Jonathan Netanyahu. Yoni’s brothers, Benjamin and Iddo Netanyahu, put together the book. “My parents like his were Zionists,” writes Wouk. Later in the introduction, he explains his connection to Israel: “Like most American Jews we believe in Israel and support it, buy Israel Bonds, make frequent trips there; I give speeches for Israeli causes and so forth,” he says, and then relates how the book allowed him to better understand his own son’s desire to make his home in the modern Jewish state.
In The Will to Live On, Wouk weaved a survey of Jewish history together with personal stories of his interaction with David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Rabin, and other leading Israeli politicians and generals in what was his second and final non-fiction book. This book showed that his love of Israel was clearly undiminished. “The resurgence of Jewry in the Holy Land is nothing but phenomenal,” he wrote.
Wouk had been a US naval officer during World War II, and his respect for the Israeli military and its accomplishments was a large part of his Israel-based novels The Hope and The Glory. Those two books can be juxtaposed with his pair of widely acclaimed World War II novels The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978). In them, the heroine Natalie Jastrow undergoes a long and tortured journey from American Jewish girl to Holocaust victim to Zionist.
In the “Historical Notes” section at the end of The Glory, he wrote about a conversation he had with Menachem Begin. Wouk says Begin planned to spend his retirement writing a book he wanted to call The Generation of Destruction and Resurgence. The conversation had a profound effect on Wouk. He related to the idea of “a book about the Jewish epic of the twentieth century … both the Holocaust and the rise of Israel.”
Wouk’s passion for the well-being of his fellow Jews and for Israel should serve as a reminder to American Jews of how the Greatest Generation saw the horrors of the Holocaust and the miracle of Jewish statehood in the Land of Israel. Those who chose to reflect upon what happened were forever changed.
Wouk loved Israel and Zionism, and we should strive to emulate that in his memory.
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s US division and a candidate on the Herut slate in the 2020 World Zionist Congress’s US elections. More information is available at www.herutna.org.