Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Herman Wouk (1915-2019), the author of over two dozen novels that dominated the American literary scene, passed away last week.

Over and above his well-earned fame as a best-selling and award-winning novelist and storyteller, particularly in the realm of historic fiction, he was deeply respected in some circles as a loyal Orthodox Jew who helped normalize his faith within the American literary tradition and played a prominent role in introducing Judaism and Jewish characters into the American literary mainstream. While most Jewish and non-Jewish novelists depicted Jewish culture as alien and somehow “other,” Wouk uniquely made Jewish religious observance appear natural.

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His public manifestation of his Orthodox faith, his love of America and its institutions, and his political conservatism and refusal to follow the newly-emerging revolutionary norms of rebellion against traditional American morality earned him no small degree of enmity from leftist critics, including some of the leading writers of the day – many of them, not surprisingly, Jewish.

In 1955, a Time article described Wouk as “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.” Incredibly, many non-Orthodox rabbis criticized him for “mocking Jewish observance.”

Renowned non-observant and assimilated Jewish novelists, including Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth, disparaged Wouk’s “middle-class American values” including “G-d and country,” duty, service, marital fidelity, devotion to family, the greater public good, and the importance of supporting the American military.

Wouk’s own views of such criticism may perhaps best be shown through his response to a Vanity Fair reporter who asked him which living person he most despised; he answered, “the Jewish writer who traduces his Jewishness” – i.e., what we now call “the self-hating Jew.”

Wouk’s normalization of Jewish practice in his work perhaps reached its zenith in This Is My God (1959), his best-selling affirmation of faith in traditional Judaism written after the tragic death of his son, who drowned in a swimming pool accident shortly before his fifth birthday. (Wouk later dedicated War and Remembrance to him with the Biblical words from Isaiah 25:8: “And G-d will destroy death forever.”)

The title derives from Shirat Hayam, the “Song of the Sea” in Exodus 15:2, where, after being saved from the Egyptian onslaught, Moshe sang: “Ze Keli v’anvehu” (“This is my G-d and I will praise Him”).

In February 17, 1968 handwritten correspondence exhibited here, Wouk thanks an admirer for “a fine letter on ‘This is My God’” and states that “I do expect to write more in this field in coming years.” It is interesting to note that he has written “B’H” (Baruch Hashem) in the upper right-hand corner.

Recognized as perhaps the best single work for those who seek to understand Judaism, This Is My God remains unique in its field. Wouk, who wrote from a Modern Orthodox perspective for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, explains Jewish belief and worship and the meanings of festivals and holy days; discusses kashrut, holy objects, and ritual family purity; and addresses life, growth, and death, as well as the history and heritage of the Jewish people.

He also discusses the importance of the Torah and Talmud; the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism; and the relationship of the Jews to the State of Israel. (Wouk, a fervent Zionist, received the Guardian of Zion Award in 1998.)

This Is My God also depicts Wouk’s own journey back to Orthodoxy. As a young man, he was not observant for a period of time, and he writes humbly and even self-effacingly, explaining Jewish practices through his personal experiences. The book highlights the Modern Orthodox credo that it is possible to be an integral part of American society without compromising one’s Orthodox Jewish beliefs and practices.

Part of the book’s appeal is that Wouk is not a rabbi preaching from a pulpit but, rather, a brilliant and eloquent novelist sharing what his faith means to him. As a result, This Is My God has been credited with encouraging many Jews to rediscover their Judaism, delve deeper into it and, in many instances, take on Jewish practices.

As he stated in the above-exhibited correspondence, Wouk did, indeed, “write more in this field in coming years,” including The Will To Live On: This Is Our Heritage (2000), which a tour of Jewish history and sacred texts, and The Language That God Talks: On Science and Religion (2010), a beautiful but relatively unknown work in which Wouk explores and harmonizes the tension between religion and science that originated in his discussions with theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who was raised Jewish but became a confirmed agnostic. (The “language” referred to in the title is calculus, which Wouk undertook, but failed, to learn).

Wouk expresses his awe for the universe through the prism of his reverence for traditional Judaism; in one beautiful section, he contrasts Feynman, who saw the vastness of the universe and concluded that there is no G-d, with himself, who saw the same thing and proclaimed it as proof of G-d’s greatness and that the loving G-d expresses Himself through magnificent creation.

Wouk’s best-known works include Marjorie Morningstar (1955), a path-breaking account of a young Jewish woman in American culture; the heavily-researched The Winds of War (1971) and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978), which became America’s leading popular account of WWII and the Holocaust; Inside, Outside (1985), the story of four generations of a Russian Jewish family and its struggles in Russia, America, and Israel; Youngblood Hawke (1962), a drama about the rise and fall of a young writer modeled on the life of Thomas Wolfe; and The Hope (1993) and its sequel, The Glory (1994), dramatic historical novels about the first three decades of the history of modern Israel.

Wouk’s fame, though, was firmly established with his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Caine Mutiny (1951), one of the most popular and bestselling novels of all time. A navy drama in which he drew upon his own WWII navy experiences aboard a destroyer, The Caine Mutiny introduced to the world the unforgettable Captain Queeg, the ultimate metaphor for authority gone mad, as he famously rolls metal balls in his hand and undertakes a crazed determination to discover the “villain” who stole some strawberries. In the very popular 1954 film adaptation by Columbia Pictures, Humphrey Bogart famously played Queeg. Wouk also adapted his novel into a Broadway play, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.

Even in The Caine Mutiny, Wouk found a way to not only include Jewish characters, but to have a Jew play the heroic role. Lt. Barney Greenwald, a Jewish fighter pilot and lawyer, defends the navy and the military virtues of honor, dignity, and obedience as he delivers a poignant speech in defense of a Queeg who, along with Americans like him, helped win the war and helped keep Greenwald’s Jewish mother from being “melted down into a bar of soap” by the Nazis.

After brilliantly performing his distasteful job and earning a verdict of acquittal for the mutineers, he demonstrates his moral core by reprimanding them for their attack on the navy.

In this originally signed quote, Wouk writes: “The Navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots – Thomas Keefer in The Caine Mutiny.”

Keefer is the anti-hero who succeeds Queeg and who, though competent, manifests a terrible attitude toward his service and carries out his duties poorly. This quote is consistent with Wouk’s admiration for the U.S. Navy and his view that it is the most transcendent invention ever wrought by the mind of man.

* * * * *

Growing up in the Bronx, Wouk was raised as an Orthodox Jew by poor Russian parents, immigrants from Belarus. Initially frustrated by the significant time that he was expected to devote to Talmud study, his attitude began to change when his father told him, “If I were on my deathbed, and I had breath to say one more thing to you, I would say ‘Study the Talmud.’”

His primary Talmud teacher became his beloved grandfather, Mendel Leib Levin, a chassidic rabbi who had arrived in America from Belarus, and Wouk later expressed great pride in his own Talmudic competence.

After graduating college, Wouk briefly adopted a secular lifestyle when he became a radio dramatist, writing for comedian Fred Allen, but he missed his Jewish learning and soon returned fully to Orthodox observance and practice. On board warships during WWII, he would regularly lay his tefillin and recite the morning prayers. He endowed several Jewish educational causes in the United States and Israel; refused to speak publicly at any fundraising events where non-kosher food was served; devoted part of each day to Talmud study; and was also serious about regularly reading Yiddish.

In The Will to Live On: This Is Our Heritage, Wouk mourns the loss of Yiddish: “Yiddish was the tongue in which they all clashed, hot in dispute, but homogenous in heritage.” He remembers his father reading Yiddish stories to him on Friday nights, recalling that “Yiddish was effortless for me to learn.” he added, “I have no recollection of ever being taught a word of it… A saying among the immigrant Jews went, ‘Hebrew one has to learn. Yiddish talks itself.’”

In a November 8, 1994 letter to Wouk, I attributed the fall of Yiddish to three primary factors: (1) only about half of the world’s 11 million Yiddish-speakers survived the Holocaust; (2) Stalin dealt the language a severe blow soon after by ordering the execution of 24 major Yiddish writers in 1952; and (3) young Jews identified Yiddish as the language of the Holocaust and, after the miraculous birth of Israel, the language of the galut (exile). In his November 11, 1994 response to me exhibited here, Wouk writes:

I’m a lover of Yiddish, read some every week, and believe in its future, though that’s a complex subject. To my regret, none of my work at the moment is available in Yiddish translation.

Wouk was a member of the Kesher Israel Synagogue in Washington, D.C. I was honored to meet him several times at the synagogue, where I served as shliach tzibur (cantor) for the High Holy Days for several years. One memorable year, Wouk, then 90 years old, read Maftir Yonah (a rather lengthy reading) for the congregation and then, still fasting, stood on his feet for the entire Neilah service that closes out Yom Kippur each year. When I asked him afterward how he had accomplished this feat at his age, he smiled and said simply: “It was important to me.”

* * * * *

The Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel is the Jewish chapel at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. Dedicated in September 2005, it contains a 410-seat synagogue, a fellowship hall, a learning center, and classrooms. The chapel includes a nearly 45-foot-high wall made of Jerusalem stone that is a replica of the Western Wall). A few months before the 2003 groundbreaking ceremony, Hal Koss wrote to Wouk to request that he donate an original signed first edition of The Caine Mutiny to the Center. In this April 28, 2003 correspondence, Wouk replies:

Regarding a memento of my work for the Jewish Chapel, I received your suggestion for a signed first edition of The Caine Mutiny. First editions of the book are very hard to come by nowadays, and when I published it 52 years ago, the thought of saving copies didn’t cross my mind.

I do have a Caine Mutiny memento which might serve your purposes, a “First Illustrated Edition.” When the book became a success, Doubleday printed up a special illustrated edition on excellent paper, and had me sign all the copies. This onerous task was much simplified by a machine then in use for the signing of certain official documents which required the actual physical handwriting of the officeholder; I signed with one pen, and maybe fifty or so attached pens moved with it over separate papers. These so-called “tip sheets” were then fastened into the printed book.

I believe Doubleday used the copies as gifts to special business or literary connections; in any case, there were only some 10,000 of them. I happen to have one, not too beat up. You can decide whether this may be a rarity worthy of a glass case; if so, I’ll send it to you for inspection, or if it sounds okay I can inscribe it now for the chapel. Just let me know.

The “machine” to which Wouk refers is the dreaded autopen, a signing machine commonly used today by celebrities, politicians, and public figures. Perhaps the greatest challenge to authenticating signatures and the supreme enemy of autograph collectors worldwide, autopen-signed documents – including the “First Illustrated Edition” which Wouk may have sent to Annapolis – are virtually worthless, although Wouk’s personal inscription would have made that document both very interesting and valuable.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.
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