Herman Wouk and the Jew in the public square

His popular novels explored war and exemplified conservative American values. And yet, he also set an example about being faithful to Judaism while living in the world.

Herman Wouk. Credit: Screenshot.
Herman Wouk. Credit: Screenshot.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Before Joe Lieberman was observing the Sabbath while running for vice president, Steven Spielberg throwing all of his considerable Hollywood weight behind a movie about the Holocaust and other celebrities advertising their Jewish identity and incorporating it in their public work, there was Herman Wouk.

The novelist, who died on May 17, just 10 days short of his 104 birthday, was among the most prolific authors of his era. He wrote best-selling novels like The Caine Mutiny, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was subsequently made into a hit play and movie made immortal by Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the doomed and mentally unstable Captain Queeg. Marjorie Morningstar has been loved by generations of American girls and women who identified with the title character. His narrative epics about World War II—The Winds of War and War and Remembrance—were read by millions and made into popular television miniseries in the 1980s that Americans waited for and watched with bated breath (long before there was live-streaming at a viewer’s convenience). And he continued writing popular works until the end of his long, productive life, unfazed by the disdain of literary critics and the contempt of cultural elites who put him down for who championing the values of middle-class morality, faith and patriotism they deplored.

There is much to say about Wouk the author. But what was just as remarkable, especially in the context of his time, was Wouk the very public observant Jew.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y. in 1915 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents and a graduate of Columbia University, Wouk wrote jokes for radio comedian Fred Allen, though left the entertainment world to serve as an officer in the U.S. Navy during World War II. His time fighting in the Pacific not only served as the basis for some of his writing, but also profoundly influenced his outlook on life.

Literary critics may have preferred writers like Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, who regarded the lifestyle to which most Americans aspired as empty and hypocritical. Yet Wouk’s innate conservatism expressed the ethos of postwar America, and especially the ambitions of the generation of upward-striving second-generation Americans.

In stark contrast to other Jewish writers and prominent American Jews was the way Wouk treated Judaism and Jewish identity.

While Jews were prominent figures in American popular culture throughout the first half of the 20th century, they did so in large measure by shedding their Jewish identity or at least keeping it under cover (in Hollywood by changing their names). The same applied to films, plays and books written for popular audiences. To the extent that Jewish religious observance or traditions were presented to the public, it was shown as exoticism rather than normal. But Wouk had very different ideals.

In his books, Jews weren’t stereotypes or merely Americans with Jewish surnames and backgrounds, but living, breathing Jews who were engaged in one way or another with their traditions and faith.

His character Barney Greenglass, the Navy attorney who wins the case in The Caine Mutiny, isn’t afraid to speak about being Jewish or to reference the threat of the Holocaust. In Marjorie Morningstar, the heroine’s family is authentically Jewish, celebrating Passover and a child’s bar mitzvah—something that helped introduce Jewish life to the vast mainstream non-Jewish audience that read Wouk’s books. Marjorie’s story arc, in which she drops her Jewish-sounding name and pursues fame as an actress, as well as rejecting the strict sexual mores of her family only to ultimately settle happily for life as a typical Jewish suburban wife and mother, may not sit well with some readers today. Yet it exemplified faith in the value of tradition, as well as middle-class morality.

But Wouk was more than just a Jewish author unafraid to write about Jews and Judaism. He was also an Orthodox Jew who, even while immersed in the creative process, refused to compromise on observance of Shabbat and kashrut.

That was remarkable in an era when Jews simply didn’t behave that way in public, if they were celebrities like Wouk. When he appeared on the cover of TIME magazine in 1955, the article noted his Jewish observance as something of a curiosity: “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.”

But Wouk wasn’t merely unashamed to be a practicing Jew. He also sought to educate the public about Judaism. In 1959, he published This Is My God, a primer on Judaism that opened up the world of Jewish study and faith to a vast audience. It was more than a defense of traditional Jewish faith; it presented the religion as an attractive, normative lifestyle, rather than something restricted to those presumed to be living in an unenlightened past. His books also gave us insight into his own life, in which Torah study, observance, celebration of Jewish identity and support of Israel remained a constant throughout his nearly 104 years.

Wouk would go on writing best-selling books with a special emphasis on historical fiction. Those two-volume epics—Winds of War and War and Remembrance—were especially influential in teaching many about the Holocaust.

Those books sparked comparisons to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace from some of his admirers. Suffice it to say that neither his prose nor his historical insights justified that analogy. But Wouk thought of himself as a storyteller, not a literary immortal. At his best, his straightforward narrative style remains both entertaining and educational. Our world would be much poorer without his vast body of work.

As an American and a veteran, Herman Wouk was a sterling example of why we call the men and women who lived in his era and had similar experiences “the greatest generation.” But he was also a role model who showed us that it was possible to be a faithful Jew in the American public square. May his memory be for a blessing.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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