By Diane Medved
In a time when we’re exposed to so few national leaders and celebrities whose personal lives are worth admiring, the deeds and virtues of rare individuals who combine outstanding achievement with fine character command our attention.
By now you’ve read perhaps a dozen obituaries and eulogies for Herman Wouk, the prolific author, playwright, TV writer, and Pulitzer prize-winner who died on May 17, just ten days shy of his 104th birthday.
You’ve likely read that his 1951 Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Caine Mutiny, was a best seller for two years, made into a play by Wouk, and in 1954 became a Columbia Pictures movie starring Humphrey Bogart in an Academy Award-winning performance as Captain Queeg. You may know that the book was based on Wouk’s four years serving in World War II in the Pacific on mine-sweepers, for which he received a US Navy Lone Sailor Award. He’d volunteered to go when he found out about the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
You may know about his epic stories The Winds of War (1971), and War and Remembrance (1978), addressing personal and international developments of World War II. The novels follow presidential attaché Victor “Pug” Henry as his duties, and his family’s experiences, intersect with many critical moments of the War. The two books became TV miniseries, airing in 1983 and 1988-9, with Robert Mitchum as “Pug” Henry, earning an Emmy Award for cinematography.
And you probably remember Mr. Wouk’s 1955 novel, Marjorie Morningstar, a best-seller that became a successful, Golden-Globe-winning Broadway play, and then a smash 1958 film starring Gene Kelly and Natalie Wood.
Amidst all this, you might overlook that Herman Wouk infused his writing with his religious sensibility, and even the details of Jewish Life. As an Orthodox Jew, even with growing celebrity, Mr. Wouk kept kosher, observed Jewish holidays and the Sabbath. It was with Marjorie Morningstar, a character typical of Jews drawn toward assimilation into American culture yet tied to their Jewish roots, that he introduced Jewish customs to a broad reader base, bringing them into mainstream America.
The success of Marjorie Morningstar led to Mr. Wouk’s first nonfiction work, This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life (1959), in which he not only describes and explains the basics of living as an observant Jew, but confides difficulties, shares anecdotes, and reveals his motivations.
In a section where Mr. Wouk addresses how a good God could create suffering and death, he confesses, “Enough ink has flowed in attempts to deal with this question, I believe, to make a blue-black lake the size of the Caspian Sea. It will perhaps relieve the reader if I tell him now that I have no answer of my own to labor, and that I know no truly satisfying answer, though I have read more books in this field than a generally cheerful man should.” He then attempts, over the span of about five pages, to make sense of evil and explain the hereafter, quoting Jewish sources.
His book became so popular, it was serialized in the Los Angeles Times.
While This is My God is a personal expression of faith, I should mention that it played a significant role in my own approach toward Jewish observance. Raised in a neighborhood and school largely populated by lightly-educated Jews who attended a Reform congregation for High Holidays, I always felt that Orthodox people looked funny and had too many restrictions. I didn’t really know much about them, but like my friends, assumed one could observe a few holidays and rituals and that would be just fine. In high school I was a member of “BBG,” a Jewish girls’ group featuring monthly “socials” with the male members of the “AZA”. It wasn’t a religious thing.
But in Grad School, when some of my friends started taking Jewish traditions more seriously, inviting me to Shabbat dinners, I wondered what drove them. It was suggested to me to read Herman Wouk’s This is my God, not only because it was readable, but because it was sensible. It laid out not just Judaism, but the reality of living as a Jew. Which is actually quite involved.
Herman Wouk flipped the image of traditional observance, demonstrating that one could be sophisticated and achieving in the larger world without compromising one’s faith. In this, he paved the road for Sen. Joseph Liberman’s ascent in politics to vice-presidential candidate. Mr. Wouk illustrated particulars but more significantly, Jewish values: caring for the downtrodden. Honesty. Humility. Study. Responsibility. Respect. During his war service, he met Betty Sarah Brown, a civilian Navy employee, while his ship was being repaired in California. He married her after her conversion to Judaism. She died in 2011 at age 90, having been his literary agent and wife of 66 years. They had three children, one of whom, sadly, died in childhood in a swimming pool accident.
After I read This is My God, I was daunted by, but better understood the basis for Jewish observance. Perhaps the first big change for me was accepting the Sabbath. I’d always said I could barely fit all I needed to do into seven days—how could I choose to have only six? But decades later, it’s ironic that in our work-obsessed culture, turning off one’s screens for 24 hours has become cool.
Herman Wouk honestly and completely described the two aspects of the Jewish Sabbath—guarding it by refraining from creative behaviors, and remembering it with positive, uplifting activities. But even Mr. Wouk acknowledged in This is My God that it’s quite a lot: “Having, I trust, sufficiently appalled the reader with the hard part of the Sabbath, I can now fairly tell him that this day is the fulcrum of a practicing Jew’s existence, and generally a source of strength, refreshment, and cheer.”
He earned a Time Magazine cover in 1955, and the accompanying article noted, “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.” While in New York, he was a professor at Yeshiva University, teaching English, and for rabbis-in-training, how to make religious concepts accessible.
He set his novels The Hope (1994) and The Glory (1995) in Israel, and wrote The Will to Live On: This is our Heritage (2000). He was working on a new project at the time he died; his last book being the 2015 nonfiction Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author. The Washington Post noted, “This little book’s prose is strong and clear, and Wouk comes across as still a fairly lively fellow.”
I’d heard for years that Herman Wouk was living in Palm Springs, California, where he attended a daily study group called “Daf Yomi,” a page of Talmud per day. Though a self-described “invisible man” who declined nearly all interviews, he helped found the Jewish Community School of the Desert in 1992, and occasionally appeared at benefits for local Jewish organizations. Knowing he was relatively geographically close, continuing the life he described in This is My God, was oddly reassuring for me.
He leaves behind a prodigious amount of superb writing, none more influential on the behavior of readers than the book that described his honorable way of life. “I’ve lived to a great age,” he announced at his 100th birthday, “and for that I thank Providence.” May his memory be for a blessing.
Diane Medved, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, speaker and blogger. Her most recent of six books is Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage, available in hardcover or audio book at her website, DianeMedved.com.