Herman Wouk “made G-d a bestseller”
Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0
f a comprehensive account of kiruv in America is ever written, there’s one early pioneering effort that might easily be overlooked: the publication, 60 years ago, of This Is My G-d, the primer on Orthodox Judaism penned by the renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herman Wouk, who passed away last month just short of his 104th birthday.
In a fascinating 2018 monograph, Touro College historian Zev Eleff tells the story of the book, which contains lessons that are still relevant to the American Jewish community today. Wouk was raised by observant parents and much influenced by his learned grandfather from Minsk. But in his twenties, he began working as a radio scriptwriter and drifted away from observance.
Eventually, he came under the influence of Rabbi Leo Jung, rabbi of The Jewish Center in Manhattan and an important mainstay of authentic Judaism in the first half of the 20th century. Wouk began accompanying the rabbi on his daily walk around the Central Park reservoir; through “hot days and cold, through sunshine, fog, snow and rain,” he wrote in a 1996 piece for Jewish Action, “we marched around the oval cinder path, enjoying the air and the view of the skyscrapers…. We talked at length, too, about the ideas and commitments of the Jewish faith.”
With World War II’s approach, Wouk went off to the Naval Academy and then did an extended tour of duty in the Pacific, keeping up a steady correspondence with Rabbi Jung. At one point, Rabbi Jung wrote to him that
when you come back you will have to make up your mind once and for all whether you want to travel the path of Torah-true Judaism with its responsibilities, inconveniences, and possible handicaps in your career, or whether you want to retain an emotional appreciation of Jewish faith and an attitude of appeasement and partial conformity….
Rabbi Jung challenged Wouk to “decide once and for all on abiding loyalty to the din Torah… [and] achieve that inner serenity which I know you are seeking.” And indeed, he did make up his mind, fully re-embracing shmiras hamitzvos.
And as he began to find fame and fortune as one of America’s most widely-read novelists, he also began thinking, at Rabbi’s Jung urging, about how he might “turn his pen to the service of Judaism.” Rabbi Jung directed him to Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s The Nineteen Letters, but he “was overawed by its learning and zeal, neither of which, I felt, I could possibly match.”
Yet the seed Wouk’s mentor had planted in his mind bore fruit, and 13 years later, he published what Eleff calls one of the “signature defenses of Orthodox Judaism in the twentieth century.” Meanwhile, in the mid-1950s, he had begun attending the Gemara shiurim of Rav Moshe Feinstein in Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem on New York’s Lower East Side.
The book was an immediate sensation, rising to second place on the New York Times bestseller list and selling 200,000 copies in its first year alone, and was serialized in both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Herald Tribune.
It was, as Eleff puts it, “a watershed moment for Orthodox Judaism in the United States.” Never before or since has an expression of authentic Judaism achieved such widespread public acclaim. It was assigned in synagogue adult education programs and discussed in Jewish book clubs, accompanied by an 89-page workbook authored by Rabbi Maurice Lamm.
Orthodox figures were effusive in their praise. The Fifth Avenue Synagogue’s Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits (where he served prior to his appointment as Great Britain’s chief rabbi) lauded the feat, that “in this materialistic age of ours,” Wouk had “made G-d a bestseller.” Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, then of Atlanta, wrote of the “stroke of rare good fortune for American Orthodoxy that this kind of a book was written by this kind of writer.”
But the accolades were far from universal. Reform clergy bigwig Maurice Eisendrath, among others, tore into Wouk for his “flippant parody of Reform.” The non-Orthodox, Eleff writes, accused Wouk of engaging in name-calling and “in fact, he did,” although he was “far tamer than his mentor,” Rabbi Jung, who had “once compared Reform Judaism to… formative figures in Christianity.” For his part, Wouk described a typical non-Orthodox rabbi’s sermon as “a digest of articles from the past week’s liberal newspapers and magazines, with a few references to the Bible.”
But perhaps most galling to the non-Orthodox movements was that Wouk marginalized the Reform and Conservative movements as “dissenters,” “departures,” and “shock absorbers of the enlightenment.” He managed, in Eleff’s words, to
flip the narrative of American Judaism. Just a few years earlier, pundits had predicted Orthodox Judaism’s demise. One scholar declared that the “history of their movement in this country can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay.” …This is My G-d challenged that grim prediction…. [Wouk] helped reestablish Orthodox Judaism as the “authentic” variety of American Judaism. It didn’t matter that this group made up a tenth (or less) of Jews in the United States.
In a 2012 essay, University of Toronto Jewish studies scholar Rachel Gordan wrote that one of
the most brilliant things about Wouk’s This Is My G-d was how amiably he made the case for dignified, “non-conformist” Modern Orthodox living. In the era of strivers like those depicted in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Wouk tapped into the yearnings of his readers, who wished to live independent of the opinions of others….
The pressures of the majority, Wouk cautioned, had a funny way of making one believe. He wrote: “A Jew who feels large chunks of his heritage slipping away from him and observes himself behaving more and more like the massive majority, should make very sure that this is a result he truly wants, and that he is not being stamped willy-nilly by the die-press into a standard, exchangeable part.
Similarly, Wouk wrote that “the sensible thing is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do… The chances are that — at least today — he will seem mighty freakish non-conformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter?”
The challenges to Orthodox living have changed significantly in the 60 years since the book first appeared, but perhaps more in form than in substance. The non-Orthodox movements are in steep decline, but others have emerged to take their place as schismatic movements de jour. Orthodox communities have flourished, but Wouk’s counsel to “use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do” is as relevant to frum Jews who wish to dissent from the regnant “Thou Shalt Be Cool” commandments of contemporary Orthodox life as it was to 1950s suburban Jews looking for meaning amidst materialism.
In the spring of 2011, Wouk sent me a note for inclusion in a special issue of Mishpacha commemorating Rav Moshe Feinstein’s 25th yahrtzeit, containing “some inadequate words to acknowledge my debt to the memory of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein… this great humble Jewish leader” who was “one in his generation.” He wrote that he owed the great posek hador the inspiration for This Is My G-d and a subsequent work on Judaism, because
had I not come to know him, and had he not taken me into his Mesifta at forty to absorb his special derekh in Talmud, and befriended me thereafter while he lived, my books would have been the poorer. I might not have felt able to undertake them.
How could the Rosh Yeshivah have been the book’s inspiration when the project had first been suggested by Rabbi Jung so many years earlier? I never got to ask Wouk that question. But then I read that the famed public intellectual Will Herberg had panned Wouk’s book in a New York Times review. In addition to its “extreme partisanship,” Herberg complained that “whether he intends to or not, Mr. Wouk gives the impression that being a Jew is lots of fun.” Imagine that.
Perhaps, in his time sitting at Rav Moshe Feinstein’s feet, Herman Wouk heard him make the famed observation that a generation of American Jews went astray upon hearing their elders rue that “it’s hard to be a Jew.” And maybe that was even the inspiration of which Wouk spoke.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 765. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com