One Man Renaissance

In 1998, I was scholar in residence at Cong. Kesher Israel, Washington, DC. At first, I didn’t think of it as such a big deal. I enjoy giving derashot. But then I found out that the shul had celebrities, and I started to get excited. First, I was told that Sen. Joseph Lieberman davened there, and I thought that’s cool. Later, I lived in Stamford, CT and got to know the Senator and his family, and found out what a truly wonderful human being he is.

However, I also found out that Herman Wouk would be there. And I thought, ‘Wow!’

After tefilah, Mr. Wouk sought me out to compliment me on my sermon. I was dumbstruck. All I could stammer was, ‘I’m so glad that I could repay some of the enjoyment you’ve afforded me over the years.’ Mr. Wouk asked, ‘Did you buy my books?’ I exclaimed, ‘Oh, yes!’ ‘Then you’ve already paid me.’ he replied.

But my greatest satisfaction came at Seudah Shlishit, when my host whispered to me, ‘Mr. Wouk never comes back Shabbat afternoon. You should feel honored.’ I did.

I grew up in the shadow of my mother OB”M, who loved to read. Having inherited at least part of that affection, I found the prospect of meeting Mr. Wouk very exciting. After Shabbat, I called my mom in Florida, and told her that I met Herman Wouk. She gave a very pareve response, ‘That’s nice.’ ‘Mom, it was fantastic!’ ‘Well you know, he isn’t one of my favorite authors. He wasn’t really original.’ Thanks, Mom, for bursting my bubble. Pop!!

Herman Wouk gave me much more than reading pleasure.

His 1959 work on Judaism, This is My God, was a critical ingredient in my turn to Torah observance. It told me what I wanted to hear: You can be observant, and still be a part of American society.

In this best seller, Mr. Wouk gave plenty of basic information about Judaism, which was very helpful to me as a novice at this stuff.

Much more importantly, he described his own journey. He wandered from the strict Orthodoxy of his ancestors during the 30’s when he was a writer for Fred Allen’s radio show. Then served as an officer in the US Navy during the War. He was a success, but still yearned for greater meaning in his life. During the next decade, he found his way back, with guidance from Rabbi Leo Jung of Manhattan’s Jewish Center.

In Victor Geller ‘s fascinating memoir of Jewish community work in the 50’s, he tells an amazing story about Mr. Wouk. In 1950, Wouk was living in Great Neck and there was no Orthodox minyan. So, he encouraged Victor Geller, through YU to begin one. So, they brought the young and brilliant Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler to Great Neck to found an Orthodox shul.

Herman Wouk put his money (flowing in from the recent publication of The Caine Mutiny) and zeal where his convictions were.

As Rav Meir Soloveitchik wrote in his obituary for Mr. Wouk, when he died last year at the age of 103:

Wouk’s own countercultural observance . . . heralded the resurgence of Orthodoxy in America, one that few in the 1950s would have predicted. But Wouk also offers an example of what American Orthodoxy so sorely needs today: those with the ambition and ability to defend, passionately and eloquently, Judaism’s vision to the world.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman wrote in his review of the book in Tradition, the journal of the Rabbinical Council of America:

It is a stroke of rare good fortune for American Orthodoxy that this kind of a book was written by this kind of writer.

That really tells it all. Wouk represented being American and Orthodox. Those two value systems don’t have to clash. It was a harbinger of the resurgence of observance, which marked the 60s.

He was my hero and role model of an uncompromising Torah life style in a turbulent period with otherwise few guiding lights.

Next: Navigating Kashrut Without Road Signs 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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