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Modern Times

Herman Wouk wrote a foundational text for American postwar Modern Orthodoxy, and for the emancipated Jewish literature in its wake

Rachel Gordan
February 21, 2012
photo: Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest
Beth El congregants at the synagogue for Tisha B'Av, c. 1951, in Hennepin Co., Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest
photo: Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest
Beth El congregants at the synagogue for Tisha B'Av, c. 1951, in Hennepin Co., Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest

Locating the roots of Modern Orthodoxy is one of those tasks highly contingent on where one happens to be standing. In the mid-1980s, when the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran the story “American Jews Rediscover Orthodoxy,” the religious counterculture of the late 1960s seemed like a taproot. But even earlier, at the start of the 1960s, the editors of the American Jewish Year Book were looking for someone to write about what appeared to be Orthodoxy’s resurgence; in 1965 it was the sociologist Charles Liebman whose article “Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life” was published in the AJYB. “Earlier predictions of the demise of Orthodox Judaism in the United States have been premature, to say the least,” Liebman wrote. If Modern Orthodoxy could be said to have an ideologist, Liebman designated him as Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a pioneer in the refusenik movement whose radical reinterpretation of halakha was that it was “about more than texts. It is life and experience.”

Yet all of these efforts to locate the origins of Orthodox Judaism’s resurgence seem to have missed the signal contribution of the novelist Herman Wouk, whose wildly popular This Is My God appeared in 1959, at a moment most scholars of American Judaism believed that Orthodoxy was all but dead and buried. As Nathan Glazer wrote of non-Hasidic Orthodoxy in his 1957 American Judaism: “It has survived—barely.”

That Wouk spent so little of This Is My God making himself out to be a religious virtuoso (he compared a trip to the synagogue to a night at the opera) was key to the book’s success. Anyone with common sense—anyone who could read—could see the wisdom in Wouk’s Orthodox lifestyle: “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 a mighty freakish non-conformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter?”

It certainly did not matter if you were wealthy and famous. And as a best-selling novelist and playwright living in the Virgin Islands when not comfortably lodged on Park Avenue, Wouk was able to push the boundaries of the Judeo-Christian tradition so in vogue in the 1950s toward a religious particularity that included mikvah and mezuzah and the rules of kashrut in a way that appealed to upscale suburban readers. One of the most brilliant things about Wouk’s This Is My God 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, even as he acknowledged the pressure of social expectations that weighed heavily on 1950s Americans. Serialized in both the New York Herald Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, This Is My God found a place on the breakfast tables and nightstands of Americans who had never heard the word “phylacteries,” much less “tefillin.”

There was nothing new in 1950s America about Jewish-themed books or Jewish authors, of course: Leon Uris’ Exodus was published the previous year (also by Doubleday), and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus appeared on the New York Times list of notable books in 1959, along with Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed a surge of “Introduction to Judaism” books for mainstream American readers, authored by Reform and Conservative rabbis. With titles like Basic Judaism, What the Jews Believe, and What Is a Jew? this genre’s greatest contribution might have been in affirming the American-ness, at mid-century, of a general ignorance about Judaism, as well as the desire for self-improvement through reading. In the New York Times Book Review, Will Herberg condescendingly referred to This Is My God as “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Orthodox Judaism,” alluding to the book’s popular and accessible-guide style (as well as George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism) and its failure to show religion as an “agonizing venture of the spirit.” Herberg wrote: “Whether he intends to or not, Mr. Wouk gives the impression that being a Jew is lots of fun.” More to Herberg’s liking was the old plaint: “It’s hard to be a Jew!”

This Is My God was also noteworthy within its genre for the author’s confidence in where to turn for guidance: Modern Orthodoxy. There was no hint of an angst-ridden Jewish writer exposing his alienation from Judaism. Still, Wouk demonstrated real sympathy for his generation’s gloomy memories of childhood visits to old Jewish neighborhoods and the “ball-and-chain dragginess” of their grandparents’ Judaism: “There was foolishness about not striking matches or turning on lights on the holidays, niggling suspicion about the ingredients of packaged foods; obdurate mistrust and disdain, based on no intelligible reasons, for anybody who lived differently or believed differently.” One left these stale spaces and “came into the sunlight of the street with the joy of a man getting out of jail.” Wouk was not interested in a return to fusty, pre-modern Orthodoxy; even the world of his beloved grandfather, a rabbi from Minsk featured prominently in This Is My God, was portrayed as superannuated. “He was, to the best of his ability, a walking replica of the East European Jew of the past two hundred years,” Wouk wrote, without reproach. “One cannot live in a time capsule after all.”

As early as the 1950s, then, Wouk helped put the modern in post-World War II Modern Orthodoxy. His co-religionists were grateful. Around the corner from Kehillat Jeshurun, where Wouk regularly worshipped, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue wrote about This Is My God in his synagogue’s bulletin. It was no mean feat, in Jakobovitz’s view, “in this materialistic age of ours, to make God a best-seller.” (One Christian reviewer called Wouk the C.S. Lewis of Orthodoxy.)Even more important was the author’s denominational affiliation. “Now, for once,” Rabbi Jakobovitz wrote, with unabashed relief, “it is an orthodox [sic] author and an orthodox book which leaves all others far behind in literary grace and consummate execution.” In the Orthodox magazine Jewish Life, Saul Bernstein echoed this pride in one of their own: “Perhaps never before … has a work of this kind been penned by a major figure in the world of popular literature who is shomer mitzvoth, and ‘ken lernen a blatt Gemorah.’ ”

Wouk helped to open the territory later plowed by Chaim Potok and Cynthia Ozick, whose characters were not marked by the secularism and alienation from Judaism that was characteristic of fiction by Roth, Bellow, and Bernard Malamud. In the works of Wouk, Potok, and Ozick, Jewish characters felt a strong attachment to an Orthodox lifestyle even as they struggled with the allure of the outside world. As Wouk framed it, Modern Orthodoxy called on American Jews to take control of their religious destinies. The pressures of the majority, Wouk cautioned, had a funny way of making one believe. He wrote:

Its demands are one’s own spontaneous desires. 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.

What Modern Orthodoxy entailed, as Wouk described it, was the acknowledgement that the theological reality of Orthodoxy was no longer all-embracing in a Jewish world in which individual choice was now as significant as Jewish law. In a more integrated, tolerant post-World War II America, new social pressures impinged. In writing a first draft of an introduction to This Is My God, Wouk sketched an imaginary dialogue between himself and a religious skeptic whose reasons for reading Wouk have little to do with faith and much to do with fascination with the faithful. “You’re a sort of an interesting freak to me,” explains the skeptic.

I know you’re a successful novelist, Pulitzer Prize, best-seller lists and all that—and I hear that you’re an old-fashioned religious fanatic, won’t eat ham, and so forth. You’re a sort of two-headed calf to me. The whole picture is very curious.

The religious life is of no personal interest, the skeptic insists. But despite all that, “I’d like to know what makes you tick.”

We can’t all empathize with what it means to feel Wouk’s firm commitment to daily prayer and the rules of family purity (nor do we all desire to live this way), but we understand well the agony of decision-making and the fear of commitment. Writing about the Modern Orthodox therefore allowed readers to connect with a particularly modern set of emotions, even as they foreshadowed the return to more traditional religious practices by a surprisingly large number of American Jews.

Rachel Gordan is the Ray D. Wolfe Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.