Did you know that Herman Wouk, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Caine Mutiny who turned 100 yesterday, founded an Orthodox synagogue during the 1950s in a laid-back, Fire Island beach community?
Ruth H. Skydell, a journalist writing in the October 1952 edition of The Jewish Horizon, describes how Wouk vacationed with his family on Fire Island. In the summer of 1952, Wouk met Skydell’s husband, a rabbi named Adrian. Together they acknowledged that the island lacked “an orthodox element,” and put out feelers to discover whether there was enough interest to start a synagogue. One evening, when Wouk was approached by a man who inquired about these plans, he saw no point in delaying further.
According to The Jewish Horizon article, Wouk immediately replied: “We are going to hold services in my home at 9:30 p.m. next Shabbos, please G-d. Tell all your friends about it.”
Wouk and Rabbi Skydell put their plan into action. The two men took a ferry to Bay Shore, Long Island to borrow a Torah from its Conservative Synagogue. Back on Fire Island, they began constructing an order of service. They needed at least ten attendees for the Shabbat ceremony, so they chose to include readings in both English and Hebrew to attract local Jews from non-Orthodox backgrounds.
That summer, on the deck of Wouk’s home in Seaview, 12 men and four women observed Shabbat together. Surrounded by the glistening Atlantic Ocean, the service lasted an hour and 45 minutes. Wouk’s wife, Betty, brought it to an end by providing fellow congregants with freshly baked cookies.
As the weeks went on, the number of attendees mounted speedily. Rabbi De Sola Pool, who served Congregation Shearith Israel (the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Manhattan, and the oldest Jewish congregation in America), also spent his summers on Fire Island and joined Wouk in prayer. As a result, De Sola Pool helped out where he could, telling Wouk it was “a privilege to serve as a ‘minyannaire’ for this congregation.”
Interestingly, in Wouk’s 2010 work The Language Talks: On Science and Religion, he describes a problem that the early congregation faced with its Torah:
One morning the rabbi chanting the Torah section thought he spotted a flaw with one letter. On the instant the scroll became unusable, and next day a graybeard scribe of high repute travelled from Brooklyn by subway, commuter train and ferry to have a look at the letter. It was questionable, he fixed it with his quill pen and mandated ink, and went back to Brooklyn, fee and expenses paid, sacredness of my scroll restored.
The anecdote is illustrative of Wouk’s commitment to his faith. In a profile of Wouk in the September 1955 edition of Time, he said: “I felt there’s a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance. I’d be a jerk not to take advantage of it.”
Despite Wouk’s commitment to Judaism, the makeshift shul was not without its opposition. According to the website of Fire Island Minyan, a second Orthodox synagogue on the island, Wouk appealed to the local community for funds to erect a building, but one neighbor was so adamantly opposed to the idea that he threatened to “burn it down.” Shaul Magid, the current rabbi of the synagogue started by Wouk, explained that the Fire Island community “felt uncomfortable” with the construction of a religious building in their residential neighborhood. He added that resistance continued up until the building was finally constructed in 1975, a date he estimates.
Basja Schechter, the current cantor at Fire Island Synagogue, feels that the temple was successful in the face of resistance because of the “energy” produced by the “creative spirit” of its founder, Herman Wouk. The seed he planted, she said, “has grown into this continuing creative environment.” Currently, the synagogue’s religious practices, although rooted in tradition, are ripe with musical experimentation. For example, Magid, whom Schechter calls an “old-time banjo-playing academic rabbi,” creates services that she says take place within a “musical world.”
Although Wouk left Fire Island before the synagogue was erected, Magid, in celebration of Wouk’s 100th birthday, led the children of the congregation in sending postcards to the author to thank him for his vision. Even though Wouk is no longer a congregant, the Fire Island Synagogue, like its founder, lives on.
Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.