Herman Wouk’s Calling Card

Herman Wouk’s Calling Card

What ‘This Is My God’ meant to traditional Jews in mid-century America.

Portrait taken in the 50's at the studio Harcourt in Paris shows US writer Herman Wouk soon after his 1951 novel "The Caine Mutiny" had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Getty Images
Portrait taken in the 50's at the studio Harcourt in Paris shows US writer Herman Wouk soon after his 1951 novel "The Caine Mutiny" had won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Getty Images

In September 1995, Herman Wouk dashed off a letter to Jerusalem, to one of his favorite Jewish historian, Jacob Katz. The novelist, who passed away on Friday at the age of 103, described himself as an “admirer,” listing all of Katz’s books that the Pulitzer Prize novelist had studied over the years. Wouk didn’t presume that Katz was aware of the former’s curriculum vitae but did suggest that he was not “entirely unknown in Israel as a novelist and playwright.”

Several of Wouk’s books had been translated into Hebrew, including his late-1950s manual on Jewish faith and observance. “I published a short non-fiction work on the Jewish faith called This is My God, a copy of which I send you herewith,” wrote Wouk. “It too was rendered into Hebrew. There is no need for you to read this simple tract. It is, you might say, my calling card.”

This is My God was not Wouk’s claim to fame. His had emerged in the world of fiction writing. His earlier novels, Caine Mutiny and Margorie Morningstar, earned him a most prestigious station among America’s “best sellers.” Then Hollywood transformed those books into films, amassing for Wouk a considerable wealth. His earlier literary and silver screen triumphs accorded to Wouk a celebrity status and fueled the interest in his manual on Jewish faith and observance.

Doubleday purchased the rights to the book on the rather dubious assumption that “disproportionately large number of the purchasers of middle-brow books in America are Jews.” The author had a wider ambition, intending the book to reach Jews and non-Jews. Wouk sensed a larger appeal to wrap whimsical prose around chapters on Jewish theology, holidays and lifecycle events. He related all these subjects from a traditional-minded perspective, an Orthodox viewpoint he had adopted after a religious awakening and a tour of duty in World War II.

Zev Eleff

It worked. The book was devoured by the Jewish stewardess who eagerly turned the pages of the book in between flights. It sparked something for the gentile in Hyden, Kentucky, who predicted in a letter to Wouk that the volume would “stand alone as a great book over the years.” To do his small part, this Kentuckian “passed it around [the office] so that it could be enjoyed by others.”

The payoff for Doubleday and for Wouk was considerable. This is My God appeared in September 1959. By November, Doubleday had sold more than 100,000 copies of Wouk’s manual on Jewish living. That figure doubled after retailers tallied Hanukkah and Christmas sales. The book remained on the New York Times nonfiction Best Seller list for many months and was soon after serialized in major newspapers. Judaism was enjoying a proud moment in this postwar epoch thanks to the American notion and power of celebrity.

The Orthodox reveled in the popularity of This is My God. The Orthodox Union described it as a “gem” of a book. One rabbinic writer declared it a “stroke of rare good fortune It is a stroke of rare good fortune for American Orthodoxy that this kind of a book was written by this kind of writer.” Other Orthodox rabbis furnished study guides and launched book clubs in their synagogues to leverage Wouk’s impact.

Yet, not everyone was so sanguine. Conservative and Reform pundits were quick to note how their institutions were relegated to footnotes. In the body of the book, Wouk referred to the non-Orthodox as “dissenters,” “departures,” and “shock absorbers of the enlightenment.” These critics told Wouk to stick to fiction—or wished him to admit that his portrayal of American Judaism was indeed just that.

Likewise, intellectuals such as Will Herberg panned the book. Herberg dubbed it shallow and a missed chance to communicate Judaism’s sophistication. Robert Gordis wondered how much attention the manual might have received if it had been written by someone not named Herman Wouk.

Wouk had anticipated that the non-Orthodox would take umbrage at his description of American Judaism. But more than the content itself, the non-Orthodox were upset over Wouk’s attempt 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.” Another opined that “there is little to say. It has survived—barely.”

All 353 pages of Wouk’s This is My God challenged that grim prediction. And in short order, Wouk’s presentation of Judaism was the most intensive tutorial that many Jews and non-Jews had received on the subject. Wouk hadn’t just anticipated an era of Orthodox upsurge and triumphalism. He 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. His celebrity among the American mainstream did more than enough to compensate for that.

Zev Eleff is associate professor of Jewish history at Touro College and research director of the Jewish Impact Genome.

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