Weekly Chasidic Story #1120
(s5779-38/ 22 Iyar, 5779)
The American Author and Two Lubavitcher Rebbes
"The American Jewish community is wonderful," the Lubavitcher Rebbe
told Herman Wouk. "While you cannot tell them to do anything,
you can teach them to do everything."
Connection: Seasonal -- Prepared during the Shiva for great Jewish
author, Chayim-Aviezer-Zelig (Herman) Wouk
Story in PDF
format for more convenient printing.
The American Author and Two Lubavitcher Rebbes
(based on //chabad.org/4393510)
The great American novelist Herman Wouk, who passed away this month on
May 17 (12 Iyar 5779), just 10 days shy of his 104th birthday,
was a man who went against the grain.
In a life and career that spanned the modern era, from World War I to iPhones,
he stood out for his personal Orthodox Jewish observance, for the sense of mission
he felt carrying the title "Jewish writer" and for the optimistic
lens through which he saw the Jewish future. In all this and more, Wouk drew
deeply from his intense, decades-long relationship with the seventh Lubavitcher
Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the Chabad
In his life and art, Wouk was an unabashedly proud practicing Jew. He started
his day studying Jewish texts and closed it with a regimen of Talmud. In his
work, including his earliest novels, he allowed his Jewish characters to struggle
with faith-not by mocking it, but by taking seriously the intricacies of observance,
and in certain cases to allow its transcendent beauty to touch and move them.
When fellow novelists and critics took unkindly to this, he simply brushed off
He would remain "one of the few living novelists concerned with virtue,"
his biographer, Arnold Bleichman, told the Palm Springs Desert Sun when Wouk
Wouk was already a popular and successful novelist when he became a playwright,
adapting his best-selling The Caine Mutiny into a Broadway play and later
a movie. But even amid the nonstop world of Broadway, Wouk would disappear as
Shabbat approached, "leaving the gloomy theatre, the littered coffee cups,
the jumbled scarred-up scripts, the haggard actors, the shouting stagehands,
the bedeviled director, the knuckle-gnawing producer
and the dense tobacco
smoke and backstage dust" for home. There, he would join his family at
"a splendid dinner, at a table graced with flowers and the old Sabbath
symbols: the burning candles, the twisted loaves, the stuffed fish, and my grandfather's
silver goblet brimming with wine."
Wouk wrote these words in another book, This Is My God, which he composed
in response to an offhand question by a Jewish friend asking him if he knew
of any educational Jewish reading material. This Is My God, with the
later added subtitle of The Jewish Way of Life, became an invaluable
resource for non-Jews seeking to understand Judaism and had a revolutionary
impact on Jews from all backgrounds.
In it, the writer turned his pen to explaining the Jewish faith in a relatable,
down-to-earth way. It proved unexpectedly popular, was reprinted numerous times
and translated into many languages, becoming a basic guide and reference book
for anyone interested in authentic Jewish practice. In the Soviet Union, where
decades of state-sponsored oppression had rendered its millions of Jews lacking
basic Jewish knowledge, it became a wildly popular manual for the spiritually
thirsty population, offering them a foundational Jewish education.
Wouk dedicated This Is My God to his grandfather, Mendel-Leib Levine, who had
served as a rabbi in Minsk, and later New York and Tel Aviv.
"From my [maternal] grandfather I caught an enthusiasm for learning, and
a simple unashamed love of our faith," Wouk wrote in a 1967 letter. "[He]
was a Lubavitcher who studied
in the Chabad tradition of knowledge joined
. When my grandfather came he brought a whole different attitude
into our lives. What he said was in his action. There is nothing more important
than being a Jew. Nothing.""
This steadfast enthusiasm and love, as well as the moral backbone that it implied,
never left him. In a career that saw him write nearly two-dozen books (he maintained
a steady work regimen until the end of his life, publishing his latest book,
Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author, in 2015), he candidly
invoked the moral choices facing humankind, spoke with clarity on the existence
of good and evil, and emphasized that an individual's thoughts, words and actions
do indeed matter.
Wouk's own steadfast Orthodox Jewish observance combined with his stature served
as an example for his brethren and brought Jewish practice into the public eye.
Like the time in 1955 when Wouk made an appearance in the New York Post's "Lyon's
Den" gossip column-not for scandal, but because the governor of Maryland
had made sure the full dinner served at a state function attended by Wouk would
Later, throughout the decades that Wouk lived in Palm Springs, California, he
gave a weekly Shabbat morning Chumash (bible) class at the Chabad House-where
he was known as "Reb Chaim-Zelig"-and taught Mishnah on Shabbat afternoon.
He also maintained numerous regular Talmud study partners, and when weakness
forced his classes to relocate to his home, continued his study sessions via
"His Torah study, his Jewish practice, that's who he was," explains
Rabbi Yonason Denebeim, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Palm Springs and Wouk's
longtime rabbi and friend of many decades, who officiated at Wouk's modest funeral.
"He was a gifted storyteller through his words, but that was ancillary
to who he was, he was a Jew. The medium was the writing. He was the young vibrant
one teaching 'old men' as he called them, who were twenty years younger than
City Boy and the Zeide
Chaim Aviezer Zelig ('Herman') Wouk was born on May 27, 1915 [14 Sivan
5675], to Abraham Isaac and Esther Shaina Wouk. He and his siblings grew up
in a Bronx fourth-floor walk-up, and as their parents hailed from White Russia,
the family prayed at the neighborhood's Minsker shul, where Wouk's bar
mitzvah was held. His parents were Orthodox Jews, religious but working
hard to fit in with American life.
Wouk attended Columbia University, majoring in comparative literature and philosophy,
and beginning his literary career by writing a campus humor column and editing
a college humor magazine. For a short few years around and after college, he
tested the waters of secular life, before returning to Jewish practice. After
graduating, he got a job as a radio gag writer before landing a position in
1936 as a staff writer for the then-popular radio comedian Fred Allen.
Wouk enlisted in the Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was
eventually posted in the Pacific on the USS Zane, an old World War I minesweeper
that would serve as a base for his fictional USS Caine.
His mother, Esther, told her midshipman son that there was no way he was going
off to war without first receiving a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This
was 1943, and his recently widowed mother took him by subway all the way down
to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where the two had a private audience
with the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef-Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous
"The [sixth] Rebbe told him he should be especially careful with tefillin,"
recalls Denebeim, who together with his wife, Sussie, befriended the Wouks when
the author and his wife settled in Palm Springs and began attending Chabad on
a daily basis. "The Rebbe told him that even though during times of emergency
and war one was allowed to be more lenient doing practical mitzvahs, Wouk should
nevertheless be careful with tefillin."
Wouk would recount the details of the audience in The Will to Live On, describing
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak as a "gentle personage of imposing presence, recently
escaped from Nazi-ruled Europe after a harrowing ordeal of Soviet imprisonment,"
remembering how he "received us with grace, and we conversed in Yiddish,
his voice weakened by asthma to a near-whisper. As I left, he gave me a blessing
and with it a dime
Wouk held onto Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's dime throughout his years in the South
Pacific and donned tefillin daily. He spent most of the war on the Zane
doing the hazardous work of clearing mines before being transferred, in January
of 1945, to the USS Southard, where he became the executive officer. Aboard
the Southard, which had earlier survived a kamikaze attack, Wouk became the
"bad cop" rule enforcer to the captain's "good cop," earning
the enmity of those reporting to him.
The Pacific war ended in August. A month later, on Sept. 17, just as Wouk was
about to become captain of the Southard and command the ship back to Brooklyn,
they were hit by a typhoon at Okinawa. Somehow-"miraculously," Wouk
would emphasize on numerous occasions-they managed to save everyone aboard.
The ship was later declared lost.
Once ashore the next morning, everyone started "showing great deference
to him and he felt really strange about it" since he hadn't been very popular
with the men previously, says Denebeim. "He went to his chief petty officer
and asked him what's going on?
"You saved everyone on the boat," came the reply.
"Not you. The black boxes you wore on the bridge every day!"
Wouk recalled the day clearly because it was also Yom Kippur, and he hadn't
eaten a thing. When the Southard was struck, Wouk rescued two things: the precious
tefillin that Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had asked him to wear daily and the draft
of his first book, Aurora Dawn.
For the duration of his life Wouk had a special affinity for the biblical 'Book
of Jonah,' the haftorah read on Yom Kippur. It tells the tale of a man
nearly lost at sea and the doomed city he helped save.
What Makes a Jewish Writer?
Wouk married Betty (Sarah) Brown in 1945, with the couple having three children
and remaining married for more than six decades until her passing in 2011. His
debut novel, Aurora Dawn, published two years later, and was followed by City
Boy. It was his third book, however, The Caine Mutiny, that brought him
fame, fortune and a Pulitzer Prize. Yet Wouk bucked the popular trend; instead
of abandoning tradition, he held steadfastly to the Jewish practices and beliefs
of his parents, grandparents and ancestors.
Two decades later saw the publication of his epic war novels, The Winds of War
(1971) and War and Remembrance (1978), which tell the tales of the non-Jewish
Henry clan and the Jewish Jastrow family. The combined nearly 2,000 pages, which
Wouk saw as his life's "main task," paint an intricate picture of
a world at war and brought the horrors of the persecution of the Jews in the
Holocaust home to generations of readers. The Winds of War ends off with Natalie
Jastrow, a young American Jewish woman stuck in Europe with a newborn baby in
tow, blocked from escaping by German Nazis, Italian fascists and American bureaucrats.
One of the novel's countless readers was Vivi Deren, then a young Chabad emissary
on campus in Amherst, Massachusetts. Wouk was practically mishpachah, or family,
with Deren's parents (and Denebeim's in-laws), Rabbi Zalman and Risya Posner,
the Chabad emissaries in Nashville, Tennessee. He would stay at the Posner home
during his frequent visits to the city, where his nephew and family lived. One
afternoon on the eve of Shavuot during the gap years before War and Remembrance
came out, Deren was on the phone with her mother, who told her that Wouk was
staying with them for the holiday.
"I said, 'Please ask him what happens to Natalie?'" Deren remembers.
"Say tehillim (psalms)," came Wouk's reply. It would seem that
he still did not know whether his protagonists would perish together with their
When War and Remembrance finally came out, Wouk revealed that Natalie and her
baby boy do indeed survive. Yet her uncle, Dr. Aaron Jastrow, a professor and
writer who had become an apostate years earlier, does not. In the Nazis' hands,
the elder Jastrow returns to the faith of his fathers, begins donning tefillin,
teaching Talmud and documenting his path to repentance in a manuscript he titles
A Jew's Journey. The elderly man dies in the gas chambers with the hallowed
and holy words "Shema Yisrael, Hear, O Israel," on his lips.
"I have experienced a strange bitter happiness in Theresienstadt that I
missed as an American professor and as a fashionable author living in a Tuscan
villa. I have been myself," Jastrow writes in his final entry. "I
was born to carry that flame."
This Jewish flame, this light, permeated Wouk's work. When Natalie Jastrow is
finally reunited with her young son, Louis, she rocks him back and forth and
begins singing to him in Yiddish:
"Dos vet zein dein baruf. Rozhinkes mit mandlen. Slof-zhe, Yidele, shlof"
("This will be your calling, too. [Trading in] raisins and almonds. Sleep,
"Almost at the same moment," writes Wouk describing the scene, "Byron
and Rabinovitz each put a hand over his eyes, as though dazzled by an unbearable
Wouk's inner need to communicate the "sudden light" of a Jewish mother
singing "raisins and almonds" in Yiddish, or a Talmud class in Theresienstadt,
made him stand out.
"Faith," Wouk once explained, "is belief in what cannot rationally
be justified. It's a knowledge that goes beyond logic."
Wouk exuded this faith. While audiences scooped up his books and made him popular,
critics launched attacks, citing his popularity as proof that he was a second-rate
writer. Worse, in their eyes, was what they saw as his simplistic, old-fashioned
"He writes out of a strong sense that Jewish life
can only disintegrate
and wither away if it ventures beyond the moral and spiritual confines of a
Judaic bourgeois style," wrote one critical reviewer of Marjorie Morningstar
[the character's original family name was Morgenstern].
And yet, Wouk held his ground. "Among Jewish writers of the day I remain
odd man out in point of view, of that I am well aware," he wrote. "In
some of them I think I discern rueful second thoughts about religion, but any
relevance of eschewing lobsters to the grand question of man's fate [as Wouk
pondered in Marjorie Morningstar], in a vast baffling universe, may well seem
to them a persisting petty absurdity. On that I have had my say in This Is My
God, where I lay out my cards face up."
Wouk maintained a lengthy correspondence with the Rebbe and visited him numerous
times for private audiences, receiving his guidance, direction and encouragement.
He cherished the advice he got from the Rebbe about his literary work (they
discussed his books in detail).
Nevertheless, it was the Rebbe's positive outlook on the Jewish condition and
his urgent work to make it so that he would recount most often, recalling how
during one of those audiences the Rebbe had negated the nay-sayers predicting
doom. "The American Jewish community is wonderful," the Rebbe told
Wouk. "While you cannot tell them to do anything, you can teach them to
The Rebbe didn't miss an opportunity to encourage the author to keep writing
in ever more consequential ways, to keep impacting and to keep doing more for
the good of the Jewish people.
1972, on the occasion of the Rebbe's 70th birthday, Wouk came to the Rebbe's
farbrengen gathering in Brooklyn as the personal representative of U.S. President
Richard Nixon. Bearing a letter of greeting from the president, he had a private
audience with the Rebbe (forcing then-Israeli ambassador to the United States
Yitzchak Rabin to wait his turn). Then, in a period of just a few days, Wouk
flew to both Minnesota and Los Angeles to speak at local gatherings celebrating
the same event.
Herman Wouk sitting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a Chassidic
gathering in April 1972, on the Rebbe's 70th birthday.
In a brief interlude during a 1975 farbrengen Wouk attended in
Brooklyn, during which the author vigorously sang and clapped in rhythm with
the crowd [I was there and I remember this clearly--YT], Wouk joyfully reported
to the Rebbe (in Yiddish) that his Israeli publisher had translated and published
not just a novel of his, but a serious book on Judaism, This Is My God, and
added that a special low-priced edition had been printed for the benefit of
the soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces as well.
The Rebbe was happy to hear this, but then reminded Wouk that his work was not
done. "It's needed in America as well," the Rebbe added. "Don't
forget the Jews in the United States!"
(This Is My God was also translated into Russian by Professor Herman Branover,
a Lubavitcher Chassid and scientist who directed the Shamir organization, which
worked on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the USSR and abroad. Branover's translation
of Wouk's book made its way clandestinely into the Soviet Union, where it had
a revolutionary impact, becoming a popular manual for the spiritually thirsty
Jewish population, offering them a foundational religious education.)
In a 1985 letter Wouk addressed to the "Revered Rebbe," he concluded
by saying "it remains for me to thank you for your too kind words about
my very modest acts in [the] field [of Jewish education], and to welcome your
blessings with profoundest gratitude."
The Rebbe would not hear of it. "I must challenge this self-assessment,"
the Rebbe wrote back, "on the ground that the record speaks for itself.
Moreover, in wide segments of Jewry, especially among American Jews, the impact
of your 'modest acts' strikes deeper and wider than similar acts of a Rabbi
or Rebbe (myself included) could attain, for obvious reasons.
"For the sake of a mutual consensus, I am prepared to accept your claim
of 'very modest acts'-in a relative sense, in terms of your potential and future
acts, which will dwarf your past accomplishments by comparison
Wouk shared the overwhelming concerns of Jewish leaders about intermarriage,
assimilation and basic lack of Jewish knowledge affecting American and world
Jewry in a modern, post-Holocaust world. "Leaders fear threat to Jewish
survival in today's 'crisis of freedom,' " reads the subtitle of a 1964
Look magazine cover story ominously titled 'The Vanishing American Jew.' Wouk
agreed: "I think the Jewish people is in danger-in mortal danger,"
he said. From where, Wouk asked his audience in a talk in Minnesota as much
as himself, could one derive faith in the Jewish people's apparently bleak future?
"The Lubavitch Rebbe has that faith [in a bright Jewish future],"
Wouk said in reply to his own query. "I think that the Rebbe is an inspired
Jew, perhaps the inspired Jew among us," he explained. The Rebbe "looked
me in the eye and said it was so
And so it is the truth."
The Lubavitch movement, Wouk said, is the "red ember on the underside of
the smoldering log of Judaism in our century," and the Rebbe "is the
flame." Moved in this way by what he saw as the Rebbe's vital role in the
very survival of the Jewish people in the modern era, Wouk spoke passionately
to audiences large and small, from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia to London,
about Lubavitch's dynamic standing on the Jewish landscape. "In the thundering
footsteps of the young Chabad Chassidim I did not hear the voice of the past,"
Wouk told a Los Angeles audience in late 1972. "This is the life of Judaism
and this is the future of Judaism. It was the voice of the future."
Wouk prayed at Chabad of Palm Springs, supported it, gave classes and lectures
there, and considered its rabbi, Rabbi Yonason Denebeim, his own. They were
friends, and Wouk on occasion wrote about Denebeim and his admiration for him.
Denebeim, in turn, regularly spent hours in study and conversation with his
famous congregant, whom he described as his "surrogate father
40 years," while fiercely guarding the writer's privacy on his behalf.
Wouk regarded Denebeim's children, who continued to visit and study with him
at his home until the end of his life, as if his own.
"Mr. Wouk was a special human being," says Rabbi Denebeim. "Where
many artists become defined and thus limited by their art, he shined beyond
those limitations, a quiet lamplighter."
Wouk often reflected on the Rebbe's vision for world Jewry and the effect it
continued to have even after the Rebbe's passing in 1994, expressing a measure
of this in a short note he wrote to author Joseph Telushkin following publication
of the latter's best-selling biography, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of
Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History.
Telushkin's book, Wouk wrote, was "the truth, simply and ably told, about
a great man, a Jewish 20th century teacher and leader.
The man emerges
as himself, in all his simplicity and majesty.
He will live on, I think,
as his work lives on, and steadily grows in impact."
What Makes a Lubavitcher?
In 1978, Wouk sent the Rebbe a copy of his then-new book, War and Remembrance.
The book was dedicated to his eldest son, Abraham Isaac ("Abe"), who
had tragically passed away years earlier in a childhood accident, and Wouk inscribed
on the title page the prophet Isaiah's words, Bila Ha'Moves Lo'Netzach,
or "He will destroy death forever." The Rebbe replied by thanking
him for the book, noting the beautiful dedication and stating that he hoped
to have the chance to go through the 1,039-page book at a later date.
At the conclusion of the letter the Rebbe did, however, take issue with Wouk's
oft-repeated description of himself as an admirer, but not an actual member
of, Lubavitch. "In the estimate of many, myself included, you have been
a Lubavitcher for quite some time," the Rebbe wrote. "For as you surely
know, being a Lubavitcher does not come by virtue of a formal membership card,
or membership dues or anything like this, but to do what a Lubavitcher does:
to spread Judaism with Ahavat Yisrael
Herman Wouk was a successful man, winning awards, selling many millions of books
and the movie rights to his creations, all the while holding strong in his convictions.
He studied and taught Torah not as a layman, but as a scholar, once calling
himself "a Jew of the Talmud." And he was, above all else, a lover
of the Jewish people.
But he was not transient; he did not rest on his laurels. Wouk spent his nearly
104 years on earth on an upward journey, both personal and professional, taking
him from skeptic to optimist, from defender of the faith to forward-looking
emissary. Recognizing the slumbering embers deep in the log of American Jewry,
he sought the flame, to warm himself and draw energy from it. Then he marshalled
his immense talents in its service to help it grow into a roaring fire.
One month shy on the Jewish calendar.
 This very popular lullaby was part of a song composed in
1880 for the Yiddish theater opera "Shulamis."
Source: Excerpted (80%) and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the excellent,
lengthy (4500+ words) article by Dovid Margolin for //chabad.org/4393510, which
is accompanied by a number of notable photos.
Connection: Prepared during the Week of Shiva for Mr. Herman Wouk
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor
of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells
them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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("Under the Full Moon" vol 2 - holiday stories)
is now available
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Book 1 of Yerachmiel Tilles's 3-volume set,
"Saturday Night, Full Moon",
is also available for purchase on
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