Herman Wouk, ever faithful

In his review of Herman Wouk’s latest book, “The Lawgiver” Julian Levinson writes in the Jewish Review of Books about a genre he calls the “Jewish Hollywood novel.” Included in this canon he counts various works from Leon Zolotkoff’s 1932 novel “From Vilna to Hollywood” to Nathanael West's “Day of the Locust” (1939) to Budd Schulberg's “What Makes Sammy Run” (1941) to Leslie Epstein’s more recent, “San Remo Drive” (2003).

They each function at some level as fable, Levinson writes, with the underlying moral that “financial success is precarious and often gained at the price of one's soul.” Indeed, many of these works feature Jewish characters who abandon their roots for fame and fortune and must ultimately pay a price.

“Jews are not alone in their fascination with the mythical allure of Hollywood, of course, but they have been among the most adept at crafting moral fables that decry its corrupting force,” Levinson writes.

He counts Wouk’s latest in this camp, since it has overtly Jewish content and is squarely set in Hollywood. The plot hinges upon the wishes of an Australian uranium tycoon named Louis Gluck, a Hasidic Jew, to finance a movie about the life of Moses. Exacting in his vision, he enlists the help of a writer named Herman Wouk to oversee the screenplay. Wouk, meanwhile, is at work on his own Moses project, so rather than guide the young screenwriter hired to write Gluck’s movie, (the fictional) Wouk is instead intimidated by her scope and speed. Margot Solvei, it turns out, isn’t just any enterprising, young screenwriter; she possesses a “deep intimacy with Torah” which, we are to assume she inherited from her father, the esteemed Bobover Rebbe of Passaic. 

Solovei’s roots have added significance here because they signal a shift in perception of the Hollywood-Jewish hero(ine). In the past, Jews who endeavored to succeed in Hollywood typically abandoned their roots, so as to become more fully American. But here, though the heroine distances herself from her former religious life, it continues to act upon her psyche, informing and enriching everything she writes without serving as a source of shame.

Margot has absorbed her father's teachings but cannot abide his literal understanding of the text…This rebellion enables her to discover her true calling as a Jewish American screenwriter with a properly ambivalent relationship to tradition. Her first success was an Off-Off Broadway parody of her father's world called “Bobover Bobover.” Now she is ready to return to Torah on her own terms, as a creative writer, and her passion for the project becomes the driving force in the narrative.

Levinson is not alone in drawing parallels between Margot, Wouk's 21st century Hollywood screenwriter, and Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk's 1930's aspiring actress (a character that real-life Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson exclaimed to Charlie Rose, “I am Marjorie!”): “Margot is in many ways a more talented and scholarly Marjorie Morningstar,” Levinson writes,”or, even better, a kind of Herman Wouk in reverse.”

Whereas in real life [Wouk] reclaimed the Orthodoxy of his youth, she's escaped it; whereas he's contemplating mortality, she's filled with guileless verve; whereas he can't write the story of Moses, she can. In the process, Margot also succeeds in rescuing the story of Moses from Cecil B. DeMille, whose The Ten Commandments is pilloried in the novel as a counterfeit, anglicized version of the true story. Margot's Moses is psychologically complex, a believer in God who cannot believe in himself. And her God is properly Jewish, speaking Hebrew, not pompous pulpit English.

In Wouk's version of the Hollywood story, then, we discover the triumph of the Jewish American storyteller: she feels Torah in her bones, but she's free enough from the past to recreate the tradition in her own words. In so doing, she reclaims Hollywood as a space for genuine Jewish self-expression.

…In this Hollywood novel, dreams are realized, parents and children are reconciled, love blooms, and Jews triumph while still remaining Jews.

Though in “The Lawgiver” Margot is the hero and not (the fictional) Wouk, she is the real Wouk’s triumph because she is his revelation; the product of his dizzying journey through the labyrinth of Jewish American life. It is through Wouk’s own struggle with Judaism that he is able to write such a clear-minded Jewish character, one who learns to use her Judaism rather than forsake it. Between sacred and secular, there need not be such a struggle, Wouk seems to be saying. Deep Jewish engagement — whether intellectual, spiritual or communal — has a role to play, even a “place” in secular life. The two need not be separated, but integrated.

At 97-years-old, Wouk has let faith triumph. He is finally able to see it as the core of his character (and his characters). When Vanity Fair recently interviewed him for their famous Proust Questionnaire, he was comfortably self-revealing:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Monogamy, with the right lady. (Sheer luck.)

What or who is the greatest love of your life?

Betty Sarah Wouk, no contest.

When and where were you happiest?

Anywhere with her, while she lived.

Where would you like to live?

Ideally, Jerusalem. Realistically, Palm Springs.

What is the quality you most like in a man?

Being a mensch.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?

Silent, steadfast love.

The poet Marianne Moore once wrote that the deepest feeling always expresses itself in silence. Though Wouk’s legacy is hardly a silent one, he has quietly revealed his abiding passion for faith — faithfulness in tradition and faithfulness in love.