Jew of the Week: Herman Wouk

America’s Tolstoy

Herman Wouk

Herman Chaim Aviezer Zelig Wouk (1915-2019) was born in New York to poor Russian-Jewish immigrants. He studied at Columbia University and was the editor of its humour magazine. He also took courses at Yeshiva University. After graduating, Wouk worked as a radio actor, and when World War II began, wrote radio commercials in support of the war effort. Wouk enlisted in the army himself after Pearl Harbour, and served in the Navy in the Pacific. He fought in eight battles, won a bunch of medals, and rose to the rank of lieutenant. It was during this time that he wrote his first novel. He sent a copy to an old professor, who passed it on to a publisher, who sent Wouk a contract to his base near Okinawa. The book was published in 1947, shortly after Wouk returned from military service. It was an instant hit. Wouk’s second novel didn’t do so well, but his third, 1951’s The Caine Mutiny, sold a whopping three million copies, won a Pulitzer Prize, and was adapted to a Broadway play, followed by a Hollywood film. A few years later and after another bestseller (also made into a Hollywood film), Wouk was on the cover of TIME magazine. Throughout this time, he maintained strict observance of the Torah and was deeply religious. This was inspired by his grandfather, who taught Wouk the Torah and Talmud in his youth. Wouk would later state that his grandfather and the Navy were the two biggest influences in his life. In 1959, he wrote his first book of non-fiction, This is My God: The Jewish Way of Life. The book was credited with opening up Judaism to the American mainstream, enlightening the world about Jews, and helping to counter anti-Semitic myths. It also showed Jews that it was possible to be modern, American, and Orthodox. His third non-fiction book was about the interplay between religion and science. He also wrote a two-volume, 2000-page war drama likened to War and Peace. Altogether, Wouk wrote 21 books and plays, many of which were adapted into films or TV shows. His last was a memoir published when he was 100 years old. Wouk won countless awards and honourary degrees, and was described by the Library of Congress as an “American Tolstoy”. Stephen King wrote an award-winning short story called Herman Wouk is Still Alive. Wouk is considered by many to be the most successful Orthodox Jewish author to date. Sadly, Wouk passed away two weeks ago, just days shy of his 104th birthday, and in the middle of writing his newest book.

The Kabbalah of Exile and Terrorism

Words of the Week

That idea, that life is here purely for personal pleasure, that is a goal in life for a herd of swine.
– Albert Einstein

Jews of the Week: Volodymyr Groysman and Volodymyr Zelensky

Ukraine’s President and Prime Minister

Volodymyr Zelensky

Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelensky (b. 1978) was born in Ukraine to Jewish parents. As a child, he spent four years living in Mongolia where his father worked. While studying at school, he joined his local comedy troupe, and eventually made it to Ukraine’s national comedy team. They won the KVN comedy championship in 1997 (a pretty big deal in the former Soviet Union) and Zelensky, despite having a law degree, decided to pursue a full-time career in comedy. He created a new troupe, Kvartal 95, which continued to perform across Russia and Ukraine, and eventually got their own TV show in 2003. Five years later, Zelensky made it to the big screen, starring in his first feature film. In 2015, Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 produced a new series, Servant of the People, with Zelensky in the lead role playing a young high school teacher who surprisingly becomes Ukraine’s president. The show was hugely popular, and was renewed for two more seasons, and a film. Last year, Zelensky registered “Servant of the People” as a political party in Ukraine, and actually ran in its real-life elections earlier this year. As he toured the country during his campaign, he also continued to perform with Kvartal 95. Incredibly, Zelensky won the election in a landslide (winning 73% of the vote), and will be inaugurated this week as Ukraine’s 6th president. It is hoped that he will strengthen Ukraine’s economy, fight corruption, bring calm to the civil wars in the country’s east, and work towards greater independence from Russia. While it is too early to tell what kind of president he will be, many are already predicting that unfortunately (as has happened too often in history) if Zelensky will turn out to be a successful president he will be hailed as a great Ukrainian, and if he fails, they will call him a traitorous Jew.

Volodymyr Groysman

While Zelensky will be Ukraine’s first Jewish president, he is preceded by Ukraine’s first Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Borysovych Groysman (b. 1978). Groysman was born in the town of Vinnytsia, and worked in his father’s business growing up. While still studying law, he ran for city council in 2002 and won a seat. Shortly after graduating, he joined the Our Ukraine party, and the following year was elected mayor of Vinnytsia. Being just 28 years old, that made him the youngest mayor in Ukraine’s history. He was praised for his tremendous work and won re-election with 78% of the vote in 2010. Four years later, Groysman was appointed as Ukraine’s Minister of Regional Development, and several months after that, made chairman of the parliament. His popularity continued to rise quickly, and when the prime minister resigned in 2016 over corruption allegations, parliament elected Groysman as his replacement. Aged 38 years, he became Ukraine’s youngest-ever prime minister, and its first Jewish prime minister. He has worked diligently to combat corruption, and also supports greater integration with the West. Ukraine is now the only country in the world outside of Israel to have both a Jewish prime minister and a Jewish president.

Words of the Week

A person’s main vitality lies in his intellect. One who is not using his intellect to its full potential is considered asleep. Many people who seem to be alive are in fact sleeping their lives away.
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (Likutey Moharan I, 60:6)