Tag Archives: Broadway

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

Jew of the Week: Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman plays Orthodox girl Rifka in ‘New York, I Love You’

Netalee Hershlag (b. 1981) was born in Jerusalem to a Jewish-American mother and Israeli father with a mix of Russian, Austrian, Romanian, and Polish heritage. The family moved to the US when she was three years old, and young Natalie went to a Jewish day school. She spent most of her teenage years in New York, where she studied dance and ballet. When she was 11, an agent spotted her at a pizza parlour. Shortly after, she was cast alongside Britney Spears in a small role on a Broadway play. The following year, she was cast as twelve-year old orphan Mathilda Lando in the popular film Leon: the Professional. It was then that Natalie decided to use her grandmother’s maiden name, “Portman”. Her incredible performance launched her into stardom. Nonetheless, she made sure to reject all the highly sexualized roles she was being offered, later saying that “there’s a surprising preponderance of that kind of role for young girls. Sort of being fantasy objects for men, and especially this idealized purity combined with the fertility of youth… so I definitely shied away from it.” Indeed, she initially rejected a role in 1999’s Anywhere but Here because of a sex scene, and only accepted it when the script was rewritten without it. For this role, she would win a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Meanwhile, Portman wanted to get a proper education, even if it meant “ruining my career”. She skipped the premiere of Star Wars: Episode I (where she played beloved Queen Amidala, young mother of Luke and Leia Skywalker) to study for her high school exams, then enrolled in psychology studies at Harvard. Throughout her time there, she was a noted pro-Israel activist, and also served as Alan Dershowitz’s research assistant. Portman continued graduate studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, and has co-authored two scientific papers. (Even in high school she was a scientist, coming up with, and writing a paper titled, “A Simple Method to Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar”.) Portman was later a guest lecturer at Columbia University, and once said, “I’d rather be smart than a movie star.” Thankfully, she is both, with many of her films receiving rave reviews. 2006’s V for Vendetta inspired a whole movement, while 2010’s eye-opening Black Swan won her an Oscar for Best Actress. For the former film she had to shave her head, while the latter required 5 to 8 hours of dance training every day for 6 months. All in all, Portman has acted in, directed, or produced 42 films thus far. Meanwhile, the vegan Portman is an animal rights activist, and has produced an acclaimed film on cruel factory farming. She produced another to depict the plight of gorillas. She has also worked to combat poverty, and served as an Ambassador of Hope for a microlending fund, and an ambassador for Free the Children. She is a member of OneVoice, which strives to build bridges between Israelis and Palestinians. For her tireless work, last month Portman was awarded the $1 million Genesis Prize (“the Jewish Nobel Prize”), which she said would be donated primarily to support women’s causes. Portman has two children, and though she now lives in LA, has said that “my heart’s in Jerusalem. That’s where I feel at home.”

Words of the Week

Fighting evil is a very noble activity when it must be done. But it is not our mission in life. Our job is to bring in more light.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe