By Gerard Leval
Last week, America lost one of the last giants of post-World War II literature. Herman Wouk died in Palm Springs, Calif., at the age of 103. He was not only among the greatest novelists of our time, but he was also, and very importantly, an observant and proud Jew.
It is in this latter capacity that I grew to know, admire and have genuine affection for Herman Wouk. For a number of years, he and I both worshipped at Kesher Israel, the small Orthodox synagogue on N Street in Georgetown. Wouk and his wife, Sarah, arrived in Georgetown in 1974 and his attendance at Kesher was hardly an accident. When seeking out a home in Washington, Wouk had indicated to his real estate broker that he did not wish to live more than a half mile from Kesher Israel. In other words, he made it clear that he would only purchase a house within walking distance of the synagogue in order to appropriately observe Shabbat and the holidays.
In Wouk’s last book, “Sailor and Fiddler” (2015), a gentle reminiscence of the highlights of his literary life, he noted his affection for Kesher, writing, “The little old synagogue at one end of N Street was our kind of shul.”
During the years that Wouk and his wife lived in Washington, he was a stalwart attendee at Kesher. He frequently went to morning minyan and he regularly attended Shabbat services. As an attendee, he was not a passive observer. Fluent in Orthodox tradition, he regularly ascended to the bimah to participate in services, often chanting the haftarah in his own understated manner. He also served as a trustee of the congregation for a number of years.
When I first walked through the doors of Kesher Israel, in 1982, I had only a vague sense of the significance of Herman Wouk in the pantheon of American literature. Over the course of the years, I began to know him, not just as a prominent and internationally renowned author and literary personality, but as an observant Jew, as a thoughtful individual and as a kind man. This awareness grew as I observed him in deep and serious prayer and as I engaged with him in casual conversations on
occasional walks home from shul. I also had the pleasure of exchanging many emails with him in his later years, after he had left Washington and moved to Palm Springs.
It was an honor to know Wouk and a privilege to exchange ideas and discuss literature with him. Sometimes while talking to him about his novels, it was as though I was discussing David Copperfield or Oliver Twist with Charles Dickens. I was aware that I was fortunate to be speaking with one of the greatest storytellers of our time, who also happened to be a profoundly decent human being.
I will always cherish a special moment with Herman and Sarah Wouk. My wife and I had invited them to join Sen. Joe Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, for a Rosh Hashanah lunch at our home. After lunch, the six of us walked down to the large free-flowing ponds in our community of Hillandale and engaged in the ritual of Tashlich, the symbolic casting of sins into the water. It was a particularly moving
moment, as we recited the prayers that had been uttered by our ancestors over the course of countless generations and initiated a process of purification, while standing in the heart of the capital of the United States.
Herman Wouk will be remembered as a prominent member of a generation of great American Jewish writers who helped to highlight the unique contributions of the Jewish spirit to our American culture
generally. And, I will remember him as fellow member of the little old shul in Georgetown and as a friend who immeasurably enriched my life.
Gerard Leval is an attorney in Washington and has been attending services at Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown for 37 years.