Reading Herman Wouk
There are authors whose books you read -- you like some, you understand some -- but neither the books nor the author become an important component of your life. There is an exception to this general rule: Herman Wouk and his books.
Most of us can gauge our development from youth into maturity by books of Herman Wouk that we read at certain periods in our lives. When we read Marjorie Morningstar we were certainly less mature than when we read The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. The same is true of Wouk's other books. And of how many authors can we say that his religious insights and assessments were close to those contained in the sacred books in our libraries? Yet that is what we can say about his book, This is My G-d.
The publication of a new Wouk book is therefore a solemn occasion, one that calls on us once again to find our own world in the author's. His last book, The Hope -- which traced the creation of Israel and its history up to the Yom Kippur War -- put us in the mind-frame of participating in the very historic political and military events that took place so recently in our lifetime. His latest book, The Glory, continues Israel's story with the events that have occurred from the Yom Kippur War on, again putting us in touch with our own lives.
I know of two definitions of the pursuit of the study of history. One was given by the German poet Wolfgang von Goethe, who said, "The best that history offers us is an enthusiasm for life." The other was by the German historian Ranke, who said: "The writer of history must be able to present events as they actually took place." Wolf has the gift to offer us both sides of historical writing. For, although The Glory, as many of his works, is dressed in the clothes of fiction, it chronicles the key events in Israel's miraculous history. It aims mainly to take us back into the very moments when great leaders, known to us all, made decisions and performed deeds of heroism that helped preserve the Jewish people. And Herman Wouk makes each moment live so dramatically and realistically that we feel with certainty that what we are reading is being presented -- in Ranke's language -- "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" ("as it actually took place").
But he also fills us with enthusiasm and pride for our nation and its history, as Goethe anticipated. And Wouk offers each an opportunity to add in his own mind those details that he himself experienced and which the author may not have included in the epic. Whether he talks of the Cherbourgh escape of Israeli gunboats or of the fatal days and hours of the Yom Kippur War and Gen. Arik Sharon's miraculous victory or of the Entebbe raid, you are there, you re-live what you knew at the time, you even can add in your mind supplementary details.
For example, when Wouk describes the breathless tension of the escape of gunboats, heading for Israel without French permission from the French port of Cherbourgh, Wouk wonders what Norway has to do with this event. In my own mind I remember clearly the missing piece to the puzzle. A Norwegian shipbuilder by the name of Ole Siem, who, as a fervent friend of Israel, was able to give the boats the cover they needed by registering them as neutral ships heading for a Central American port -- instead of for Haifa. And why Siem? I got to know him in Oslo when I visited his shipyard on business, and Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Agriculture, was there to buy fishing boats for Israel. Siem became a passionate friend and admirer of Israel. He told me, "We Norwegians have been seafarers and fishermen for 2,000 years, and now Israelis, who never had a fishing fleet in 2,000 years, come to us and teach us things about fishing that we never knew." So out of admiration and respect, he made himself available to help the ships escape from France to Israel, as described vividly in The Glory.
In Wouk's graphic description of the Entebbe raid, starting from the preparation of the miraculous rescue operation, he lists some of the ruses used by Israel to put the Ugandans at ease and thereby create the element of surprise. Israel announced a day before the rescue operation that its government had given in to the demands of the PLO terrorists and would release PLO prisoners held in Israeli jails. With that news the terrorists celebrated a victory and lulled themselves into complacency and inaction. But there was another similar ruse used that Wouk does not mention. I myself was used by the then Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin to enter into negotiations with Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator and patron of the hijack, to ransom the hostages. I succeeded in making contact with Idi Amin, who promptly agreed with my ransom offer and consented to meet me at Entebbe airport on July 4 at 1:30 p.m. (the very hour when the Israeli air rescuers would already be back in Tel Aviv with the rescued hostages -- less Yoni Netanyahu, the fabled brother of Benyamin Netanyahu). The lure of a hefty ransom was more overpowering than anything else. (The only catch was that Rabin did not bother to tell me to abort my Entebbe trip. Had my late son not called me with the report of the dramatic rescue, I would not be alive today to write this column!)
A very gripping chapter of The Glory deals with Syria's surprise attack against the Golan Heights, which had been in Israel's hands since the Six Day War. Wouk describes the outstanding heroism of Gen. Kahalani, who almost single-handedly stemmed the onslaught of the superior Syrian tank force and thereby saved the country. Wouk's conclusion, Kahalani saved Israel from being overrun by the Syrians. This fierce battle against the Syrian invaders is a powerful argument against giving up even a small part of the Golan Heights, as Rabin seems hell-bent to do, contrary to his own campaign platform that "anyone who gives up the Golan Heights, gives up Israel's security." Nobody can understand Rabin's about-face on such a fundamental strategic consideration. There are serious political observers who have concluded that Rabin is a puppet in the hands of an unseen but immensely powerful power clique represented by Henry Kissinger and David Rockefeller, who have an agenda totally oblivious to Israel's security needs. How they have turned Rabin into a willing tool who acts against his better judgement as if drugged, has yet to be disclosed.
Kahalani is not only a hero in Wouk's eyes, he is today a hero in Israel, not only to his fellow settlers on the Golan -- mostly members of the Labor party -- but of all who know Israel's history. Kahalani once showed me his patched up legs, which Israeli surgeons laboriously put together from the thoroughly wounded limbs that survived Syrian bombardments. No wonder he is totally opposed to Rabin. How could a man who offered his very life to hold the Golan Heights now become a traitor to his own self?
Arik Sharon is pictured by Wouk as the supreme military genius, who could have won the Yom Kippur War in the first days, had not the endless bureaucracy and infighting of the Labor government hampered him. Only after his tireless defense of his brilliant strategy, did the Labor bosses grudgingly allow him to proceed with the crossing of the Suez Canal into Egypt. One of the frustrated characters in Wouk's book exclaims: "Throw out that Labor gang and get some real leadership." These words could and should, of course, be said today!
So mindful of the hazards of attacks by the Arabs, Israel's sworn enemies, Wouk's verdict on the current so-called "peace process" is of course of cardinal importance. In a lecture he recently gave on the cable TV network, C-SPAN, he said, "If it works, I am for it. If not, I am against it." Well, unfortunately we know that it does not work. Wouk should be looked up to as a reliable political analyst whose verdict is a clear: "I am against the `peace process.'"
Wouk's personal life is inspiring. I remember most clearly, of all my recollections of him, the occasion when he attended a shiur (class) by Rav Soloveitchik, at the Moriah Shul on Broadway and 80th Street in Manhattan. As usual the hall was filled to standing-room only capacity, and the Rav was in the midst of one of his ingenious discourses -- when suddenly Herman Wouk shot up and stood erect for the Minchah Amidah. I thought it was a wonderful demonstration of personal piety and discipline. His family background had a lot to do with his personal warm observance of Torah and Mitzvot. His mother, who was a real "Eshet Chayil" ("Woman of Valor")) and who was active in the family business - fishing and seafood -- often attended service in the Fifth Avenue Synagogue, which her son had helped found over 40 years ago. My daughter would often walk her from shul to her apartment on Central Park South. My daughter never ceased expressing her love and admiration for Mrs. Wouk, who exuded the warmth and consideration of a real "Yiddishe Mama." The apple, as they say, never falls far from the tree...
The Glory is certainly a book that is bound to become a classic. It should be required reading for anyone interested in finding out "wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" in the heroic chapters in Israel's and the Jewish people's history. We must thank Mr. Wouk for taking out several years to painstakingly research every aspect of the events he describes, which he embellishes minimally, as is the prerogative of a novelist.
There is an urgent implied message in Wouk's book: Do not let glib politicians take away from us our Land for which so much blood, tears, heroism and patriotism were sacrificed. It is the Land that is our very own glorious history and patrimony. Therefore, the name of the book, The Glory, is more than apt.
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