Herman Wouk’s ‘The Lawgiver’ Marks Return to Form

At 97, a Writer Remembers the Past

By Rachel Gordan

Published November 26, 2012, issue of November 30, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

Readers on both sides of the Atlantic were very willing to say. “Damned nearly the great American Novel; certainly it’s closer to that illusory target than anything since Dreiser,” The London Spectator wrote of Wouk’s story of “almost Middlemarch length and certainly with all of George Eliot’s seriousness.” The American novelist John Marquand called Marjorie, “As much a part of American tradition as Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Boone.”

Closer to home, critiquing Wouk’s story about the bourgeois of New York’s Jewish society became popular sport. Both Jewish intellectuals and leaders of the American Jewish establishment voiced their misgivings. They either felt, as Saul Bellow did, that Wouk glorified a vacuous and mindless Jewish middle-class or, as New York’s Rabbi Louis Newman sermonized, that Wouk had mocked American Jewish religious practice. (A bar-mitzvah scene in “Marjorie,” with its thousands of dollars worth of food and drink and mounds of chopped liver, foreshadowed Philip Roth’s 1959 depiction of a Jewish wedding in “Goodbye, Columbus.” Both scenes met with rabbinic disapproval.) Ten years later, in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” Roth had drastically altered the standards of parodying American Jews.

The battle lines of American Jewish fiction have shifted over time, and for a couple of decades, the women’s movement cooled readers’ ardor for Marjorie — a character who did not jibe with feminist aspirations. But around the turn of the century, Marjorie won her readers back. In the early 2000s, Scarlett Johannson spoke enthusiastically about the possibility of starring in a remake of the original movie. The actress explained her attachment to the story in terms that made Scarlett seem every inch the every-girl that Wouk had set out to create. After her mother gave Johannson a copy of the book at age 17, “I read it and thought, “Oh my god, this is me.”

With some important adjustments to the original, Wouk’s current portrait of a young Jewish lady returns to his trademark 19th-century style of storytelling. The book is composed mostly of emails, texts, and Skype conversations between Wouk, his wife (who died while Wouk completed this novel and whose photograph appears at the end of the novel), and movie producers, directors, and writers. Replacing Marjorie, the aspiring actress and Hunter college graduate, is a slightly older writer-director and Barnard graduate, Margo Solovei, who has broken from her religious background (but continues to draw her best material from it, like so many of today’s fine Jewish writers). In Marjorie, Noel Airman and Wally Wronken were the novel’s artists; in “The Lawgiver,” it is Margo.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • "You wouldn’t send someone for a math test without teaching them math." Why is sex ed still so taboo among religious Jews?
  • Russia's playing the "Jew card"...again.
  • "Israel should deal with this discrimination against Americans on its own merits... not simply as a bargaining chip for easy entry to the U.S." Do you agree?
  • For Moroccan Jews, the end of Passover means Mimouna. Terbhou ou Tse'dou! (good luck) How do you celebrate?
  • Calling all Marx Brothers fans!
  • What's it like to run the Palestine International Marathon as a Jew?
  • Does Israel have a racism problem?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.