Editor’s note: The late, great American novelist Herman Wouk, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 103, was widely acclaimed as one of the greatest American war novelists of all time. Through his novels, plays and historical works, Wouk not only introduced generations of readers to the history of the 20th century, but candidly invoked the moral choices facing humankind.

For decades Wouk turned to the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, for inspiration and guidance in his personal, communal and literary life. In private meetings and lengthy correspondences, the Rebbe challenged and encouraged the author to utilize his pen and position for the good of the Jewish people and humanity at large. When Wouk referred to his work in Jewish education as ‘modest acts’, the Rebbe rejected this appellation: “... [I]n wide segments … the impact of your ‘modest acts’ strikes deeper and wider than similar acts of a Rabbi or Rebbe (myself included) could attain, for obvious reasons.”

On the occasion of the Rebbe’s birthday in 1971, Wouk flew to London and delivered a speech at a benefit dinner held by the Lubavitch Foundation of the United Kingdom. When a reporter at the event assumed the popular novelist and playwright was fitting the talk in between engagements, Wouk clarified to him that he had flown in especially for the dinner and was flying back to Washington at its conclusion. What follows are recently discovered excerpts of Wouk’s speech that evening, which were contemporaneously published by the Lubavitch Foundation:

My grandfather was a Lubavitcher Chassid, the man to whom This Is My God is dedicated, and that is the real reason why I accepted this invitation and left my desk to cross an ocean to speak to you—to a group that I have never met before … .

Exactly a week ago tonight, I went to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I had never met the Rebbe before. I met his predecessor, who blessed me before I went out to serve in the Second World War. But I had not had the privilege of meeting his successor, though I had read many of his writings, of course … .

The Rebbe spoke to me for about one and a quarter hours. I want to try to tell you something about him because, make no mistake, his presence fills this room and any room where Lubavitch activity goes forward. This is a man who is a spiritual center of a world-wide movement.

It has been my fortune through my work to meet great men. I have met ministers of state, and I have spoken at length to heads of state—and Rabbi Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, is one of the most striking and impressive men that I have ever met.

You go into this small building, 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. I flew there from Washington and flew back again the same night. You are ushered into a small book-lined room. It is not a room for business. It is a study, and there he sits behind his large desk with a large clock ticking away as though to emphasize the extraordinary preciousness of his time, but he waves you to a chair with a regal yet simple gesture, and with a relaxation that indicates he has all the time in the world for you.

The first impression you have when you look at this man’s face, is one of personality of extraordinary intensity. He wears a black hat that you see on the heads of some of the members of the movement here, but it has a broad brim and the light falls only partly on his face so that his face, with intense close-set eyes and a beard going grey, gives him a presence of stern and extraordinary gravity, and a sense, too, that here is a man who carries the weight of a world—if not of the world—on his soul. This is a feeling that never quite leaves you all the time you speak to him, though he speaks simply, clearly, and even humorously.

Jan. 22, 1971, London Jewish Chronicle report on Herman Wouk's talk at the Lubavitch Foundation's benefit dinner.
Jan. 22, 1971, London Jewish Chronicle report on Herman Wouk's talk at the Lubavitch Foundation's benefit dinner.

At one moment Rabbi Schneerson was talking about a point of Jewish Law that was ironic and amusing and he sat back in his chair and laughed. The light fell full on his face, and all the shadows vanished, and there was the pale, beautiful face of my grandfather—serene, at peace with the world and with God, and full of simple warmth and love. He leaned forward and returned to his subject and the black hollows on his face reappeared … .

. . I suggest that what we have to do now is to reach out our hands to each other and say: What can I learn from you? What can [we] learn from [each other]? How can you help? How can I help? And how can we go forward together? In this grave crisis of our survival, and in this great intellectual and cultural crisis, we need light and chizuk—strength—from wherever it can come. Lubavitch has proved on the record with their education of the young, with their network of crusading religion and education all over the world, and with their encounters with each of us, that they have something to give.

The Jewish people and the Jewish destiny are my life. In my considered judgment, Lubavitch has made, is making, and will continue to make a substantial contribution to the coming renaissance and redemption of the Jewish people, and on that basis are entitled to your support. That they can help each of us, as my grandfather once helped me, to find our way to that ladder that Moses built—Toras Moshe for the assimilated Jew—which he mounted first, and the rungs of which, with God’s help, we will all set our feet and rise.

When I think, when all is said and done, what I owe to Lubavitch—the inspiration that resulted in the writing of This Is My God; the impulse to personal religious living which has made my family life of continuous light, closeness and pleasure; and the outlook which has shaped my work and, for good and ill, made my novels different and peculiar to me. When I think of all this, then it seems to me that these few halting words that I have spoken in praise of Lubavitch are a very little thing for me to have done, but that your inviting me here to speak these words is an honor—and for that honor, with all my heart, I thank you.

Note: As of this writing, Wouk’s speech from that evening in London has not been found in its entirety. A Jan. 22, 1971, report in London’s Jewish Chronicle (an image of which is included above), however, contains a few more quotes from that evening:

“In the free world, we don’t have to choose between being citizens and Jews,” Wouk urged the gathered. “Society respects more those of us who stand up to be counted as Jews.”

Then, in reference to Chabad-Lubavitch’s achievements and the reason for its success, he added:

“The three main features of the movement are intensity, integrity and a joy in being Jewish. This is what attracts the young, and this is what made me—as a man and a writer—a follower of Lubavitch.”

Herman Wouk addressing a Washington, D.C., audience during Celebration 75, which marked the Rebbe's 75th birthday in 1977. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey looks on. (Photo: Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan/A Chassidishe Derher)
Herman Wouk addressing a Washington, D.C., audience during Celebration 75, which marked the Rebbe's 75th birthday in 1977. Former Vice President Hubert Humphrey looks on. (Photo: Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan/A Chassidishe Derher)