Orthodox authors exchange views

WASHINGTON — When two members of Orthodox Kesher Israel, a Georgetown synagogue, speak — many people listen.

At least, that was the case recently when the participants happened to be two giants of the American Jewish community.

A discussion between Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and author Herman Wouk on their new books, the state of Israel affairs and other Jewish topics drew a crowd of more than 200 people to the downtown Grand Hyatt.

Wouk, who is known for such major works as "Winds of War," "Marjorie Morningstar" and "This Is My God" said he wrote his latest book for young Jewish adults and new parents who are questioning the meaning of their own — or their children's — Jewish identity.

The core of his book, "A Will to Live On: This Is Our Heritage," is a review of the 3,000-year perilous history of the Jewish people. Wouk noted that the will to survive is a plain fact of Jewish character, but said he is worried about the depth and strength of the American Jewish community, especially now that Israel is becoming more stable politically.

Lieberman characterized Wouk's new work as being more optimistic about Israel's future than it was of Diaspora Jewry.

Wouk replied that while he was excited by the growth of Kesher Israel, Orthodoxy still comprises only 10 percent of the American Jewish community. Wouk further described the non-Orthodox U.S. Jewish community as a glass of hot tea in which the sugar gradually dissolves without even being aware that it's happening. Increasing Jewish education is necessary to rectify this, he said.

On the other hand, Wouk said, even though not all of Israel is made up of Orthodox Jews, their impact on the Jewish community is vastly different for both nations. Wouk told of a secular Jew who once said to him, "I'm here, I'm home, I'm a Jew, I speak Hebrew, I'm 100 percent Jewish."

Lieberman, rather than speak much about his own book, "In Praise of Public Life," chose to explore much of Wouk's themes, as well as his own recent trip to Israel. He agreed with Wouk that education is a key component of Jewish survival.

Wouk, in turn, praised Lieberman's new book as a work that would inspire young people to go into politics.

As for the Middle East, Lieberman said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has a very hardheaded vision, not an idealistic or romantic vision, that reflects the majority of Israeli opinion wanting peace with security.

Lieberman likened the political situation in Israel to the current predicament of the United States, which has an electorate that is primarily moderate but a Congress polarized by extremes.

It may be easier for Barak to win a referendum [on a peace treaty] than to hold the government together, he said, because the Knesset is also dominated by extremists on both sides.

Lieberman added that all sides he met with told him they trusted President Clinton and believed "he understands the needs of my people." Lieberman was not sure whether that was a good sign.