By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Reporter, Vestal NY 

Making a movie about Moses


Herman Wouk dreamed of writing a novel about the biblical Moses since the 1950s. In 2000, he noted that “‘The Lawgiver’ remains unwritten. I never found the way to do it.” When trying to work on the manuscript, he was never able to answer some basic questions: From whose point of view should it be told? How can anyone portray not only the greatest leader in Jewish history, but the miracles performed by him under God’s command? Yet, even in his 90s, Wouk never stopped thinking about the novel. That led him to finally write a version of “The Lawgiver” (Simon and Schuster) in a format his younger self couldn’t have possibly imagined.

Instead of straight narrative, Wouk uses e-mails, faxes, text messages, snail mail, meeting minutes and recordings of conferences to tell the story. The length of these range from a few lines to several pages. Although the book may not contain a cast of thousands, there are numerous characters and subplots that appear, disappear and then reappear unexpectedly. Fortunately, the major plot lines are easy to follow, although sometimes the prose moved so quickly, I had to remind myself whom a particular character was.

However, this means that “The Lawgiver” isn’t really a novel about Moses. Instead, it serves as a behind-the-scenes look at the people involved in financing and creating a movie about Moses. They include several financiers (one of whom is an eccentric Australian multi-billionaire), a film executive who needs a hit movie to keep his studio alive, an actor who decides he’d rather be a sheep farmer and Margo Solovei, a screenwriter who rejected her ultra-Orthodox upbringing in order to write for the theater and film. Two other not-so-minor characters are Wouk himself and his wife, Bette Sarah. This allows Wouk to talk about his attempt to write his novel, while at the same time, letting readers know how the story of Moses could be told, at least in film.

Although the novel is ostensibly about the making of the film, its main focus is Margo. It not only follows her attempts to write a film script good enough to get a green light, but her relationship with her once boyfriend, Josh, who re-enters her life when she needs legal advice. There’s also a question about whether or not she can find a way to integrate her Jewish background with her current life in the arts, which might allow her to reconcile with her father, an ultra-Orthodox Bobover rabbi.

The sections dealing with Margo’s relationship with Josh were my favorite parts of the novel. Margo notes that their problems began when the modern Orthodox Josh tried to open her eyes to contemporary society. Unfortunately, Margo “could only take a fierce stand on strict tradition or nothing.” That meant that “when I dropped the religion, I really dropped it.” Josh, though, still hopes to rekindle their romance. However, their relationship gets more complicated when a former religious school classmate writes to Margo about seeing Josh with another woman. The plot complications caused by this letter were funny and clever.

There is one problem for movie lovers: While we read about the film, we never get to see it. Of course, that’s to Wouk’s advantage. The film created by readers’ imaginations is undoubtably far better than one Hollywood could produce.

Wouk ends his tale the same way that “nineteenth century novelists (I’ve been called the last of them)” concluded their works: “with a sizeable time lapse and a brief rounding out of the characters’ later lives.” This epilogue is satisfying and, in one case, very moving. While “The Lawgiver” may never rank as one of Wouk’s major novels, it’s certainly one of the most fun to read.


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