‘Marjorie Morningstar’ Book Club Guide
When Hadassah Magazine asked readers, authors and scholars about their favorite novels by or about Jewish women, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar was one of the most frequently mentioned. The coming-of-age tale about the dreams, loves and choices of Jewish New Yorker Marjorie Morgenstern, originally published in 1955, remains a beloved classic today. While some of the themes might seem outdated, its depiction of first love and the struggles and joys of young womanhood as well as its affectionate, comedic take on upwardly mobile middle-class Jews of the mid-20th century has enthralled generations of women.
With its romance and descriptions of a Catskills summer, Marjorie Morningstar is also the perfect summer read, which is why we’ve chosen it for our August One Book, One Hadassah national book club selection. Join us on August 11 at 7 p.m. ET as award-winning journalist and author Sandee Brawarsky discusses Marjorie Morningstar and other classics with a distinguished panel of authors, including Rachel Kadish, author of The Weight of Ink; Nessa Rapoport, author of Evening; and Paula Marantz Cohen, author of Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have a book group, now’s the time to start one! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about Marjorie Morningstar and other seminal novels after the interview. To facilitate those discussions, we present the following discussion guide.
Book Club Questions
- Marjorie Morningstar opens with Rose, Marjorie’s mother, musing about the changing mores of courtship as she observes her daughter sleeping. How does Rose both typify and defy the stereotype of the middle-class Jewish mother? Discuss teenage rebellion and the conflict between the generations as shown in the book, especially in Marjorie’s relationship with her mother. How does that relationship evolve?
- For those who have read the book before: When did you first read Marjorie Morningstar? Has your connection to or views of the characters changed in any way today? Why or why not?
- How does Marjorie view her female friends, from her college acquaintances to Marsha Zelenko? Would you describe Marsha as a supportive friend? What do you think about Wouk’s depictions of female friendship?
- Discuss Noel Airman’s attitude toward women, Jewish women in particular, and toward the Jewish community and religion. Why did he change his name? And how does his name—as well as Samson-Aaron’s, Mike Eden’s and others’ in the book—foreshadow events and hint at the characters’ personalities?
- Marjorie has been alternately described by critics as precursor to the “Jewish American Princess” stereotype and as a proto-feminist. In Wouk’s novel, she is accused by Noel of being a “Shirley” and yet defies his description of that type of Jewish woman. How would you describe Marjorie? Is her ambition considered positive within the book? How do her choices reflect the social mores of her time? Reimagine the character set in contemporary times: How would she change? What would remain the same?
- Many themes in Marjorie Morningstar are considered timeless—the clash of generations, traditional values versus assimilation into American society, classism and upward mobility. Nevertheless, some of the book’s descriptions and values are rooted in the 1950’s era of its publication. Which values, assumptions and descriptions in the book do you find dated? Which have withstood the test of time?
- The uncle—Samson-Aaron—is initially shown as a buffoon, an embarrassing figure with a thick Yiddish accent. How does the reader’s perception of him change? Describe Marjorie’s connection to him. What role does he play in the family and in Marjorie’s life?
- Marjorie’s happy interlude on the sea voyage to Europe is striking. On the ship, she meets an engaging man whom she finds to be an intellectual equal. It is also the first time that Hitler, Nazism, even antisemitism is noted in any detail. Discuss Marjorie’s experiences on the ship and how they affect her and her relationship with Noel. What do you think about her reactions toward reading the news, particularly articles about Nazi Germany?
- The conflict between Jewish values, rooted in family and tradition, and modern attitudes is a running theme throughout the novel. How do Seth’s bar mitzvah, the family seder and wedding scenes reflect that conflict? How does Marjorie’s view of Jewish tradition change as she gets older? What do you think the author is saying about traditional Jewish culture?
- What do you make of the ending of the book? Did Marjorie make the right decision? Why do you think Wouk wrote that coda from Wally’s perspective?