Wouk was born in the Bronx, the second of three children born to Esther (née Levine) and Abraham Isaac Wouk, Russian Jewish immigrants from what is today Belarus. His father toiled for many years to raise the family out of poverty before opening a successful laundry service.
When Wouk was 13, his maternal grandfather, Mendel Leib Levine, came from Minsk to live with them and took charge of his grandson's Jewish education. Wouk was frustrated by the amount of time he was expected to study the Talmud, but his father told him that "if I were on my deathbed, and I had breath to say one more thing to you, I would say 'Study the Talmud.'" Eventually Wouk took this advice to heart. After a brief period as a young adult during which he lived a secular life, he returned to religious practice. Judaism would become integral to both his personal life and his career. He would later say that his grandfather and the United States Navy were the two most important influences on his life.
After his childhood and adolescence in the Bronx and a high school diploma from the original Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 19 from Columbia University in 1934, where he was a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity and served as editor of the university's humor magazine, Columbia Jester, and wrote two of its annual variety shows. Soon thereafter, he became a radio dramatist, working in David Freedman's "Joke Factory" and later with Fred Allen for five years and then, in 1941, for the United States government, writing radio spots to sell war bonds.