On a cold day in late March, I sat in room 103 of Harvard University’s Sever Hall with about 60 undergraduates, listening to Ruth Wisse talk about Avrom Sutzkever. A partisan and a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto, Sutzkever was one of the 20th century’s greatest Yiddish poets. The reading that day was of his surrealistic prose poem “Green Aquarium,” which Wisse, a small, gray-haired woman wearing a purple, smocklike jacket, had translated for her master’s thesis in the early 1960s. She explained how Sutzkever used the horrors of the Holocaust as a metaphor for the artistic process — “Walk over words as over a minefield,” he writes near the beginning — and how his conception of poetry as “the only credible alternative to barbarism” countered Theodor Adorno’s dictum, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” What she didn’t tell the roomful of undergrads, still sleepy after the recent spring break, is that Sutzkever was the reason she was teaching the class at all.
In fact it was Sutzkever who convinced Wisse, some 55 years earlier, to pursue a career teaching Yiddish literature, and it was his work she turned to when she went to Columbia University to study with Yiddish linguists Max and Uriel Weinreich. In the decades since that encounter Wisse has pioneered the academic study of Yiddish, first at McGill University, where she began her career, and then at Harvard, where she has been the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature for the past two decades. Now, after a half-century in the field, she is retiring from teaching and will finish her contract with the university in June. Although it’s unlikely that Wisse will disappear from public life — her penchant for right-wing political polemic has earned her as great a reputation as her literary work — she can look back on generations of scholars she nurtured as students, and at the development of an academic field she helped create.
I arrived at Harvard the previous afternoon to interview Wisse in her office at 6 Divinity Avenue, a dignified brick building that is home to both the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the university’s Semitic Museum. At 78, Wisse is, in a word, grandmotherly. Colleagues talk about her kindness as a friend, and students about her generosity as a mentor. Aaron Lansky, who studied with Wisse in Montreal before founding the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., told me how she once let a student undergoing personal difficulties stay with her in her home. Novelist Dara Horn recalled being invited to Wisse’s house for the final lecture of a course, only to find Saul Bellow waiting to greet the class at the table. When I met Wisse, she had just returned to Boston on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, but she talked with me for more than two hours without making me feel like I was overstaying my welcome. When I arrived, I found her looking for me outside her office, worried that I might have gotten lost amid the museum exhibits.
Yet Wisse becomes impassioned, even fierce, when discussing the subjects that matter to her most. Since 1976 she has been a regular contributor to Commentary magazine and has never hesitated to defend her views, or to attack those who oppose them. She once accused The New Yorker of “hate-mongering” when it came to Israel, and called The New York Review of Books “the Women’s Wear Daily of the American intelligentsia” for its “responsiveness to fashion.” Like most liberals, I disagree with many of her positions on Israel, feminism, American politics and other subjects. But for a journalist considerably her junior, challenging her on them was an intimidating prospect. It was a good thing that I was here to interview her about her career, I thought, not to win a political argument.