The Remarkable Career of Ruth Wisse, Yiddish Scholar and Political Firebrand

Harvard Prof's Neo-Con Views Often Stirred Controversy

Beneath the Placid Exterior: Ruth Wisse is a small, gray-haired woman who is not afraid to use sharp words; she once accused The New Yorker of “hate-mongering” when it came to Israel.
Ezra Glinter
Beneath the Placid Exterior: Ruth Wisse is a small, gray-haired woman who is not afraid to use sharp words; she once accused The New Yorker of “hate-mongering” when it came to Israel.

By Ezra Glinter

Published May 12, 2014, issue of May 16, 2014.
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For Wisse, however, personal, professional and political categories are not easily separated. She was born in Czernowitz, which was then part of Romania, and came to Canada in 1940 as a stateless refugee following the invasion of Romania by the Soviet Union. Her parents, Masha and Leo Roskies, had originally moved to the city from Vilna, where her maternal grandmother, Fradl Matz, had owned the famed publishing house Matz press, and where her father had studied chemical engineering at Stefan Batory University. In Czernowitz, her parents belonged to a group of German-speaking Zionists called Masada, and her father worked as the director of a rubber plant before fleeing the Communist takeover.

When they arrived in Montreal, Leo Roskies went into business running a textile factory with his brothers in nearby Huntingdon, Quebec, and the family moved into a comfortable brick duplex in a middle-class neighborhood of the city. Her parents were active in Montreal’s Yiddish literary community, and helped writers like J.J. Segal and Melech Ravitch publish their books by selling prepublication copies. When a volume came out, they would hold a party for the author in their home, featuring readings and discussion.

Wisse was influenced by the literary atmosphere of her parents’ house, as well as by the Yidishe Folks Shule, the politically and religiously centrist elementary school she attended as a child. The Folks Shule impressed her with the quality of its teachers — “the most talented people who ever went into Jewish education,” she calls them — as well as with its inclusive curriculum, which struck a middle ground between the city’s Yiddishist, Zionist, secular and religious schools.

“The Folks Shule made a phenomenal impression on me,” Wisse said. “It was never a choice of Yiddish or Hebrew — it was Yiddish and Hebrew. It was never a choice of religious or secular — it was holistic. Of course you were dedicated to the rise of the State of Israel. But did this mean you negated the Diaspora? Not at all. It was clear to us that the Jewish people is this entity and everything Jewish belongs in it.”

Since there was no Jewish high school in Montreal at the time, Wisse attended Strathcona Academy, a Protestant public school where the student body was almost entirely Jewish. She was an ambitious student. At Strathcona she was cast as the lead in the school operetta (Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Jury”), elected president of the student council and appointed mascot of the boys basketball team. When she went to study English at McGill University, she became the features editor of the McGill Daily and helped a young Leonard Cohen publish his first book of poetry. For a while Wisse wanted to become a journalist — she won an award from the Canadian Women’s Press Club in her third year — and later thought that she would pursue graduate studies in English. Sutzkever, however, provided the decisive influence.

By 1959, Wisse had graduated from McGill and was working as a press officer for the Canadian Jewish Congress. It was a good job, she said, which paid a healthy $65 a week, even if it wasn’t very stimulating. Wisse had met Sutzkever two years earlier on a honeymoon trip to Israel with her husband, Leonard Wisse, a lawyer whom she married in her last year of university. So when Sutzkever arrived in the city — he had originally planned to go to New York, but couldn’t get a visa to enter the United States — Wisse took the initiative of organizing his speaking tour. When she told him that she might pursue graduate studies in English, he asked her why not Yiddish. “I laughed aloud,” she later wrote. “And what would I do? Teach Sholem Aleichem?” A second later, she realized her faux pas: She had just insulted a literature she loved to one of its greatest practitioners. And why shouldn’t she teach Sholem Aleichem?

Actually, there was good reason to doubt she could teach Yiddish at a predominantly Anglo-Saxon university. In the first place, it had almost never been done. When she was an undergraduate at McGill, she wrote, “not a single course in any department offered instruction about the Jews.” Wisse was going to have to be a pioneer. For the next two years she attended Columbia University in New York, where she was able to study Yiddish texts as part of a comparative literature program, and where she was tutored by Max Weinreich, a linguist and founder of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. After receiving her master’s degree in 1961 with a translation and commentary on “Green Aquarium,” she returned to Montreal and finished her doctorate in English at McGill, taking, as she put it, “Beowulf, Old English, Middle English, the whole thing.”

For her dissertation, however, she turned back to Yiddish. “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero,” published as a book in 1971, was a landmark study of the now-famous character type and its role in Jewish literature. Wisse showed how the schlemiel was a reflection of Jewish culture in the Diaspora, and of its strategies for coping with persecution and powerlessness. Just as the Jewish people maintained its sense of self-respect despite the depredations of exile, so too the schlemiel, a hapless but morally pure character, maintained his dignity by denying the predatory value systems imposed from outside. “His sense of personal identity and worth is not seriously disrupted by the bombardment of environmental harassments,” Wisse writes. “The schlemiel represents the triumph of identity despite the failure of circumstance.”

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