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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Wisse wasn’t interested in just reading and writing about Yiddish literature herself — she wanted to teach it as well. In 1968, shortly before receiving her doctorate, she began instructing a small group of students as part of McGill’s newly founded Jewish studies program. It wasn’t as hard a sell as it once was. Universities were then undergoing a period of rapid expansion, and Jewish studies was one of the beneficiaries of that movement. “It was that ‘eureka’ moment,” Wisse told me. “I saw that rather than being the 100th scholar of Shakespeare or Samuel Johnson, I could take this amazing body of literature and culture and move it into the mainstream.” Less than a year after she started teaching, the Association for Jewish Studies was founded, in 1969.

Wisse benefited from the fact that she was in Montreal, a city where there was still a significant Yiddish-speaking population, and where she could draw students who knew the language from home. She also started attracting students from abroad, like Lansky, who heard about her program from a professor at Hampshire College who handed him a copy of “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.” “I just read the book through until evening,” he said. “I was so taken with this, I said, ‘This is the person with whom I need to study.’”

Both at McGill and at Harvard, where she was hired in 1993, Wisse earned a reputation as a devoted teacher who gained not just students, but acolytes. Jeremy Dauber, the Atran Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Columbia, said that taking classes with her “was and remains one of the most intellectually stimulating and exciting experiences of my life.” Lansky calls her “one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known,” and describes being in her class, studying Sholem Aleichem, when “she started reading a section… and before you know it she was crying and the whole class was crying… and she made no apologies for that.” Horn, who studied with her both as a Harvard undergraduate and as a doctoral student, said that “the interaction she had with the students was unprecedented for someone at that level, for a tenured professor at Harvard.”

Wisse has been recognized repeatedly for her teaching and her scholarship, and not just by her students. Her book “The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture,” published in 2000, received the National Jewish Book Award, and in 2007 she was given a National Humanities Medal for being “a tireless advocate for a nearly lost literature.” Her skills as an essayist have been less celebrated, but over the years she has published exceptional personal essays about her parents and family, her literary mentors and her years in Montreal and New York. Her prose is unerringly balanced, her tone measured, and her style characterized by what Horn called “clarity as its own form of beauty.” In describing her life and the lives of those close to her, Wisse has become one of the most articulate chroniclers of Jewish experience in the past 50 years.

If her merits as a writer have been overlooked, however, it is probably because of her politics. In essays and in books like “If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews” (1992) and “Jews and Power” (2008), Wisse has pursued a hard neo-Conservative line on social, cultural and political issues. She has angered feminists by arguing in favor of traditional marriage and gender roles, and Yiddishists by writing about how maintaining Yiddish was a utopian project at odds with historical Jewish attitudes toward language. Reflecting the experience of her family, she has condemned Jewish participation in Communism and has highlighted Jewish culpability for its crimes. Most of all, she has been one of the most forceful conservative voices in support of Israel, arguing that criticism of the state repeats ingrained habits of Jewish accommodationism and self-blame.

There is a lot to commend Wisse’s political writings, as well as reason for misgivings. Her historical judgment is unaffected by nostalgia, which is a valuable attribute in a field like Yiddish, with its tendency toward sentimentality. But this can also result in a vehemence that seems misplaced when it comes to battles over issues like communism, which are long finished. (In our conversation, she compared Jewish critics of Israel to the Yevsektsiya, the Jewish wing of the Soviet Communist Party. Her point was only that critical engagement is not an inherent good, but the analogy still stung.) Her hardheaded conservatism is a welcome check on liberal pieties, but it can also drift toward reaction, and the adoption of ideas along party lines. In a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, she defended venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who compared leftist rhetoric about “the one percent” to Kristallnacht, by arguing that there is a “structural connection” between the two. The most interesting aspect of Wisse’s politics isn’t their provocations, however — it’s their continuity with her readings of literature and history.

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