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When I put the question to Wisse, she answered by telling me about “Di Klyatshe,” or “The Nag,” a novel by Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, otherwise known as Mendele Moykher-Sforim, the first major modern Yiddish writer. In the novel, Abramovitsh tells the story of a beat-up mare that had once been a human being, an allegorical symbol for the once proud, now downtrodden Jewish people. When the hero of the story, Isrolik, encounters the mare, he offers his help as a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But when he writes to his fellow members, they say that the mare must first clean herself up and learn to dance. When he tells her this, she replies that “the dance cannot precede the food.” Only once her basic needs have been met can she consider other forms of self-improvement.
“In other words,” Wisse continued, “unless you give me human rights and, in the Jewish case, national rights, that precedes anything that we give. That’s difficult for us because we’re a minority used to accommodating. We’ve never learned it had to precede anything else. You can’t win it. You can’t earn it. This is our major task, and I don’t want to be deflected.”
As with many of Wisse’s arguments, I remain conflicted. Although she’s not wrong, she seems to ignore the experiences of people unlike herself, who may have suffered different injustices or faced different problems. I have heard almost identical speeches about the precedence of human rights from Palestinians, and they aren’t wrong, either. Literary critic Adam Kirsch once described liberalism as “the doctrine of complexity and possibility,” and these are the characteristics that draw me to it, despite its flaws. Wisse seems to feel that acknowledging complicating factors would detract from her arguments, and sees her determination not to be deflected as a strength. I am not so sure.
At the end of our conversation, Wisse called her husband for a lift, and I packed up my notebook and tape recorder from among the papers and books scattered over the table. What struck me then, as I headed out into the brisk New England evening, was not our particular disagreements, but the intimacy of our conversation. Though I tried to avoid an outright argument — that wasn’t the purpose of the interview, and besides, I was severely outmatched — she made me feel at ease expressing my views, even as she passionately argued her own. It made me regret that she was retiring, and that the opportunity to study with her had passed. What I experienced in a couple of hours has been the good fortune of her students and colleagues for decades, and those I talked to all expressed the transformative effect she has had on their lives.
Of course, Ruth Wisse isn’t departing the stage just yet. She may have finished teaching, at least in a classroom setting. Now it’s her children and grandchildren who will benefit most from her warmth and generosity. But if her reading of Jewish history is any indication, the argument is never over.