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

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.

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.”

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.

Since biblical times, Wisse writes, Jews have attributed political and military setbacks to their disobedience to God, and have had faith that He will eventually bring about the redemption. Although this belief might seem self-defeating, directing Jewish energies inward rather than toward their enemies, it enabled the Jewish people to retain a conception of themselves as actors in history rather than as mere victims. At the same time, Jews’ defensive position required them to live among their neighbors without seeking to dominate them. “I’m a very great believer in Jewish civilization, because Jews can live among others,” Wisse told me. “That they are not universalizing is sometimes considered a fault, but in fact, not everyone has to be like them.”

Yet Wisse resists the temptation to romanticize Jewish suffering. In literature she points to the difference between Sholem Aleichem, who showed that life can be rich even amid poverty, and Avrom Reyzen, who turned poverty itself into a positive value. Similarly, she writes, Jews may have had a moral superiority over their oppressors, but that is no reason to fetishize powerlessness for its own sake. In several of her books, she quotes as a cautionary example a joke from the Warsaw Ghetto, in which one Jew says to the other, “God forbid that this war should last as long as we are able to endure it.” In other words, just because we can doesn’t mean we should have to.

When it come to Israel, she argues, the tendency to look inward for a solution to conflict is a repetition of diasporic accommodationism, “whereby Jews tried to win protection by proving their value… through exemplary behavior and proofs of service.” Such a strategy may have had its place when it came to survival, but it’s hardly an ideal. And the inclination to blame Israel for the hostility against it repeats the mistake of the Enlightenment, which, no sooner had it opened the door for Jews to join non-Jewish society, faulted them for being successful at doing so. Here too, no sooner had the world granted Jews the rights of national sovereignty than it turned around and condemned them for exercising those very rights.

“I would say that the longer the war against the Jews lasts, the more Jews are going to blame themselves for it,” Wisse said. “They cannot find the solution in other people, because they cannot really affect them, so they have the comfort of finding the solution in themselves. They think, if only I’d cut my peyes and learned German, and behaved differently, and if only I had gotten my fellow Jews to behave differently, it would have solved the problem. We have been through this in so many iterations, and the best people have thought this.”

It’s hard to deny that Wisse has a point. But her perspective also has limits she doesn’t acknowledge. Perhaps I would feel as she does had I lived through the first decades of Israel’s existence and the aftermath of the Six Day War, when much of the liberal world turned against it. I certainly felt similarly during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009, when worldwide protest against Israel reached such a fever pitch that it made me, for the first time in my life, concerned for the long-term safety of Diaspora Jewry. But is Wisse’s argument a valid response to a situation in which Israel seems to be prolonging its military rule over Palestinians rather than extricating itself from a morally untenable situation? Wisse argues that the Occupation is a “consequence of the Arab war against the Jews” and cannot be seen retroactively as its cause. But does that absolve Israel of responsibility for what it does to the human beings under its control?

For many thinkers, the answer is clearly no. Michael Walzer, the longtime co-editor of Dissent magazine and professor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, put it this way: “I think one way of describing the disagreement would be to say that she has great difficulty acknowledging the success of Zionism in creating a strong independent state. She is a lover of the Jewish people and feels a deep anxiety about our current situation. And I’m not without anxiety. But I am inclined to think that the success of Emancipation in Western Democracies, especially in the United States, and sovereignty in the Middle East, have made a greater difference than she acknowledges.”

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.

Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter, @EzraG

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