The Triumph and Tragedy of Jewish Self-Liberation »J-Wire


September 26, 2021 by Jonathan S. Tobin –

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When the leading scholar of Jewish literature of our time chooses to write a memoir of her career, it is hardly surprising that her pages are filled with the names of the great writers she has met and studied. Ruth Wisse is currently a Senior Fellow at the Tikvah Fund, but before that she helped found the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal, then became a Professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

Ruth Wisse. Credit: Matt Craig, Harvard University

Wisse is the author of the founding book The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture, published in 2000, which remains a must-read for anyone aspiring to Jewish literacy, along with a number of other important works such as the 2007 Jews and power. But as much as his new memoir, Free as a Jew: a personal memory of self-liberation, speaks of her long-standing love affair with Yiddish and literature, her main focus is to reflect the Jewish history she has witnessed throughout her lifetime.

Born Ruth Roskies in the city of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine) in what was then Romania in 1936, her parents were from Vilna, then part of Poland, and home to a great tradition of study of the Torah as well as a hotbed of Yiddish culture. When her family fled Romania during the Soviet invasion in 1940, they eventually made their way to Canada, where she grew up in the city of Montreal. But the family, and in particular Ruth’s mother, Masza, took with them the legacy of Vilna and her great Jewish poets.

She grew up in a Yiddish speaking household in which the language of the Jews of Eastern Europe was a living Jewish language and was not treated as an artifact of history or a political statement. Many, if not most, champions of Yiddish in the first half of the 20th century linked it either to the beliefs of the Bund socialist movement which opposed Zionism, or to Soviet Communism, which used it as an instrument of a movement. totalitarian who sought to extinguish Jewish National Identity. Instead, she came naturally to the idea that the love of the heritage of European Jews and Zionism (which advocates have sometimes denigrated Yiddish to the detriment of Hebrew) were not just aspects compatible but indispensable to Jewish civilization.

An integral part of his story is that of his love affair with Jewish literature, and in particular, of great Yiddish poets like his hero Avrum Sutzkever, a prominent figure of the “Young Vilna” venerated by her parents and among the greatest to record in verse the struggles of the Jews of the twentieth century. Wisse is rightly celebrated as an important translator and interpreter of Jewish writing. Other famous writers and poets appear in his book, including fellow Montrealer Leonard Cohen, as well as international figures such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel and Norman Podhoretz, publisher of Remark magazine, which offered Wisse a unique platform to reach a wider audience than its students and New Republic publisher Martin Peretz, who conferred upon him his professorship at Harvard. But it’s not a collection of well-known names to delete or just a “Who’s who?” »Jewish letters from the late 20th century and early 21st century.

Rather, it tells the story of how Wisse built a life and career celebrating the glories of a literary tradition that had yet to receive the respect it deserved. At the same time, she was slowly finding her own way as a spokesperson for Jewish rights and against both anti-Semitism and the revived toxic ideas from the left that she encountered en route to academy.

Part of this involved the difficulties encountered in getting academic institutions, including those run by Jews, to accept the idea that specifically Jewish subjects, especially Yiddish, deserved academic study. Indeed, after graduating from McGill, where she would later teach, she attempted to earn a doctorate in Jewish literature at Columbia University, but was thwarted by the contempt for her field shown by a Jewish scholar. The phenomenon of anti-Jewish Jews is a recurring theme throughout the book. This is true both with regard to what happened on campus as it paved the way for Jewish scholarship and in a surrounding world in which hatred of Jews has come back into vogue, coupled with the faded memory of the Shoah, which his family had fled.

This theme of resistance to enlightened politics and the process by which it has learned to fight most effectively the enemies of Jewish life is important to the book. It’s just as true as Free as a Jew speaks of gratitude for being able to live in freedom in Canada and the United States and benefit from the strength of a reborn Israel, which she rightly calls a miracle that should never be lost to us. Nor is it exactly an instruction manual on “how to be successful in academia” for young Jewish women to emulate. That’s because even though she was a big hit herself, she considers her choice to embrace marriage to Len Wisse and his family – and let her career develop gradually – as her wisest personal decision.

But as much as Wisse is keen to praise great Jewish writers and encourage their study, she is at least as concerned that her readers understand the powerful threat to Jewish life now emanating from the academy and the terrible way in which it began to influence. public life in the West.

Wisse’s account of her two decades at Harvard, where she arrived in 1993 as a famous scholar, is a warning about how elite institutions have succumbed to bad ideas often linked to anti-Semitism. and anti-Zionism and fostered it, then helped spread it elsewhere. . As she put it in referring to how economist Lawrence Summers was forced to step down as Harvard president after making politically incorrect remarks, “The surrender of America’s first university to anti-intellectual assault scored a point of no return. “

During this period, Wisse developed a reputation as a courageous and often lonely voice in the wilderness, denouncing anti-intellectualism linked to the left’s obsession with race to the detriment of all other considerations, and in which Israel and Jews found themselves targeted as possessing white privilege. If she has any regrets about any of these struggles now, it’s because it took a long time to realize how dangerous these trends were and that they needed to be denounced at every opportunity rather than ignored, as she had initially thought best.

Indeed, even his beloved Yiddish is once again subverted by leftists who only care about it as a club to use against Israel. Although she began as a literary scholar, her journey and the need to defend Jews ultimately transformed her into one of the leading voices against contemporary anti-Semitism, whose rise in the West she rightly sees as a troubling omen for a Jewish community. who is often slow to understand the threats against him and too obsessed with false rhetoric from the left to realize how dangerous it has become to foster radical hatred of Jews.

Yet Wisse’s personal story is inspiring and carries a positive message. If she sees her life as an odyssey towards “personal liberation”, it is because she rightly believes that the path of the Jewish people has, despite setbacks and threats, also been that of self-liberation. in his lifetime. Ruth Wisse not only witnessed this liberation in the form of a prosperous Jewish state, but did much to help in its defense. Those who wish to understand not only his life but the triumphs and problems that the Jews encountered during this time cannot do better than to read this book first.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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