May 30, 2024
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May 30, 2024
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Modern Jewish History, Through the Eyes of Ruth Wisse

Reviewing: “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation” by Ruth Wisse. Wicked Son Press. 2021. $28: ISBN 1642939706. (portrait photo credit courtesy of Matt Craig/Harvard University)

Ruth Wisse, one of America’s top living experts on Yiddish literature, is a public intellectual of towering rhetorical skill, which she employs as a fierce advocate for the Jewish people. In addition to her academic field of Yiddish literary criticism, Wisse writes frequently about Jewish history and contemporary politics. A 2007 medal winner from the National Endowment for the Humanities and a longtime professor at Harvard, in her eighth decade she is one of the crown jewels of the The Tikvah Fund, and a prized contributor at Commentary Magazine.

This fall, Wisse released her long-awaited memoir, “Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation.” She shares the story of her life from her birth in 1936, describing in intimate detail her family’s flight from Czernowitz, once part of Romania, today considered part of Ukraine, to a new life in Montreal. Sections of the book were published serially in 2018 and 2019 as a work-in-progress by Tikvah’s Mosaic Magazine.

I had the honor of speaking with Wisse by phone after reading the book, as I had questions about how the book developed into what it is, or what I believe it to be. For me, it is a personal narrative that also delivers an astute and piercing cultural commentary on the Jewish experience in America in the second half of the 20th century.

Wisse told me that her book was originally conceived as a memoir shared with “the graduating class” of her students, to whom she connected primarily through the works of literature they studied together. “If you want to know what I am thinking outside of the classroom, not these literary texts, but what I think of the world, the world that we both experienced together in school as well, I realized that the Jewish part of the story was the most important part,” she said.

“It takes words to crisply define the reality that we experience. In doing that, I realized that this was a book very much about being a Jew, about being a witness to what had happened to the Jewish people in my lifetime.

“To have been a Jew from 1936 to today is one of the rarest privileges in the whole history of the Jewish people, and the whole history of humankind. For thousands of years, this is something that Jews aspired to, and to me—the 1940s—that Jews could in one decade, that this most culturally developed part of the Jewish people; I don’t think people understand what that decade did. You see, the fact that the Jews of Europe could be destroyed in five years is truly remarkable—from the powers that were able to do this and what was done to them [the Jews], and you can’t avoid the word ‘humiliation.’

“But then the infrastructure, the same people who were destroyed, had already laid the groundwork for recovering their national sovereignty after 2,000 years. I mean, the country had been under foreign occupation for 2,000 years. And the Jews, without any kind of help—and with every kind of handicap—were able to recover their national sovereignty,” she explained.

Wisse’s family’s escape from Europe in 1940; this earliest identity as a 4-year-old in a small family of refugees who were part of only about 250 Jews who were allowed to emigrate to Canada that year, forms the foundation of her viewpoint. She shared how strongly her father felt, late in his life, that she should never disparage Canada in her writings, as a gesture of thanks for it having been his immediate family’s port of deliverance from the ravages of war. Her multilayered identity also includes having grown up in a Yiddish-speaking household with a mother whose fierce love for the Jewish language and literature became part of her daughter’s core identity and a professional pursuit to the highest echelons of American academia.

A description of Wisse’s home life as a youngster reveals a nonobservant Jewish home where shinke (ham) omelettes were served, but Saturday morning was reserved for writing checks to Yiddish charities. Her father held a membership at the synagogue nearest their home, which he attended three times a year. This highlights the immense range of experiences in diaspora Jewish identity, which is both compelling and relatable, but also, of course, paradoxical. Wisse’s mother, Masza, while not traditionally devout, prioritized the value of tzedakah and helping those less fortunate, particularly the European refugees who joined them in Montreal in subsequent years. She imparted a foundational belief system that inspired Wisse and her siblings to develop their own Jewish identities in the coming decades.

“Mother’s criticism of the hypocrisy and insincerity of Orthodox Jews did not extend to the God of Abraham. Her nonattendance at synagogue was not antinomian protest but a jealous wish to commune with God intimately in the privacy of her home. Neither of our parents ever mentioned their murdered families and communities in connection with God or prayer, leaving us to weigh that association for ourselves.

“We never used any other term for their erasure but ‘khurbn,’ the same word that denotes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. For the record, my siblings and I all keep the kosher home that our parents did not, and all the grandchildren attended Jewish day schools,” Wisse wrote.

This complex background, and her eventual interest in promoting classical Jewish learning, put Wisse’s views into sharp conflict with some Yiddishists with whom she worked and studied at McGill University, who were active in various left-wing groups within the labor Zionist realm. It also made her stand out as an early member in the Association for Jewish Studies, and later, as the first professor to hold an endowed chair in Yiddish literature at Harvard, from 1993 to 2014.

In our interview, Wisse clarified that not all Yiddishists should be considered part of the liberal or “Jewish left,” those individuals who equate the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world) with religion; rather, their primary directive was to pursue social action or social justice. She reminded me that most Yiddish speakers today are, in fact, Orthodox Jews who speak the language in order to hold themselves apart from the non-Jewish world, and noted that even many Yiddishists on the left have also added religious observances to their practice.

Another important part of her narrative is her experience as a student at McGill University, (which she has written of before to various extents) and where she later taught and established its department of Jewish studies. As a college student, however, Wisse’s interactions with another famed Jewish Montrealer, the poet and world-renowned musician Leonard Cohen, is an interesting foil to her own experience. Like several other portions of the book, this relationship is familiar to Ruth Wisse readers as the topic of a standalone piece in Commentary, “My Life Without Leonard Cohen,” published in October 1995. I revisited it in 2016 when Cohen passed away, and again found it an extremely compelling history of a unique time.

This style of relaying Wisse’s experiences “without Leonard Cohen,” but of the same universe, is employed several times in the memoir regarding her interactions with other people. It is an engaging way for Wisse to share her experiences working with and knowing dozens of influential figures during the second half of the 20th century. They include Saul Bellow, Irving Kristol, Midge Dector, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Hillel Halkin, Norman Podhoretz, Martin Peretz and Zalman Bernstein. The vignettes about her interactions with these and others are as multifaceted as they are insightful.

Other details shared in the book, at once both enlightening and surprising, include Wisse’s “aliyah” in 1971, which ended quietly a year later because her husband and brother had difficulty in adapting to the professional environment of Israel. This is fascinating simply because had Wisse stayed in Israel, she likely would have become a prominent member, among many landesmen, of the Yiddish literati and not become the preeminent expert of Yiddish literature in the United States, at Harvard, in an endowed professorial position to which she never applied!

She also had, at that time of her “aliyah,” not emerged as an influential writer and thinker in American intellectual neoconservative groups, and being in America helped her on her way. Wisse, as a now-American with an Ivy League pedigree, became unique as a non-Israeli Yiddish specialist and defender of Jewish peoplehood.

Wisse added that the famed translator and Hebraist/linguist Hillel Halkin told her he considered speaking directly to her in “Letters to an American Friend,” a book he wrote in 1977 with a fictional interlocutor who had not yet made aliyah. He must have modeled his view after David Ben-Gurion’s, who shocked many Jews in the diaspora in 1967 by establishing a priority in his administration that Jews, particularly from the Americas, must make aliyah to take part in the country’s building.

Quoting Halkin’s words to her, Wisse relays the entreaty from Halkin, who failed to understand “… how anyone who is conscious of living a Jewish destiny could deliberately choose to live it anywhere else than here. (Which is one reason I suspect you will be back some day, and perhaps sooner rather than later.) It seems so—self-denying, somehow; and self-evading ultimately, too…,” he wrote.

Wisse, for her part, felt she had work to do back in the diaspora, and set the goal of teaching and encouraging others to become teachers of Yiddish literature, and to try to inspire her own children and those around her with love and knowledge of Israel, and “use the wider reach of English to fight for the country’s rights and security.”

“The story of Jewish leadership, be it Moses or Herzl, starts outside the country in order to get there and secure it, and one of the ways Judaism differed from imperial religions was its intrinsic acceptance of coexistence, living among the nations. One of my functions in America could be to oppose the Yiddishists and communists who tried to turn Jewish political dependency into a value,” she wrote.

Wisse told me that she defines freedom as a Jew in a decidedly traditional way, with respect for the experience of our ancestors. “Freedom to me is very important. But to be ‘free as a Jew’ is to be free as the story of Passover tells us. You have to accept responsibility. That’s what freedom means. If you just emphasize the freedom part, then you are like animals, you don’t know which direction to move in, you want to go back to slavery because it was safe and you would get your food every day. You’re frightened, you’re angry, you’re misdirected, you don’t know how to take authority.

“But then you see what that story of Exodus tells us: that in order to be really free, you have to accept the laws of Sinai, and you have to accept that very strict regimen that is laid out in the Bible that the Jews accepted all these years. So to be free as a Jew, this seems to me to be conceptually important. You don’t want freedom without being ‘free as a Jew understands freedom.’ Freedom represents itself through the responsibilities you assume,” she said.

Wisse’s unique understanding of freedom in the modern era seems to have developed as a result of core experiences and her early stand against communism and totalitarianism, both long before and long after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For readers today, this provides an instructive distinction between societal discrimination, often directed at multiple minority groups, and antisemitism.

“When you have discriminination, that a group really feels its own identity depends on excluding others, it shouldn’t be that way; it’s not a good thing. America became a much better place once it passed the Civil Rights Act, a much better country when it was against discrimination of any kind. But that was discrimination. You understand that’s a completely different order of magnitude and political importance, than what I call antisemitism, which is the organization of politics against the Jews,” she told me.

The middle and later parts of the book focus in equal measure on Wisse’s foray into various foreign policy debates, in particular the Palestinian-Israel impasse, her witness to the rise of the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement and Jewish leftists’ inability to divorce themselves from the Palestinian-victim narrative, and the academy’s inability to divorce liberal theology from historic fact, essentially watching their institutions crumble from a variety of forms of political correctness. Or, in her words, she wrote that she “understood that better arguments were not going to stop the Left or the Jewish Left from enabling anti-Zionism.”

Wisse found political solace in the writings of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s eventual ambassador to the United Nations, who wrote a piece for Commentary in 1979 called “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” explaining “how ‘liberalism’ slips from its moorings into the adversarial illiberal and potentially totalitarian camp.”

She was also in a prime position at Harvard to observe the academic upheaval that would determine her future political direction. Particularly, watching the rise of anti-intellectualism, the “feminist movement” at Harvard, and of the firing of its president, Lawrence Summers, for reasons Wisse found egregious, affected her deeply. Her time at Harvard ended with an indictment of the decline of the academy, particularly in the Ivy League.

In terms of recommending the book to readers, I believe it to be an extraordinary read, and a remarkably inspiring Jewish story among an array of memoirs in the genre of Jewish immigrants to North America. It effectively characterizes the startling world that 20th-century Jewish refugees faced when they came to North America, and the choices Wisse made that helped her rise to the top of her chosen fields of study.

Notably, Wisse also differed from most of her Yiddish literature or Jewish studies colleagues on how to commemorate the Holocaust: appreciating research centers but bristling at “putting the Holocaust on display.” She has always wanted the Jews to transcend victimhood, noting that the best commemoration of the Holocaust is to build living Jewish institutions that focus on educating the next generation. She served as an early board member for Zalman Bernstein’s Avi Chai Foundation, which still today is notable for its investments in living institutions, educators and Jewish day school programs. Her teaching at The Tikvah Fund, too, makes her insightful words available to thousands, today mostly in an online or e-learning lecture format.

This is a book filled with many important messages about Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood. I enjoyed it and learned profound lessons. Wisse, who has fought to protect our unique literature, language and identity, shows her readers that she is a multifaceted individual, like all Jews today. With humility and a willingness to show her human side, she illustrates how we can all learn from each other’s experiences. And though she wrote that early in her life in Montreal she felt that everything important or exciting was happening “somewhere else” (like Europe, or Israel), she teaches us that, wherever we live, we are not bystanders to history—we make history by our decisions and the way we live.

Part memoir, part ethnography, part cautionary tale, “Free as a Jew” should be read by all who care for the past, present and future of our people.

By Elizabeth Kratz


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