Orthodox Heresies: Ruth Wisse’s Unsentimental Education

tekening Ruth Wisse door Primo Gill

review Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation by Ruth Wisse

It’s so much easier when one’s adversaries are not only wrong, but stupid, and best of all, bad. The legendary Yiddishist Ruth Wisse’s most recent book, Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, offers us no such comfort. 

Yiddish like a religion

Born Ruth Roskies in 1936 in Czernowitz, Romania (currently Chernivtsi, Ukraine), Wisse fled with her parents in 1940 and ended up in Montreal, where the family home became a salon of sorts for Yiddish writers and scholars, both those based in Canada and those just passing through.
Not particularly observant, the Roskies family treated Yiddish like a religion. Her brother, David, teaches Yiddish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminar and is perhaps the only Yiddishist on the planet who can match her expertise and passion. She got her undergraduate degree at McGill and her masters at Columbia, where the assimilationist – she likes to call it aculturist–specter – Lionel Trilling haunted the Jews who studied there.

She returned for her PhD to McGill, where she virtually pioneered the development of her mame-loshn as a legitimate academic field. Among her many achievements were now-classic works of scholarship devoted to the schlemiel, Jewish humor, and The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press, 2001), as well as translations of I.L. Peretz and Chaim Grade, in addition to anthologies of modern Yiddish poetry and the works of Sholom Aleichem.

There were stints at Stanford, NYU, Hebrew University, and Tel Aviv University before the godfather of the second generation of American neoconservatives, Martin Peretz, set up a chair for her at Harvard. By then, she had become far more than a mere college professor.


against the woke barbarians

Simply put, there is no one who has spoken with more authority on all things Yiddish over the past half-century than Wisse. But even as she published all of those scholarly works about luftmenschen, Wisse remained down to earth, eventually assuming the role of one of the most prominent Jewish public intellectuals in North America, with her essays in Commentary coming out against the woke barbarians before the term even existed. The problem is that her politics, which are somewhere to the right of Jabotinsky–this book actually defends her statement that the Palestinians do little more than ‘breed and bleed’ – have in recent years eclipsed her scholarship. It’s a sad development, not so much because of her political views as because her scholarship is so original, generous, sympathetic and humane, always growing and giving, everything her politics is not.

winter in her heart

Indeed, when it comes to questions of Israel and the Palestinians, feminism, or identity politics, she has what Isaac Babel might have called ‘winter in her heart’.

What happened?  Like her birthplace, Wisse changed simply by staying where she was, like the old joke that in the years before (or after) World War I, you could find yourself from one day to the next in Austria, Poland, or Ukraine without ever leaving the house. Wisse insists that she didn’t reject liberal politics until the late 1970s, but it’s clear that coming from a family caught between Hitler and Stalin, she drank the Manischewitz of anti-communism early and often. Eventually, the intoxicating feeling of coming out as a neo-conservative in the almost purely liberal world of Yiddish – she called the Forvertz, founded as a socialist newspaper and as The Forward still in print today, ‘The Backward’ – seems to have been addictive, especially when it came to Israel.

In that sense, the United Nations declaration in 1975 that Zionism was racism, Oslo and the First and Second Intifadas, and 9/11 merely confirmed ideas that she had long held: Israel was, is, and always will be totally blameless (like the moral innocents she described in The Schlemiel as Modern Hero?) no matter what the accusation. She calls the period between 1948 and 1975 ‘a quarter century of grace’ – for whom?

Wisse’s anti-feminist crusade

Jews can of course agree to disagree about Israel, but seeing feminism as a danger to civilization is another matter. It is in a perverse way refreshing to hear so accomplished an intellectual deride Second Wave Feminism as nothing more than second-hand socialism – a fad, like the hula hoop, which, by the way, is an ancient toy that was the most popular toy ever produced, one that never went out of production, and which has recently seen a new surge of popularity.

Maybe Wisse should have chosen another analogy? Insisting on Betty Friedan as a radical feminist and lecturing half the planet that they should choose gratitude over grievance may be a recipe for certain kind of popularity among a certain crowd (who knew that Commentary had survived Woody Allen’s old joke from the 1970s that Commentary and Dissent had merged to form a new publication called Dissentary), but it’s a position that often seems impervious to fact, to say nothing of complexity.

Conservative women are often seen as illogical, or even worse, as unnatural, but they can claim a certain yiches. Think of the women who opposed female suffrage a century ago, or Phyllis Schlafly or Anita Bryant. Not the best of company, to be sure, but after all, we are commanded to select a minyan not only from our friends and allies. Nonetheless, Wisse’s anti-feminist crusade is bound to fail, as long as she airs views like this: “Our children are the best contribution we women would make to society and the universe.” Tell it to Marge Piercy, Joyce Carol Oates, Gayle Jones, Shulamith Firestone, Judy Chicago, Dolly Parton, bell hooks, Laurie Anderson, Condaleeza Rice, Angela Merkel, Queen Latifah, Teresa May, or Kamala Harris, not to mention Ann Coulter!  

gratitude over grievance

But why dwell on Wisse’s politics, especially because they are so understandable in a figure whose losses in the Shoah were so enormous. If Yiddish survived, it’s in no small part due to Wisse, and in that sense, we might take her advice and choose gratitude over grievance. Her account of the slow but steady growth of Yiddish Studies is priceless, and her recollections of such giants as Avrom Stuzkever, I.B. Singer, and Itsik Manger, not to mention her fellow Montrealers Saul Bellow (whose son, Adam, published this book) and her high school pal Leonard Cohen, are thrilling and revealing. 

survivor’s guilt

In the end, Wisse is totally unapologetic and fearless, no doubt the result of an extraordinarily rich, organic, and healthy Jewish upbringing, with full exposure to the widest sweep of Judaism, ‘from Tanach to Palmach,’ as she puts it (the phrase is actually Ben Gurion’s). But survivor’s guilt will also do that to you, and there is the sense throughout this book that Wisse is writing not for the liberal Jews on whom she blames everything from Hitler to Arafat, but for the lost members of her family in Europe who were turned to ash and smoke. Still apologies are a sign of strength, not weakness, and fear is an evolutionary adaptation that warns us of danger. Wisse writes that ’the wages of freedom is gratitude,’ but what about our responsibility to those still in bondage?

  • Ruth Wisse Free Like A Jew, A Personal Memoir Of National Self-Liberation
  • Publisher: Wicked Son (September 21, 2021)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781642939705

cover illustration: Primo Gill

Over Jonathan Gill 12 Artikelen
Jonathan Gill received his PhD from Columbia University in American literature and has taught literature, history, and writing at Columbia University, Barnard College, the Manhattan School of Music, Fordham University, the City College of New York, and Amsterdam University College. He specialises in post-World War II art, film and literature, African-American history and culture, experimental and vernacular musics, the counterculture of the 1960s, the literature of immigration and the cultures of intolerance. He has also taught Yiddish at the University of Amsterdam, and has written and lectured widely on Judaism and Jewish culture. His book "Harlem: The Four Hundred Year History, From Dutch Village to Capital of Black America" (Grove/Atlantic 2011), has been a New York Times best-seller. In 2020 he published "Hollywood Double Agent" (Abrams, hardcover 9781419740091) on espionage in Hollywood during the Cold War.

1 Comment

  1. Interessant essay. Ik heb de memoires van Ruth Wisse pas gelezen, ben het eens met de strekking ervan van dit stuk. Je leert het meest van boeken waar je het niet mee eens denkt te zijn. Om dezelfde reden ben ik de essays van Norman Podhorezt gaan lezen. Ik heb de online cursus van Wisse over de roman Daniel Derronda een paar geleden gevolgd, erg goed. Ze heeft mijn emails naar aanleiding van deze cursus zeer vriendelijk en uitgebreid beantwoord.

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