International Yiddish Conference & Retreat

Prof. Ruth Wisse, Harvard University

Prof. Ruth Wisse

Born in Czernowitz, Romania, on May 13, 1936, Ruth, her older brother, and her parents Masha and Leo Roskies were admitted into Canada in 1940. The Roskieses’ home in Montreal was a salon for Yiddish writers, actors, and artists. All four children (two were born in the New World) received a rigorous Hebrew and Yiddish education. Her brother David G. Roskies is a professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and her sister Eva Raby is a professional storyteller and Jewish children’s librarian in Montreal.
At McGill University, where she received a B.A. in 1957, Ruth studied with poet Louis Dudek, who was also a mentor to Leonard Cohen. But it was the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever who played a pivotal role in her career by suggesting that she pursue a graduate degree in Yiddish studies at Columbia University, the only place in North America at the time that included Yiddish in a graduate degree program. Upon her marriage to Leonard Wisse, she did just that, studying with both Max Weinreich and his son Uriel Weinreich, and received her M.A. at Columbia with an award-winning thesis on Sutzkever’s prose poem Green Aquarium. After returning to Montreal, Wisse began raising a family while she completed her Ph.D. under Dudek’s supervision. Published as The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971), this study traces the evolution of the schlemiel from Yiddish to American Jewish fiction.
Academically, Wisse was a pioneer. In 1968, she began teaching Yiddish literature and helped found the program, later the Department of Jewish Studies, at McGill University. In 1993, she became a professor of Yiddish at Harvard University. Intellectually, however, Wisse found her home in the political culture of the 1970s magazine Commentary. Here she measured the actual accomplishments of American Jewish fiction against its promise; introduced giants of twentieth-century Yiddish culture such as Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, Chaim Grade, I.B. Singer, and Abraham Sutzkever; and, like her close friend Lucy S. Dawidowicz, refused to allow the destruction of Eastern European Jewish culture to cloud her historical judgment. Out of her engagement with Yiddish culture grew an interest in modern Jewish politics and its difficulty adjusting to the reality of Jewish statehood.
Wisse is best known in literary circles for her collaborative anthologies with Irving Howe: The Best of Sholom Aleichem (1979) and, together with Khone Shmeruk, The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (1987). Her most sustained works of literary history are A Little Love in Big Manhattan: Two Yiddish Poets (1988) and her monographic study I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (1991). She was also the first editor-in-chief of the Library of Yiddish Classics.
Wisse then tackled two fundamental questions of Jewish literature: “What makes a great Jewish book?” and “what makes a book ‘Jewish’ in the first place?” Covering books in Yiddish, German, Russian, Hebrew and English—authors as stylistically, linguistically and culturally varied as Sholem Aleichem, Franz Kafka, S.Y. Agnon and Cynthia Ozick—Wisse wrote that in The Modern Jewish Canon (2000) she “tries to explain the phenomenon of a multilinguingal Jewish literature through a discussion of some of its greatest works of the twentieth century.” Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz declared The Modern Jewish Canon, winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship/Criticism and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Scholarship, “as brilliant as it is magisterial… A book about the modern Jewish canon, it has itself secured an honored place of its own in that canon.”
The Best of Sholom Aleichem, edited with Irving Howe (1979); “A Golus Education.” Moment (January 1977): 26+; “Hura! Hura!” Moment (December 1975): 21–23; I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (1991); I.L. Peretz Reader (1990); Jews and Power (2005); A Little Love in Big Manhattan: Two Yiddish Poets (1988); The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture (2000); “The Most Beautiful Woman in Vilna.” Commentary (June 1981); “My Life Without Leonard Cohen.” Commentary (October 1995): 27–33; The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, edited with Irving Howe and Khone Shmeruk (1987); “What My Father Knew.” Commentary (April 1995): 44–49.