Ruth R. Wisse’s new book, Free as a Jew, begins as a personal memoir, turns midway into an intellectual memoir, and finally becomes what she calls “cultural testimony”—her witness to her times. She has written a work of remembrance, of growing up in Canada, teaching Yiddish literature at McGill and later at Harvard, and, in the process, becoming “a combatant in the war over the future of America” and in the defense of Israel.
Her three literary forms merge near the end of the book, in her personal, intellectual, and cultural account of a seminal moment at Harvard in 2005—one of the rare times, she writes, when history “issues us a red alert.” It still reverberates today.
She begins with her family’s flight from Romania in the summer of 1940, packing on a few hours’ notice, as the Soviet Union invaded. The family crossed Europe as stateless persons, arriving in Lisbon to seek transit visas from the American consul, since their trip to Canada required them to pass through New York. The consul told them that the doctor authorized to administer their medical exams would not be available until after their ship had sailed:
Grabbing the consul’s hand, [my father] pointed it at my brother and me and shouted, “You are a crazy man! Will you throw away the lives of these children? Give me the name of another doctor or I will kill you!” His English was not strong, nor was he, so I cannot imagine that his words struck fear into the consul’s heart. Mother, recalling the scene, said she knew we were finished.
The consul extricated himself from her father’s grasp and issued the visas. Perhaps he was moved by her father’s desperation; perhaps four-year-old Ruth reminded him of his own daughter. But the key was her father’s courage—leaving his successful business in Romania, saving the family’s lives in Lisbon, building a new business in Canada. In later years, she “aspired to emulate” him, and she eventually opened her classic 1995 Commentary essay, “What My Father Knew,” with this incident.
Her parents were not generally religious, but in Canada they did celebrate Passover, teaching her the supreme value of gratitude even as they watched their own world and family in Europe destroyed. Wisse writes that, under the circumstances, their transmission of Jewish tradition to her was a miracle: “With their broken hearts, I don’t know how they did it.”
After 1948, it was gratitude that generated what she felt was the “non-dischargeable debt” to Israel, owed by those living “the incredible lightness of being a Jew in North America.” Her parents took her to the demonstration by 20,000 Jews at the Montreal Forum in support of Israel’s declaration of independence, an event whose magnitude she would never forget:
Nowhere, not even in the sweep of Jewish history with its accounts of the Exodus and the kingdoms of David and Solomon, was there anything to rival the accomplishment of Jews who lost one third of their numbers and in the same decade in the 1940s recovered their sovereignty.
Seven decades later, Wisse writes, “the miracle of the recovered Jewish homeland is never lost on me. It ranks among the human wonders of the world.” She has argued that Jewish studies should focus on the national resilience reflected in both the ancient and modern Jewish state, rather than a sentimental concentration on the Holocaust.
As a child, Wisse became a student of the immigrant teachers who, in the Old World, might have become rabbis, and in the new one would become, a generation later, college professors. But in the 1940s and 1950s, as recent immigrants, they could only find work teaching elementary and secondary school, and young Jews such as Ruth became the beneficiaries of an extraordinary education, taught by “these men and women, who had lost their own families, reenter[ing] classrooms to teach Jewish subjects to Jewish children.”
If her father taught her courage, her mother gave her the cultural legacy of Yiddish. Her mother considered it a sacred language, the fount of high culture, and she promoted the work of local Yiddish authors and artists, becoming a prominent hostess of Jewish literary gatherings in Montreal. Exposed from an early age to such writers and poets, Wisse grew up at the center of a vibrant literary world. It instilled in her a reverence for books and authors.
In college, Wisse covered culture—reporting for the McGill Daily on talks by the poets Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas, the mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, and the composer Gian Carlo Me-notti. At the time, she conformed to her liberal-leaning Jewish environment, and her friends were the boys in the United Jewish People’s Order, whose families “were the most observant Jews I knew in college … [observing] their competing religion with priestly devotion: the USSR was their Zion.” But she also noticed that Jews, even though more than a third of the McGill student body, were absent from the curriculum. When she left college, she did not expect to be in a classroom ever again.
While working at the Canadian Jewish Congress, Wisse helped arrange an American tour for the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, who suggested she study Yiddish literature. She told him there was nowhere to do so. He told her Columbia was offering a scholarship; she called the next day. In 1960, she went to Columbia “to pursue a graduate degree in a nonexistent field” as the school’s only student of Yiddish literature. She studied with eminent professors such as Max Weinreich, who was writing his History of Yiddish Literature, and Salo Baron, the great Jewish historian, who taught a weekly seminar in his apartment.
Wisse discovered that Yiddish writers such as Mendele Mokher Sforim (“almost certainly the greatest modern Jewish literary genius”) wrote with the cultural power of a religious civilization extending through three millennia, while even the greatest of American Jewish writers, such as Philip Roth, tended to write about sex or other subjects of the self, since they and their literary subjects no longer shared much of a Jewish culture at all.
Returning to Montreal after her studies at Columbia, she established an institute of Jewish studies for adults and summer evening courses for college students, and she enrolled as one of the first students in McGill’s inaugural doctoral program in English literature. She wrote her dissertation on the schlemiel in Yiddish and American Jewish literature—the simultaneous wise man and fool, “the comic hero of perhaps the most tragic story ever told of a people,” the saga of a people trying to maintain their sanity in a hostile world. Her thesis was published as her first book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1971), a modern classic.
After receiving her doctorate, she established a program in Jewish studies at McGill, which grew into a full-fledged department, and she began an intellectual career in which she interacted with leading literary and intellectual figures of the time. By 1980, she had become a frequent contributor to Commentary, writing essays on both literature and politics. She collected her Commentary essays on Jewish accommodation into If I Am Not for Myself (1992) and followed it with The Modern Jewish Canon (2000), her landmark survey of Jewish literature; Jews and Power (2007), her seminal analysis of the Jewish ambivalence toward power; and No Joke (2013), her serious study of Jewish humor. Few Jewish writers during this period compiled an oeuvre of such size and significance.
In this book, she is generous in her praise of her intellectual colleagues, while laying out fascinating debates and confrontations—especially with Irving Howe, her one-time collaborator on The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse and later her ideological opponent, as he became a leftist critic of Israel; and with Edward Said, the Palestinian scholar-activist whose “postcolonial” theory she eviscerates in little over a page.
Her ability to crystallize issues in concise language is epitomized in this description of her exchange with the American-Israeli writer Hillel Halkin about yielding land to the Palestinians:
He started out advocating the establishment of a Palestinian state along Israel’s pre-June 1967 borders “subject to certain conditions,” on the grounds that a more homogeneous Jewish society on less land was better than more land with a restive Arab population. … I predicted that his “restive Arab population” would see an even easier target in a smaller, more vulnerable Jewish entity than the one it had originally attacked.
In later years, as Palestinian terrorism escalated, even as Israel transferred more and more land in pursuit of an illusory peace, Halkin asked Wisse how she, who lived outside Israel, had grasped the situation better than he, who had long lived there. She told him she had “learned political realism from Yiddish literature.”
What she meant was that Yiddish writers had understood the hostility confronting Jews better than the self-proclaimed “Jewish idealists” who attributed the hatred to Jewish deficiencies they thought Jews could correct. The parallel, she believed, were Israelis who “advocated renunciation of land won in a defensive war to pacify those who intended to displace them.” Since Israel’s acquisition of the disputed territories was the result of the continual Arab war against Israel, possession of that land could hardly be retroactively deemed the cause of it. She consistently argued that the “Arab–Israeli conflict” was in fact a one-sided war that the Arabs had started and that only they could end—starting with unconditional recognition of the Jewish state, which should have come in 1948.
WISSE WATCHED as the ideological battle over Israel intensified, invading the universities, parts of the media, and a significant faction of the Democratic Party, in each instance promoting “perversions they should have led the fight to oppose.” The study of Yiddish literature “had educated me in politics” and provided the “moral confidence” necessary to oppose the ideological attacks on Western ideas and values. The loss of moral confidence, she writes, “is the surest sign of civilizational decline.”
Which brings us to Harvard.
Ruth Wisse arrived at Harvard in 1993 to take up the professorship in Yiddish literature endowed by her friend, the editor Martin Peretz. “It seemed preposterous,” she writes, “me at Harvard, Yiddish at Harvard.” She was not the first tenured professor in Jewish studies there. Harry Austryn Wolfson had taught religious philosophy from 1915 to 1958; his successor Isadore Twersky, an authority on Maimonides, had designed a concentration in classical and medieval Jewish studies. Peretz’s goal was to shift the academic emphasis from medieval texts and rabbinic high culture to the everyday life of the Jews of Eastern Europe and their American descendants.
Wisse became the director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies and hoped to convey through courses on Yiddish and modern Jewish fiction an appreciation of the richness of a millennium of culture. Yiddish literature, Wisse believed, effectively dealt with the history of Jewish mistakes, and thus contained invaluable lessons for comfortable American Jews—who in their assimilation had “dropped Yiddish so precipitously that they lost the whole record of their encounter with modernity that had been forged in that language.”
What she found at Harvard, to her surprise and chagrin, was a university rapidly shifting its educational priorities from studying the classics of the past to addressing the grievances of the day, and she witnessed an academic decline that would proceed apace in the two decades she was there—epitomized by the situation that confronted Harvard’s then-president, Lawrence Summers.
Summers had assumed Harvard’s presidency in 2001. Before his tenure, there had been only two female deans; he appointed two in his first two years. He appointed mostly women as university vice presidents. At the December 2004 meeting of the Harvard faculty, he chaired an extended discussion of tenure issues facing women, and he suggested that Harvard should routinely extend the tenure clock to accommodate their family needs. He also called for research on the “pipeline issues” facing women at the senior academic levels.
One month later, Summers spoke at a “Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce,” given the assignment of addressing the relative lack of women in the high-end scientific professions. He told the conference there was “surely” some overt discrimination and, even more important, “passive discrimination and stereotyping,” with the top people (whom he identified as predominantly white males) inclined to choose people like themselves—something he said “absolutely, vigorously needs to be combatted.”
But as a distinguished economist himself, he cautioned that, if there were many women qualified to be scientists at top schools, who were not already there, one would expect more instances of them being hired elsewhere in the highly competitive academic marketplace—and that there was “relatively little evidence of that.”
Then he uttered the sentence that would lead to the end of his presidency:
So my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. [Emphasis added.]
He concluded by saying that his “guess” was based on “a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people,” but that he might be “all wrong.” His purpose, he said, was to “have provoked thought … [and] the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said.”
The Harvard faculty called an “emergency meeting” to deal with Summers’s thought crime, which they viewed as an aggravated offense, since he had been previously guilty of supporting ROTC, criticizing grade inflation, seeking more scholarly work from a university professor of color, and deeming various academic proposals to divest from Israel as anti-Semitism “in their effect if not their intent.”
The faculty convened on February 22, 2005, and placed a no-confidence motion on the agenda for its March meeting. The Harvard Crimson reported that only one professor supported Summers at the February meeting:
Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse, the only professor who spoke openly in support of Summers at last Tuesday’s faculty meeting, hinted that if professors put a vote of “no confidence” in Summers on the docket for the March 15 meeting, they might face another docket item aimed at them.
“I would hope that there would be a condemnation of those who seek to condemn [Summers],” Wisse said. “I think the direst thing that one could do on campus would be to inhibit speech.”
Wisse had never spoken with Summers, but she requested a meeting with him to urge him to fight for his position, to rally his supporters, to protect the value of critical inquiry and endorse the pursuit of truth, irrespective of race and gender. But Summers declined, in favor of adopting a strategy of appeasement.
After five public apologies, repeated statements promising that he would do better, public confessions he hadn’t known what he was talking about, numerous assurances he had learned a lot, appointment of two new committees to increase women on the faculty, two public grievance sessions with the faculty, and multiple private meetings to hear small groups of them, the faculty passed a no-confidence motion by a vote of 218–185, with 18 abstentions. Summers eventually resigned.
Wisse asserted that anti-Semitism was one of the factors involved in the run-up to Summers’s resignation, which caused Professor Diana Eck to tell the Crimson that Wisse’s remarks didn’t “make much of an impression on the Faculty” because of their “extreme” nature. Wisse responded in a Letter to the Editor:
This, in a nutshell, is the tactic of political correctness, never to confront the content of a divergent opinion, but to dismiss it as “extreme….”
That Lawrence Summers refused to confront his critics has made it that much harder for those who shared some of his views. More than his departure, I regret that he failed to set students a better example of how a person can stand up for his opinions.
The second paragraph of her Crimson letter was as significant as the first. Summers’s tragedy was not simply his defenestration, but the lost opportunity to educate students about intellectual and social courage—by demonstrating it under pressure. In this book, Wisse writes that the damage was indeed even greater than that:
History rarely issues us a red alert. But the surrender by America’s premier university to its anti-intellectual assailants marked a point of no return. … It would have made a difference had the president of Harvard led a public fight on his own behalf.
Looking back now, Wisse views the Summers case and her experience at Harvard as part of a broader historic trend:
It all went hand in hand—abandonment of a common curriculum to reinforce the foundations of our hard-won liberal democracy; replacement of equal opportunity by a competing idea of enforced egalitarianism that led to equalized outcome; politicization of gender with women as the new proletariat; indulgence of racialism as a corrective to alleged white supremacy; and a culture of institutional cowardice.
At one of the faculty meetings, Professor Philip A. Kuhn, who had directed Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, told his fellow professors that they would be judged by their successors to have been part of a Chinese struggle session—which assailed a target for an injudicious remark or some other deviation and made others join the assault to avoid being placed next on the list. He told his colleagues that “our successors will hold us in contempt—unless, heaven forbid, they’re just like us.”
A decade and a half later, we live in a cancel culture—a phrase not yet coined at the time of the Summers show trial—which has been combined with a new technology to enforce it. But the toxic fumes were already evident in 2005: Canaries rarely come as large as the president of the nation’s oldest university. The corruption of higher education, by what Roger Kimball called “tenured radicals” in his 1990 book of that name, has now—more than 30 graduating classes later—infected the society at large.
Free as a Jew succeeds on three levels—personal, intellectual, and cultural—and it is written in a gracefully modest style that makes her points even more persuasive. Her final paragraph contains a message: She dedicates the book to her students—and to their students—“in the hope that they will retrieve and revive the precious freedoms that are being lost.”
As vital as ever at age 85, Ruth Wisse has issued a red alert. This is a beautiful and necessary book.
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