Ruth R. Wisse

National Humanities Medal


Ruth Wisse traces her passion for teaching to the new Jewish immigrants who were her grade school teachers in Montreal. “I had brilliant teachers at my Jewish day school. These young men had no better opportunities. They were displaced intellectuals and went into primary education to our extraordinary benefit. They were engaged with life. At an early age I saw the calling of literature and teaching as inseparable from civic responsibility.”

Wisse has been a tireless advocate for a nearly lost literature. Through scholarly and popular books, anthologies, lectures, teaching, and helping to found libraries and archives, she has brought Yiddish writers to new audiences. Today, classes in Yiddish literature and Jewish studies are available at many American universities, and in 1993 Wisse became Harvard’s first professor of Yiddish literature.

But when Wisse wanted to study Yiddish literature in the late 1950s there were few choices. She went to Columbia University, one of the rare institutions to offer such a program. It was part of the linguistics department, but you could read Yiddish writers in the department of English and comparative literature. Returning home to Montreal, she pursued her interest by other means, getting a PhD in English at McGill University, but writing her dissertation on the “Shlemiel as Hero in Yiddish and American Fiction.”

As a teaching fellow there, she was able to start teaching Yiddish writers. Bit by bit, the classes she introduced led to a curriculum and eventually helped found a Jewish studies department. “I am proud that the university built this program without relying on private donors. To this day, I believe, there is only one endowed chair. McGill took the responsibility.”

Wisse was born in Czernowitz in what is today Ukraine, but was then part of Romania. Her father, a Lithuanian, had gone there to start a rubber factory. He received a medal from the king for his work, and this honor saved the family. It allowed him to take his family out of the country as the Russians advanced in 1940, going to Lisbon as “stateless persons.” From there they went to Montreal, where the family, with foresight, had bought a discarded textile factory—the Canadian government happily welcomed Jewish immigrants who were planning to create jobs.

The family spoke Yiddish at home, and Wisse considers herself a product of the thousand-year-old Yiddish culture that spread from Europe to America in the nineteenth century. She adores the culture’s variety and the sudden fits and unexpected turns of its assimilation in America, citing Emma Lazarus’s famous sonnet “The New Colossus” as an example. Wisse notes how it was Lazarus’s work with Jewish immigrants from Russia that spurred her to write about the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’s words completely redefined the symbolism of the statue in New York Harbor.

“The STATUE was given to the United States by French republicans. She is holding a torch of liberty, which was supposed to represent what was passed from France to America—liberté, egalité, fraternité, shared between the Old World and the New. Along comes Emma Lazarus and writes a sonnet that is put at the base of the statue: ‘Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ [Lazarus] had worked with the new immigrants, people seeking escape from Europe. The passing of the torch from Europe to America is recast as American refuge from Europe.”

Wisse’s masterpiece is The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture, which presents decades of scholarship to the general reader. It makes the case for the centrality of Yiddish literature to any understanding of the modern Jewish experience. Wisse, though, calls the book merely “a signpost on an unfinished road,” knowing that literature must be argued about and inflame passions to survive. And that is the real challenge for a scholar of a dying language. “Yiddish was an expression of the Jewish way of life, but also of the degree of separation from the rest of European society. Once Jews wanted to become more integrated into their surroundings, they sacrificed the language that kept them apart.”

Yet Wisse notes the pluses too. “The possibility of assimilation is the greatest gift that America gives to the Jews. One should say a blessing for this possibility at Thanksgiving. Once there was great suspicion of what the Jews brought. Now there is a tremendous level of comfort.”

Wisse is a prolific commentator on the Jewish experience and politics. Her 1990 book, If I Am Not for Myself. . . : The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, caused widespread debate with its analysis of American Jewish politics and the epigram-like quality of its insights: “Despite the unparalleled success of anti-Semitism, few university departments of political science, sociology, history or philosophy bother to analyze the single European political ideal of the past century that nearly realized its ends.” In 2007 she published a small book, Jews and Power, which argued that anti-Semitism has become a political phenomenon and can be understood today in no other terms. And she has grown more involved in the battles over the future of the universities. She views this work as inseparable from her scholarship. “The university has to be as good as possible. We must fight. My teachers took the same stands. We must all be upholders of certain values.”

By Robert Messenger

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.