Interview by George E. Johnson
There are few more outspoken proponents of conservative ideas in North American Jewry today than Ruth Wisse: pioneer of the academic study of modern Jewish literature, longtime professor of Yiddish and Yiddish literature at McGill and Harvard, essayist, political commentator and author of a dozen books. In works such as If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, Wisse argues that Jews must stop blaming themselves for the hatred, past and present, of Judaism and Jews. Rather, she says, Jews must first demand from others acknowledgment of the right of the Jews to exist as a people and a nation-state. Anything short of that is racism, she says, which undermines not only Jewish rights but democratic values in America and abroad. Unsurprisingly, Wisse often finds herself at odds with mainstream liberalism on issues including Israel, feminism and American politics.
How did Ruth Roskies, a four-year-old girl fleeing Romania with her family from the invading Russians, become a fiery contrarian? Moment senior editor George E. Johnson sat down with Wisse at her cabin in Loon Lake, New York, this summer to find out. The result is a revealing picture of how a young refugee, imbued with a sense of autonomy and the belief that “everything was always at stake in everything,” moved seamlessly from the Yiddish-speaking worlds of central Europe and Montreal to the epicenter of American Jewish culture.
How did the experience of escaping Europe as Hitler’s aggression was accelerating shape you and your thinking?
We did not run from the Germans. We ran from the Russians. My father had graduated as a chemical engineer from Vilnius University, a penniless young man. As a young student, he, like everyone else in those circles, had been a Communist or tended that way, but personally became quite disillusioned. He married my mother and got a job in rubber production. Because his boss could no longer export to Romania from Poland, he thought, why not set up a factory in Romania and send his most trustworthy and brilliant young chemical engineer, my father, to build that rubber factory? So my father became the builder, owner and general manager of a huge rubber factory, which still stands in Czernowitz. It employed hundreds of workers. My parents were extremely wealthy.
In 1940 [following the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact], my father knew that if the Russians were ever to enter Czernowitz, that would be the end of him, because he was now the very model of a capitalist. So he made a deal with a former employee living on the northern border of Romania that, should the Russians ever cross the border, the man would let him know immediately. Within two hours of getting that notice, my mother packed us up and put us on the next train to Bucharest, where my father was already trying to arrange for papers.
What do you remember from that period of your life?
I was four years old. No aspect of my life was untouched by that. But I have no real memories—which I consider to be a blessing. I only have memories of the stories my mother told me. For one thing, linguistically, I was raised by a German governess and I did not speak the language of my parents, as so many immigrant children do not. I was going to be the genuine Czernowitzer—in Czernowitz, the upper echelons all spoke German. So I was raised exclusively in perfect German. My parents spoke Yiddish at home and Yiddish German with their friends. My older brother, Benjamin, was sent to a Romanian school, so he spoke Romanian.
When we fled, I did not speak the language of anybody in my family. I was this German-speaking, curly-haired, blond little girl who must have looked a little bit like Shirley Temple. When we were going across Europe as stateless people, my parents would put me in front. The stories that my mother told me of myself as a child are all about this cheeky little refugee child who talks back in this clever way to grownups, and they all think she’s so adorable because she’s putting them down.
So I had this sense of independence, this sense of not being able to rely on these people who didn’t seem to know what they were doing except trying to flee. You can just imagine how anxious they must have been from day to day. I’m sure my relationship to languages was formed in some way by that experience, even though I have no memory of it.
What happened when you arrived in Montreal?
My mother did tell me that by the time I was in grade one—they sent me to a Jewish People’s School—my teacher complained to her that my German was ruining the Yiddish of all the children in the school. This tells you two things: One, that I was never shy, never felt repressed in any way by my not speaking the same way everybody else did, because I had been brought up to think speaking German was a real plus.
The other thing is that—I think many other immigrant children may tell you this, but it may have been even more pronounced in my case—I don’t feel that I was raised by parents. It would have never occurred to me in all the years growing up that I would ask my parents advice about anything. I relied on my older brother a great deal, and maybe he was in loco parentis. My parents were somewhere else in a way. My father had to work so hard to get himself established. My mother was busy. It was the war; everybody was dying. Every day they would get letters or news. My father lost his father and his sister and everybody else. My mother was one of ten children, all of whom were married and had children of their own. There was a very extended family. One would never have thought of imposing oneself on them with the minor problems that a child might have.
Earlier we talked about your relationship with other children, fitting in and your compulsion to succeed.
I was compulsive about those things. If there was a play about Samson and Delilah, I had to be Delilah. I can still remember a mistake that I made in an exam in grade seven. I could not remember the year in which Christopher Columbus left Spain. I got it wrong by a year. You felt so much was at stake. For me, there was always everything at stake in everything.
I still remember a mistake that I made in an exam in grade seven. I could not remember the year Christopher Columbus left Spain. For me, there was always everything at stake in everything.
What was high school like?
High school was completely different, and that really was a break. There were no Jewish high schools in those days, so I went from this very intimate familiar surrounding into the Protestant high school. The school itself was 95 percent Jews. But all the teachers were Protestant. The first day of school I was sent out of class twice to the principal’s office. The first time was when the French teacher asked in French, “How do you say this in French?” I was picking up my hand, and I said whatever it was and she corrected me, but she corrected me saying exactly the same thing that I had said. Apparently she had not heard my diction right. And so I said, in French, “But that’s exactly what I said.” And she said, “Out, out, out to the principal’s office.” The second time it was for calling out. At the Jewish People’s School, if you knew an answer and somebody else was stupid enough not to know it, you just called out. And so I had to learn.
You have often written about your family and others who have been important to you. What moved you to write these memoirs?
I try to use the personal to get at the impersonal. I was trying to find a form. The personal is a way of knowing more deeply maybe than anything else. What do you know? You just know what you’ve experienced. And if you can actually get at that, then you know that you’re not lying.
I loved writing about my father. It was a way of maintaining contact with him, honoring him in some way, but it was also about what he had taught me. In one essay, I describe how a man came to our door to shovel the walk. I knew I should have gone out to shovel the walk because guests were coming, but I was too lazy to do it. And then my father arranged that the man should do it and he would pay him. All I could hear was the shovel outside, and it was like—Guilt, guilt, guilt. Why was I not doing it? Why was my father paying this man to do it? The man finished the work, and my father paid him. I said to my father, “We shouldn’t have done that. We should have been the ones who shoveled the walk.” And my father said, “What does it have to do with you? A man wants to earn money and you can hire him to do that. That is the greatest thing that one can do.”
You see how deep that goes, because indeed, what was that guilt? I’ve learned that you employ somebody to do work for you and you pay them immediately afterwards what you’ve contracted. That’s the mitzvah, that’s tikkun olam, right? That’s being an employer. An honest employer is really a madrega [an elevating step]. So are those personal essays? Yes, they are, but the journey of my father to becoming such a wise person, this really is a moral tale.
Students of yours, such as novelist Dara Horn and Yiddish scholar Jeremy Dauber, have called you an invaluable mentor. Where did your love of teaching come from?
I do not like the word mentor, and I hope that I have not been a mentor to anybody. This is something that I never aspire to be. I love teaching because it is a search for truth, and I find that I do it within a teaching experience. The way I can get closest to it is in preparing the questions and the materials, which forces me to confront them in a way that I don’t necessarily if I was just reading it myself. Then I love the interaction that comes with people who are doing this work with you, but I can only love it if I feel that the other people are exactly as strong as I am. I might have more knowledge and be the one preparing the questions, but if I were to feel that they want from me more than the subject itself, that would destroy my sense of a classroom. I don’t want my students to become my children. I have children, and I didn’t even want my children to necessarily be clones in any way of what I am. I love human autonomy. That’s what I like about teaching—teaching that has respect for autonomy.
You have on numerous occasions written about the way in which the great Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever changed your life. What was he like?
He was one of the most exceptional people I had the good fortune to meet. He’s a poet and a legend. Of course, the relationship that I had with him was not with the poet and the legend but rather with the person.
It seems to me that the personal relationship is ultimately less important than the poet. He worked so hard at his poetry. His poetry is him. He saw himself as a heroic enabler of other people. When he got to Israel, he did not just retire to become a poet; he set up the [literary journal] Di Goldene Keyt [The Golden Chain], the greatest Yiddish publication that ever existed, under the aegis of the Histadrut. Everybody said, you’ll never get this done, this can’t be done. But he got it done, and every great Yiddish writer in the world would publish in it. For 50 years he maintained this journal. Unbelievable, really unbelievable! He had that charismatic ability in addition to being a great poet. So he was quite inspiring.
How much of a struggle was it to establish Yiddish and Yiddish literature in the university setting? I wanted to teach Yiddish literature, but realized I needed a Ph.D., which I couldn’t complete at Columbia, so I had to start all over again at McGill. And the hardest part was that I was studying to get a Ph.D. in English literature because it was the only degree available to me at McGill. I knew that English literature was not what I wanted to teach, but I wanted to use that Ph.D. in order to teach Yiddish literature. So I’ve always said that the person I identify with most closely is [biblical] Jacob, because I know what it is to work seven years for the wife you don’t want in order to get the wife that you do want.
Yiddish was your Rachel?
Yiddish literature is my Rachel. So there I am in the English Department finishing my Ph.D., and my task was to convince the school to let me start teaching Yiddish literature. Was it hard? The honest truth is that, in a way, it was not hard, because I had never wanted to do what everybody else did. I loved striking out on my own, and one of the things that excited me so much about Yiddish literature was that it wasn’t being done by thousands of people; teaching Shakespeare might be grand, but there were many people doing it.
But getting it done was difficult. It helped that this was the 1960s, when everything was opening up. There was money. There was this sense that the university had to become more hospitable to other things. It was the right time. It was exactly when the Association for Jewish Studies began.
I went to the English department and I said to them, “Would you let me teach Yiddish literature?” And they said, “We have nothing against it, but on what grounds can we let you teach Yiddish literature in the English department?” And I said, “Jewish studies does not belong anywhere at this point. So there’s no natural place for Yiddish. Would you have me go to the German department?” And those teachers were clever enough to understand the import of this question. So I said, “Jewish studies has to start somewhere. If you let me start it here, within a very short time we will try to set up a department of Jewish studies.
“The one link I can make is that there is an American Yiddish literature. I want to teach American Yiddish literature,” I said. So they let me. Imagine that. The only person who voted against that was the only Jew in the department. And if I could get a topic that was both Yiddish and English, they would let me do it. So that’s why I invented “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero,” because I needed a topic that went from Yiddish to American to English.
Today we have a different atmosphere on college campuses. How has the hyper-politicized world of Middle East-oriented campus politics affected the ability to train a new generation of scholars in Jewish studies?
Nothing remains unaffected by atmospherics. In the same way that Jewish studies benefited at its beginnings by the opening up of the universities, the atmosphere of multiculturalism—which is really not multiculturalism, but anti-multiculturalism, oddly enough—of course impacts Jewish studies negatively and has made Jewish studies much less popular. The Jews are not popular on campus, and when the Jews are not popular, when Judaism is not popular, when Israel is not popular, it’s not going to be the same. In the early days, Jewish studies was cutting-edge. It was wonderful. It represented the best of this new potential. It was riding a wave. And now it’s even more important because we are now trying to stem a tsunami of a different kind. When I began teaching, my feeling about Jewish studies was that it was an enhancement of American civilization, that because America had been so inclusive of the Jews, it was just greater proof of the worth of American civilization.
Are you describing what you see on today’s campuses?
I am. You do not have any longer, on the part of universities, a commitment to strengthening the teaching of American civilization, of the Constitution, of American history, of the arguments that formed American life and thinking. The university said, okay, affirmative action. We’re going to take in these people, and so you build African-American studies and you build Asian-American studies and female studies and gender studies and environmental studies and every kind of thing, but all at the expense of what the university had. If you take in more and more students from abroad, wonderful, but the first thing they should be required to do is to immerse themselves in the civilization of the country whose school they are attending. None of this is present. The real pain and the real fear is of the erosion of America itself.
When Jews are under stress, many Jews will defect. There are many Jews in times of stress who will hold their fellow Jews accountable for the aggression against them.
Is it possible for disagreeing scholars to engage in and carry on a meaningful dialogue today?
On a personal level, I think one can always discuss whatever one wants to, but the phenomenon of what’s called political correctness is very much in power in the universities. It doesn’t affect me in any way and it never did, and it doesn’t affect tenured professors. How would you feel living in a one-party country? How would you feel living in the United States of America if it were a one-party country instead of a two-party country? If you’re in the university today you’re living in a one-party country. No one prevents you from voicing an opinion, I suppose, on the other side, but you’re voicing an opinion in a one-party country. There is no other side of the political spectrum.
What are the consequences?
One is that we’re not cultivating the notion of the ideal polity, a polity that has some kind of balance between liberal and conservative elements. I think the ideal polity in the United States, the ideal democracy, is a polity in which two competing tendencies are in constant tension, because they both represent parts of the individual, parts of any decent society. Hillel and Shammai, right? These are the two voices.
You have said that for there to be an autonomous Jewish culture it must be expressed in a Jewish language. Is Hebrew today an indispensable element of a durable Jewish culture? Jewish life and language are always in tension, in a creative interaction with other languages and the cultures that they represent and embody, and that’s to the good. There have always been other languages in Jewish life. It’s never been only Hebrew.
Here in the United States, it has been hard to convince Jews of the need to know Hebrew. At the moment, so much is translated into English that the person who wants to be entirely familiar with what is happening in Israel and with Israeli culture and with Israeli thinking can manage it through translation. But it is still a step away. It’s like “kissing the bride through the veil.” It also depends on your desired level of autonomy, of direct access. But we’ve not found a strong enough incentive. It comes out of need. It is not a question of will only.
Here’s a question you are not asking, but one that I have to address: The Yiddish aspect of this, it is not so easy. You want people to know Yiddish because it’s a Jewish language and it gives them access to this entire process of modernization that took place in Yiddish. That’s the positive side of it. However, the people who go to the trouble of learning Yiddish very often become alternative Jews. They don’t just want to know it as part of their Jewish background. They latch on to it as their identity as Jews.
Do you think because so few people know Yiddish it will harm the preservation of Yiddish literature in the long run?
At the moment, there are a lot of young people who are very energetic about translation and transmission. And there is a whole new movement just beginning among the haredi where Yiddish is still known. It’s not a literary Yiddish in many cases, so they have almost as much trouble reading Yiddish literature as a non-Yiddish reader would have. Nevertheless, they know Yiddish, and they’re a growing population. Many of them are going through the same process that those in the Haskalah [Jewish Enlightenment] went through in the 19th century. They want to read about this.
What would you say is the strongest reason to study Yiddish? Everything that I write about derives from and is strengthened by my study of Yiddish literature. I sometimes quip about it, and I say, “Studying Yiddish literature is studying the history of Jewish mistakes.” But Yiddish literature is really no joke. Yiddish literature is the literature of Jews in modern times and particularly of that community of Eastern European Jews in modern times.
If you think about the history of that community, then you probably understand that there’s no body of writing that immerses you more experientially in the most problematic aspects of modern times. So taking that literature seriously and studying it and thinking about it, you have to think about the power of evil. You have to think about the discrepancy between Jewish life and its assumptions, its desire to live in accordance with God’s supreme law and its anxieties about not fulfilling a divine mission, on the one hand, and the forces allied against the Jews precisely because they are such a self-accountable and self-critical and self-contained people. So everything one discusses on the question of the relationship of Jews and power, which is really also a question about democracies and anti-democracies, all of this really comes out of not just the study of Yiddish literature, but the situation within which Yiddish literature found itself. If you wanted to find a cultural center of modern problems, I would suggest studying Yiddish literature.
What are the consequences of today’s debates between liberal and conservative Jewish public intellectuals on issues such as Israel and the Palestinians and U.S. policy on Iran?
Our tradition takes for granted that the Torah is a book of debate and that there are primarily two impulses: the impulse of leniency and the impulse of harsh judgment. Those are the two poles, right? There’s the prosecutor and there’s the defense, and in each of us there’s the person who’s the hardliner and there’s the compassionate one and so forth. These are tendencies that are always going to be at war with one another. In a perfect society they’re perfectly balanced; but they’re never perfectly balanced, and it also depends on what forces are coming against you. When any community is under stress, you find behavior patterns change. When Jews are under stress, many Jews will defect. There are many Jews in times of stress who will hold their fellow Jews accountable for the aggression against them. They will find very clever rationales for saying, “The reason we’re being aggressed against is because of your kind of behavior. If you changed your behavior, they wouldn’t aggress against us.”
That’s what Israel is now for many American Jews. It’s just become too problematic for them, and so they want to hold it accountable for the aggression that is being waged against it. They’re afraid to say that it’s the craziness of the Arabs; they have found this target, they have found this vehicle for their hostility. They’ve found it much easier to really think that Israel is responsible. That’s a very specific problem and it’s the problem of those Jews. It’s a very specific, ugly and debilitating thing, and it is destructive because it’s not true.
In If I Am Not For Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, you argue that the modern Jew’s belief in human rationality, liberal democracy and striving for normalcy as the path to acceptance has betrayed Jewish autonomy. Are such views incompatible with Israel’s survival?
I wrote that liberalism betrays itself when it betrays the Jews, and that, yes, if Obama-ism, for example, continues, if this drift continues, it is incompatible with the future of the state of Israel; but it’s also incompatible with the existence of America as we’ve known it. To give up your knowledge that you have to fight the forces of evil and to think that these things will come easily to you is suicidal. What is needed at this time is a turn away from that loosening liberalism toward something that takes family much more seriously, that takes collective responsibility much more seriously, that takes national commitment much more seriously, that takes the future of Israel as one of its primary concerns, and that is interested in reconstituting the conservative balance to the liberal.