Professor Ruth Wisse: Preserving Jewish Culture

Ruth R. Wisse, who teaches "Literature and Arts A-48: The Modern Jewish Experience in Literature," once laughed when someone suggested that she devote her career to teaching Yiddish literature.

"I came to Yiddish literature rather than having been brought up in it; it's something I struggled to possess," says Wisse, who was raised in what she calls the "polyglot multicultural atmosphere" of Montreal.

A Jewish refugee from Romania, Wisse attended an officially Protestant high school, going to the mandatory Christmas assemblies and saying the Lord's Prayer every morning. Yet the Montreal of her youth was also a Yiddish cultural mecca, after Jewish immigrants settled in Canada in the 1920s and again after World War II.

The maternal side of Wisse's family came from Vilnius, the present capital of Lithuania. In the city once known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania" for its centuries-old leadership of Jewish intellectual and spiritual life, her grandmother ran a Yiddish publishing house. In Montreal, Wisse's mother sought to keep alive the family publishing tradition by organizing Yiddish literary salons, where major Yiddish writers and poets congregated.

"Since there were no Yiddish publishing houses in Montreal, everyone who attended would contribute $10, a large sum in those days, toward the purchase of the [visiting writer's] book so it could be privately published," Wisse recalls. "It was a wonderful house to grow up in, excellent preparation for a career in Yiddish studies, though at the time, the last thing I wanted, of course, was to study Yiddish literature."


In 1959, a visit by the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever to her mother's salon changed Wisse's mind.

"He asked me, `Why don't you teach Yiddish literature?' And I said, 'What would I do, teach Sholom Aleichem?''' recalls Wisse.

"At that point, in shock I realized what I had said," she says. "What I had been exposed to at home was a first-class literature [that] was in no way reflected in the higher education that I had received or in the general [Canadian] culture." Wisse says it was this realization that inspired her to study Yiddish literature as a graduate student at Columbia.

Wisse had studied English as an undergraduate at McGill University during the mid-1950s. Jewish authors were sometimes included in her curriculum, but they were not recognized as bearers of a rich intellectual, cultural and spiritual legacy.

"It was bad form to talk about Jews," she remembers. "Not because of anti-semitism but because no one knew what to do with it."

This marginalization occurred despite the fact that Yiddish, whose linguistic roots date back more than 800 years to northern Italy and southern Germany, was spoken by 11 million Jews at its peak, particularly in eastern Europe. The "lingua franca" among Jews on five continents, its most extensive literature was produced during its brief flowering from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th century.

Wisse's current course focuses on the changes that have occurred in Jewish literature over the last century, as the number of Jews able to speak Yiddish and Hebrew has declined drastically.

"In the 20th century, Jews are born into a variety of languages," Wisse says. "Many of them no longer have access to Yiddish or Hebrew, that is, to a Jewish language, and if they want to write at all, they have to write in the language that [has become] theirs."

Calling the history of Yiddish literature "compressed," and the loss of the Yiddish language a "cultural lobotomy," Wisse says that Yiddish is "a literaturewithout heirs" and that American Jews are "orphanswithout an inheritance."

Wisse says the future of the Yiddish languageis uncertain because it suffered heavy blows inthe Holocaust as well as in other purges. InRussia, for instance, Stalin ordered the executionof Yiddish writers and intellectuals.

In Israel, Hebrew, not Yiddish, is Israel'smain language. In North America, Yiddish hasbecome virtually non-existent as Jews haveassimilated into their secular surroundings.

"I would hope that the future of Yiddishstudies would be very robust. The future ofYiddish literature is more problematic," Wissesays.

Last September, during a trip to Vilna for the200th anniversary of the death of Elijah BenSolomon Zalman, Wisse was struck by the fact thatthe city has changed profoundly from the time whenher grandmother lived there. In Vilnius, theYiddish literature her grandmother nurtured is allthat is left of a once-thriving Jewish community.

"You're talking about a place that used to beover one-third Jewish," Wisse says. "You'd go tothe most beautiful glens near every city and town[and there is] a monument to 5,000 killed, 10,000people killed.

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