Mame-loshn at Harvard
Harvard professor Ruth Wisse conveys the joys of Yiddish and finds in its literature a provocative case for a strong Israel.
"He who reads his people's literature in translation," said the Hebrew-Yiddish poet Chaim Nahman Bialik, "is like one who kisses his mother's face through a veil."
True, Bialik, we might answer, but how else shall we read? Are we not orphans now, illiterate? Those mothers, indeed most of the world's Yiddish speakers--11 million before the Holocaust--are gone.
On the other hand (in Yiddish lore, there is always the other hand) we might invite the spirit of Bialik to eavesdrop with us on Ruth Roskies Wisse's seminar on the modern Yiddish short story. The subject is Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Taybele un hurmiza" [Taibele and her demon]. Wisse (pronounced "wice") is gesticulating, laughing, completely involved, without an English translator in sight. She is saying, "Di emese libe ken men shpiln bloyz unter a maske fun kyoyzek. Der belfer muz zikh farshteln far a shed kdey tsu bafridikn un kenen farvayln di agune..." [Here, love flourishes in the language of transgression. The schoolmaster's assistant can offer sex and amusement to the deserted wife only by pretending to be a devil...]
"And," she continues in Yiddish, "look how Singer wins us over and expresses his affection for us, behind the same devilish disguise."
The eight students--all of whom have studied Hebrew and Yiddish--take notes and keep the discussion going in Yiddish. There is some English, of course, if a point needs fine-tuning. But the delights of Singer's Yiddish seem to be the real reward; some of his slyest jokes don't make it into English.
"Eat, eat. If you don't finish, you'll take it home," Wisse says, for there are sandwiches today to celebrate the end of the semester. Yiddish is mame-loshn, the mother tongue, as Bialik's trope has reminded us, and this animated kitchen-table setting seems right. One student says it feels heymish [homey]. Students do a Yiddish concentration for nostalgic reasons, many of them, but this one is Caraid O'Brien, a special student from Boston University, whose roots are in Galway, Ireland.
The seminar is perhaps a version of Ruth Wisse's Friday night dinners, where she and her lawyer-husband, Leonard, and maybe one of her three adult children are surrounded by talkative friends--friends like Saul Bellow, who says, "All week, after I get that invitation, I feel as if things are looking up."
Ruth Wisse is Harvard's first professor of Yiddish literature, one of only a handful in America. Her chair, which she assumed in 1993, straddles, as it were, the departments of comparative literature and Near Eastern languages and civilizations. As yet unnamed, the chair was endowed in 1992 by Martin Peretz, Ph.D. '65, publisher of the New Republic and lecturer on social studies.
James Kugel, Starr professor of classical, modern Jewish, and Hebrew literature, was on the search committee. "We were starting this whole new program at Harvard," he says, "and she looked to us like a double-barreled threat, somebody who could come in and take charge--an outstanding scholar with tremendous organizational skills. At the time, remember, she was head of the Association for Jewish Studies, a huge organization, and also a driving force at McGill. I think everyone agrees that we were lucky to get her."
Wisse was recruited (schools like Brandeis and New York University had also made offers) from McGill University in her hometown of Montreal, where she was the first incumbent of the Montreal Jewish Community Chair in the department of Jewish studies, a department she helped create. She had taught at McGill steadily--except for a couple of years of teaching in Israel--since her days there as a doctoral student, becoming an assistant professor upon receiving her Ph.D. in 1969.
Her McGill colleague, Gershon Hundert, professor of East European Jewish history, verifies their loss and Harvard's gain. "We replaced her with two people at first, but she's irreplaceable because of her energy alone! She was at the center of Jewish studies here, and as a teacher she was off the charts. And so warm. For many of her students, she was in loco maternis."
In a conversation one day at her Cambridge home, Wisse reminisced about her own mother, Masha, still very much alive at 90. A multilingual patrician from Vilna (now Vilnius), the doomed "Jerusalem of Lithuania," Masha insisted that Yiddish be spoken by the family at home. Not street Yiddish, but language, like Masha herself, both literary and tasteful. "In our home," Wisse recalls, "the Yiddish vocabulary that fueled the borscht belt, words for sex, sexual organs, and bodily functions, grew rusty behind comfortable euphemisms, and if we knew them at all, it was from Weinreich's dictionary."
So indomitable was Masha's determination to keep her children insulated from the assimilative tendencies of middle-class Montreal Jewry that, in a gesture of stunning downward mobility, she insisted that the family move from the prosperous neighborhood of Westmount across town to Outremont, where new immigrants were settling, close to the Yiddish day school. "Totally against the stream, my mother. I inherited that characteristic, I guess." Indeed so. As we shall see.
In Outremont, in a large house full of paintings and books and music, Masha established a literary salon at which visiting and local Yiddish writers read from their works, and where Masha would play the piano and sing Yiddish songs (she has recorded more than 200 of them as part of a folk-song project).
Moving backward in her reminiscences, Wisse recalled the privileged first years of her childhood, before Montreal, in Czernowitz, Romania (now part of Ukraine). She likes to stress the fact that she was born in Czernowitz because of the city's resonance in the history of Yiddish: the first conference on the status of Yiddish as a national language was held there in 1908. As a child, however, she spoke German, because her governess spoke only German.
Her father, Leo, a chemical engineer, had been sent to Czernowitz from his home in Poland to oversee the building and management of a rubber factory, for which he was awarded a medal by King Carol of Romania. This medal probably saved the Roskies family, sufficiently impressing the authorities to permit them to leave Romania in June 1940.
In late fall 1940, after months of stateless wandering, Ruth, then four years old, her older brother, and parents reached Montreal. Leo joined his three brothers in the textile mill they had bought the year before. His father and sister, who stayed in Europe, perished, as did all but one of Masha's large family.
The school Ruth and her by-then two brothers and sister attended--one of an entire spectrum of Jewish day schools in Montreal, ranging from Communist to Orthodox--was the Yidishe Folkshule, or Jewish People's School. The Folkshule was created with a Labor-Zionist orientation, meaning that the focus was on secularism and Israel, with equal emphasis, therefore, on Yiddish and Hebrew. For the school, as for Ruth's parents, there was no question of eliminating Yiddish from their children's education, as most North American Jews were doing, or of simply patronizing the language for sentimental reasons. Writing many years later about preparing a Yiddish anthology, Wisse pointed out:
No one who ever worked in the field of Yiddish can be unaware of the relative disrepute in which the language is held, even among some of its fluent speakers and their cultural heirs. Despite its 800 years, despite having become by 1939 the vernacular of more Jews than have ever spoken the same Jewish language at any time in history, and despite a culture that would be the envy of many a nation, Yiddish was commonly thought to be a "jargon"--a language not altogether formed, an inferior version of the more perfect German.
But at the Folkshule, writes Wisse's younger brother, David G. Roskies, professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, "Yiddish was a key to lebens-shteyger [folkways]...; Yiddish literature extolled the beauty of Jewish holidays...; Yiddish was symbiotically tied to Loshn koydesh [the holy tongue, Hebrew]...; Yiddish was the living link to a living people...." In the school's "total environment," which included teaching the students "to live in two Jewish languages," the children were to be conditioned "so that they couldn't live other than as Jews."
Learning in such a school and living in such a home led Wisse with a certain inevitability to a life in Jewish scholarship. Thus, it is with a little discomfiture, even now, that she recounts the "point of reference" in her life. She had graduated from McGill in 1957, taking first honors in English literature, had married, and was working for the Canadian Jewish Congress as press officer. As part of her job, she arranged a Canadian speaking tour for one of the greatest poets in modern Yiddish, Abraham Sutzkever, survivor and poet-witness of the destruction of Vilna.
"I was thinking of going back to school for a master's degree," she recalls, "and my plan was to study English again. At this critical juncture, Sutzkever said to me, 'Why don't you study Yiddish?' In my astonishment, I laughed and I said, 'What would I do, teach Sholom Aleichem?' Even as the words issued from my mouth, I was shocked at what I was saying. Here I had been raised and cultivated on Yiddish literature! But the idea that I should study it in university, this seemed to me astonishing. He was angry, and I was ashamed at what I said. A few days later, I applied to the only place where I could study Yiddish for a higher degree: Columbia."
Commuting from Montreal (and her husband), she completed the course in a year and a half, studying with her great mentor, the linguist Max Weinreich, a founder of YIVO--the Yiddish acronym for the Institute for Jewish Research in Vilna; his son Uriel, chairman of Columbia's department of linguistics (and author of the Modern English-Yiddish, Yiddish-English Dictionary referred to earlier); Richard Chase; Salo Baron; and other luminaries. Her thesis, fittingly, was on Green Aquarium, a cycle of 15 prose poems by Abraham Sutzkever.
Sutzkever represented for Wisse, and does still, the paradigm of all that is highest and most remarkable in Jewish poetry. As a voice of Vilna, benchmark of Jewish scholarship and civility, Sutzkever's own odyssey of suffering--forced childhood exile in Siberia, the unspeakable Vilna ghetto, the terrors of life as a partisan, hiding deep in a freezing river, in a sewer, in a coffin--reads like a tableau almost iconic in its scenes of prodigious endurance.
But the miracle for Wisse is not only the poet's survival, but his transcending, and in some instances transforming, the inhuman degradation:
From his beginnings as an artist, Sutzkever was fascinated by the regenerative powers of poetry--another threatened species of our time....In sharp contrast to those for whom silence is the appropriate human response to the barbarism we have borne in our century, Sutzkever has identified poetry as the reliable counterforce to all that destroys. Particularly during the Holocaust, when every known moral scruple was crushed beyond recognition, the reality of a good poem remained beyond anyone's destructive perversity. In a private reckoning, Sutzkever has even attributed his very life to his literary faith: "As if the Angel of Poetry had confided to me: 'The choice lies in your hands. If your poem inspires me, I will protect you with a flaming sword. If not--don't complain. My conscience will be clean.'"
"The power of art," she continues, "cannot ultimately be proved by its practical effects, but it is worth knowing about a poet who believes that poetry saves lives."
Wisse is not wholly of the party that celebrates poetry as antidote to history. "Who lasts?" writes Sutzkever in his Lider fun togbukh [Poems from a diary]. "God abides--isn't that enough?" It is not quite enough for Wisse, but what does abide is her love for Sutzkever and his poetry.
Back in Montreal after her studies at Columbia, Wisse began her family, and her doctorate at McGill. Her field of study was English literature, there being no such thing then as a doctorate in Yiddish. The department, however, allowed her to do her dissertation on a comparative topic. Thus was born "The Schlemiel as Hero in Yiddish and American Fiction," later published as The Schlemiel as Modern Hero.And born too, in 1969--along with her youngest child--was the department of Jewish studies: "I was teaching the usual English courses as an assistant professor," she recalls, "but I asked whether I might introduce Yiddish lit in the English department. I had to prepare a lengthy rationale, but ultimately they agreed. This was a first for Canada, and a breakthrough for McGill."
In The Schlemiel, Wisse formulates her lifelong preoccupation with the ambiguities of Jewish weakness--in this case, weakness in its adaptive mechanism of humor. "The classic expression of Yiddish irony," she writes, "is the saying: 'Ato bokhartonu mikol hoamim--vos hostu gevolt fun dayn folk yisroel? Thou hast chosen us from among the nations--why did you have to pick on the Jews?'" The first line borrows from sacred Hebrew text, the following line undercuts it in everyday Yiddish. "Yiddish irony," she continues, "often takes the form of statement and counterstatement, to the same effect. The dialectic was especially fertile in the vital field of economic theory: 'Rich and poor, both lie in the ground together, but on the ground the rich lie more comfortably,' or 'Imru l'adonoy [speak to the Lord] and talk to the wall.'"
She provides example after example of Yiddish irony and satire, illustrating them with characters from fiction. One of the most famous is Sholom Aleichem's exuberant bumbler, Menahem Mendl, whose "masculinity is never considered; it is thoroughly extinct. The traditional male virtues such as strength, courage, pride, fortitude, are prominent only in their absence." But as much as we may laugh at and with Menahem Mendl, his wife Sheyne Sheyndl's "descriptions of blood-spitting, sickly children, social ostracism, and vicious poverty emphasize the full price each family paid for a schlemiel as breadwinner."
The passivity of other schlemiels, like Singer's Gimpel the Fool, takes on a "deeper truth, deeper because it frees a man from despair, permits him to live in harmony with his conscience, to practice goodness, and hope for justice." On the other hand, though readers have traditionally read Isaac Leib Peretz's famous story "Bontshe the Silent" as a bittersweet tale of saintliness, Wisse describes it as "actually a socialist's exposure of the grotesquerie of suffering silence."
A few years ago, Wisse wrote her book I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture, which Martin Peretz, a scion of the line, has called "the best book on Peretz in the English language, bar none," hailing its "bracing lack of sentimentality," a view echoed by scholars like Janet Hadda, professor of Yiddish at UCLA. In the book, Wisse elaborates on the subject of Bontshe, the pitiful nobody whose living and dying "made no impression." After a lifetime of abuse, poverty, and subhuman deprivation, Bontshe finally makes it to heaven. There, when all the choirs of angels and the heavenly judge himself tell Bontshe he can at last, finally, truly ask for anything in all of heaven and earth, Bontshe smiles meekly and says, "Well, then, what I'd like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning."
Can there be any doubt [asks Wisse] of the story's political thrust? In the figure of Bontshe, Peretz challenges the ideal of goodness that had a powerful grip on the folk imagination....Everything works schematically as it should, except that this creature is beyond redemption. His soul is too meek and his outlook too narrow to make possible any ultimate restitution. Bontshe's failure to develop a character in the material world destroys any chance of postponed spiritual life. The moral scheme that makes a hero of Bontshe is itself morally flawed.
Another work that she touches on in Schlemiel, but which she has returned to repeatedly, most recently in her Harvard course "Literature and Politics: The Case of Zionism," is Chaim Nahman Bialik's long and harrowing poem, "The City of Slaughter." Written first in Hebrew, then in Yiddish, the poem originated in Bialik's trip to the Russian town of Kishinev to document the ravages of the pogrom of 1903. The result was a tapestry of horror--but also a withering condemnation. It became ultimately one of the rallying texts of Jewish self-defense and of Zionism.
Arise and go now to the city of slaughter;
Into its courtyards wind thy way;
There with thine own hand touch, and with the eyes of
Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay,
The spattered blood and dried brains of the dead....
Then wilt thou flee to a yard, observe its mound.
Upon the mound lie two, and both are headless--
A Jew and his hound....
A tale unfold horrific to the ear of man:
A tale of cloven belly, feather-filled;
Of nostrils nailed, of skull-bones bashed and spilled;
Of murdered men who from the beams were hung,
And of a babe beside its mother flung....
Note also, do not fail to note,
In that dark corner, and behind that cask
Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from
Come, now, and I will bring thee to their lairs
The privies, jakes, and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering--the sons of the Maccabees!*
Is Bialik--despite real-life instances of Jewish resistance--tracing what he sees as the Jew's pathetic slide from the Maccabean lion to the craven schlemiel hiding in the privy while "the lecherous rabble" raped his wife and daughters?
On the one hand, yes. "What Bialik saw was a frightened pacifism that was like an undertow sapping Jewish morale," says Wisse. "But on the other hand, we must remember that Jews had no military tradition at all; having made a virtue of playing the schlemiel in political history, they could only fear becoming the corpse.
"The Jews were demonized and targeted for extinction by Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and a long list of others. Why? Where else in history has such a tiny people been the focus of so much unilateral, irrational hatred? Now, unilateral hatred can be withstood only if it is challenged with sufficient force. But how can the victim of such hatred mount a sufficient counterattack if he lacks even the instinct of reciprocal aggression?"
The retreat from violence was even embedded in the Jewish language, she recalls. "Max Weinreich once traced for me the following history of the Yiddish term hargenen, 'to kill.' Enjoying no active use among the Jews of Europe, the term gradually acquired the weaker meaning to 'strike,' or 'beat,' while to signify real killing one said derhargenen, employing a prefix for an action seen through to its end. But this stronger term, too, came to mean no more than 'beat,' or 'rough up,' and for killing one resorted to derhargenen oyf toyt--'to kill to death.'"
Ultimately, in the teeth of pervasive bestiality, Yiddish literature, as poet Itzik Manger noted, revealed itself as "the last humanistic bolt of light on a dark continent that had once boasted of its culture and civilization." Though many Jews had grown apart from their ritual practices, Yiddish--what American poet and novelist Jacob Glatstein called "the warm fiddle of wise and understanding Yiddish"--became, says Wisse, "the repository of a civilizing alternative to the threatening barbarism of Europe...and writers could turn from the contemporary horror... to the sweet dignity of politically innocent fathers and mothers." However, this "yiddishism" carried with it profound self-delusion. For one thing, it "suggested to the Jews," says Wisse, "that they could continue to exist in Europe and elsewhere as autonomous cultural communities alongside of, but still unabsorbed by, their neighbors. It was," she continues, "conceptually utopian in its expectation that Jews could continue to maintain their exceptional character through the ersatz-motherland of culture." Not only did many Jews misguidedly equate a secular Yiddishkeyt, completely divested of ritual and law, with mentshlekhkeyt, humaneness, investing it with the full spiritual value of Jewishness; but even more tragically, they "attributed to it quasi-territorial status."
Considering the phenomenon of this marginalized and passive minority implanted on hostile soil brings Wisse to what she calls the "fatal complementarity" between the European Jews and their tormentors, which climaxed in the Holocaust. "To what extent might the pacific civilization of the Jews have provoked the anti-Semitism of Germans and Russians? Did the bleat of the lamb excite the tiger?"
Perhaps. But clearly, she stresses, it must never happen again. A people has no alternative to being able to defend itself. "Look. Let's say the Jewish people tried a very noble political experiment. After the Roman sack of Jerusalem, the Jews tried to live for nearly 2,000 years as a people without a land, without a central authority, and without any means of self-defense. They tried to compensate through other means--economic means, for example--for their acute political dependency. But the experiment failed, and they were crushed. This was the problem that Zionism addressed, though not in time to save the Jews of Europe. Still, if the German war against the Jews marks the nadir of Western civilization, the rebirth of the Jewish state is one of its sunniest milestones. It's devastating to see Jews becoming weary defending this splendid, miraculous undertaking."
The continuing war against Israel has aggravated this weariness in many Jews, particularly Jewish liberals, Wisse claims, but theirs is a weariness engendered in great part by a deep-seated moral confusion. In her book If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, she writes of the Jewish "moral strutters," self-designated carriers of a light unto the nations. Strutters, she says, "do not appear to recognize the difference between moral striving...and political scapegoating." They "think they recognize a continuity between the Jew's election to carry the burden of the Law at Sinai and the choice of the modern Jew as a prime target of international discrimination." Like today's liberals in general, they are optimists and rationalists, and they are paralyzed by what Zionism and its enemies reveal about their faith in humanity:
Zionism [Wisse writes] was the last hope of European civilization, for unless Europe could find a rational and just solution to the Jewish problem, Europe itself could no longer pretend to be liberal, rational, or just....From its birth in troubled secular Europe, [Zionism] required an acknowledgement of the destructive as well as the creative impulses of modern society....Zionism required...energetic and significant attentiveness to a small people whose fate exposed the depths of resistance to liberty, equality, fraternity. This is where it ran into trouble at the start, and where it flounders still. Those really infected by hatred cannot confront their own base prejudice, while those others who dream of a benign world order do not want to face the daily manifestation of malice and evil....Jewish self-affirmation has never been an exercise for the weak.
"The character of a nation," she continues, "is independent of its legitimacy, which is what Zionism sought to guarantee. The scandal of Arab rejectionism...half a century after the creation of the state of Israel is great enough. The scandal of Jews who overlook this outrage or accept it as a test of chosenness is an affront not only to Jewish life but to any moral life worth living."
And the Oslo accords? "Like an end to a part of my life. I felt then, and still do, that this was the first act by a government of Israel for which I as a Jew don't want to take moral responsibility. Here, after all that has happened, you hear Jews saying, 'So land, what's land?' Well, what do we want? It was not only the giving up of land that I objected to, but the pretense that this could advance the cause of peace. In fact, no people has ever armed its enemy with the expectation of gaining security. One would do anything possible to free Israelis from having to stand at perpetual alert. But apparently there is no in-between for the Jews. Maybe in 200 years, when--let us hope--the Jewish state is completely accepted, then we Jews can relax our guard."
Her book--and her passionate defense of a strong Israel--have made her a flashpoint of controversy. Hebraist Robert Alter, Ph.D. '62, attacked the book in the New Republic as flawed by "a series of terrible simplifications." On the one hand, he says, "The child of a Russian [sic] Jewish family that very narrowly escaped the Holocaust, Wisse is possessed by a single powerful idea that is palpably rooted in recent historical reality." On the other hand, he continues, Wisse makes no allowance "for the possibility of a tough-minded or pragmatic liberal," and moreover is "convinced that every day is Masada." Edward Alexander, responding in Commentary with the lead, "Ruth Wisse is worth a battalion," reminded Alter of Golda Meir's remark: "We do have a Masada complex. We have a pogrom complex. We have a Hitler complex." Alexander also reminded Alter that three months after Alter himself had proposed in Commentary that Israel "jettison its 'Masada' myth, the Arabs, who showed no evidence of dispensing with theirmyths, launched the Yom Kippur War and very nearly overran the state."
In speaking appearances, too, controvery clings to Wisse like filings to a magnet. Opening a colloquium at the Kennedy School last fall, the moderator said, "It's probably fair to say that all of you here can be politically defined by where you stand vis-à-vis Ruth Wisse." Some of the hostility that evening did escalate into megawattage. Daniel Pipes rose to her support, as did Martin Peretz. But the coolest participant of all was Wisse herself, who to all appearances thrives on this sort of confrontation.
Such aplomb awes her defenders. Novelist Cynthia Ozick says, "She's just immense. She is my absolute heroine. I don't know how she does it; well, yes I do. It's precisely because she is a scholar-hero who stands very nearly alone on a peak in her scholarship that she is a public hero. Her familiarity with history gives her the courage of clarity. She will stand up even in Harvard Square against every falsehood, distortion, and misapprehension."
All these magnet filings swirl about someone who would rather be a sequestered scholar and a mother-figure than a warrior any day. "It's a privilege to defend Israel," she says. "But it would be a lot easier if more people were doing it." "I feel kind of sorry for her," says Saul Bellow. "She's out there remembering for all of us, but it sort of puts her in a perpetual state of crisis-alert."
The line for her between scholarship and polemics, however, is clearly drawn. "I don't want any of this in my classrooms," she says. "The only legitimate use of the first person plural pronoun in class is 'we students.' 'We Jews' or 'we anything-else' is not an appropriate category in what must be a disinterested, investigative framework. You can understand how difficult it is to maintain this position when everywhere around you these categories have been collapsed. But one is not a propagandist and the classroom is not a pulpit."
Lizzy Ratner '97, a student in Wisse's "Literature and Politics" course, confirms: "I went in there as an advocate of the PLO; my thesis came from totally the opposite end of the spectrum from where she is. I never felt misunderstood or penalized for my views; I felt my views were welcome. We used to get into these big discussions outside of class, like at her house. She actually cooked dinner for us!"
As scholar and polemicist, Wisse takes aim at her bête noir, the culture of victimhood. Many Jews, she feels, wear victim status like a badge, and their victimhood encourages them in problematic undertakings based on wish fulfillment. Like most such questionable endeavors, they often backfire. One example is teaching about the Holocaust, particularly to non-Jews or in a museum setting. Some Jewish organizations, she writes,
expect that imparting information about the murder of the Jews of Europe will ensure its never happening again. Yet almost everything we know about human nature and history would lead to a more obvious conclusion. From the images of Auschwitz and Buchenwald one could derive that: (a) Jews are an easy target; (b) something must be wrong with the Jews if they were selected as a target; (c) it is not a good idea to be a Jew.
As such things happen, Wisse is on the search committee for a scholar to fill the proposed Zelaznik chair in Holocaust studies at Harvard.
Her opposition to the concept of victimhood and all its cognates--as in victim studies--sets her squarely against the greater part of what she calls "the liberal orthodoxy," particularly as it has developed since the 1960s. Recently, in a single essay for Commentary, she mounted a frontal assault on both feminism and the "boutique politics" invented at Harvard and other institutions to circumvent ROTC. To excerpt but one sentence, on feminism:
By defining relations between men and women in terms of power and competition instead of reciprocity and cooperation, the [women's] movement tore apart the most basic and fragile contract in human society, the unit from which all other social institutions draw their strength.
This article--incendiary or cautionary, depending on one's point of view--caught her in the customary cross-fire: on the one hand, she's a crank and doomsayer; on the other, a prophet and voice of sanity.Commentary editor Neal Kozodoy '63 says, "She kind of shatters the eidl-deedl-deidl stereotype of the Yiddishist, wouldn't you say?"
Justin Cammy, a Ph.D. candidate studying modern Yiddish literature with Wisse, respects her aversion to the culture of victimization, especially in Jewish studies. "If there's anyone in the world who suffers because of what happened to the Jews, it's Professor Wisse," he says. "But she is not one to hold up the silent martyr, the weak, the downtrodden as ideals. One of the things you learn from her is to look at Yiddish without romanticizing or sentimentalizing."
"Sentimentality," Wisse affirms, "is a waste. It's demeaning to the culture you're feeling sentimental about. Does all this klezmer and borscht-belt nostalgia tell you anything at all about the actual civilization that existed, about the books people read and wrote, the work they did, what it meant to go to synagogue twice a day, the intimate relationship they had with the Hebrew bible? This is hard stuff and very difficult to retrieve. You know, this is why Jacob Glatstein is 'my' poet, in the sense that the older he got, the grittier he got. Look how he addresses his fellow poets in his poem 'Yiddishkeyt':
Nostalgia Yiddishkeyt is a lullaby for old men
gumming soaked white challah.
Shall we provide the soft crumbs,
the lifeless and hollow words,
we who had dreamed
of new Men of the Great Assembly?
"What I want to share with my students," Wisse continues, "is the vigor of Yiddish culture, not the 'soft crumbs.' The Jews whose lives ended in the ghettos and the trains were not only martyrs. Certainly they were wiped out, exterminated. But what was it that made theirs such an astonishing civilization? You have a literature which was just reaching its point of greatest ripeness; you have poetry, drama, film. You have a tradition that is rising, deepening, broadening, strengthening; in terms of the complexity of Jewish thought and the achievement of Jewish minds, Ashkenazic Jewish civilization represented one of the highest peaks in the history of Judaism.
"I want to share all this, and wherever possible, I want to share it in the original."
Bialik, ir hërt? Do you hear?
*Translated by Abraham M. Klein, in Complete Poetic Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik: Translated from the Hebrew, volume 1, edited with introduction by Israel Efros (The Histadruth Ivrith of America Inc., New York, 1948).
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