Ruth Wisse: Teacher and Mentor

Written by:
Debra Caplan
Summer 2015
Part of issue number:
600 web ruth 4.jpg
Photograph by Ken Collins

Many years before I began my formal study of Yiddish literature, I first encountered Ruth Wisse in my father’s library. On the shelf where he kept his favorite books were much-beloved, dog-eared copies of her Schlemiel as Modern Hero and Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, which she edited with Irving Howe and Khone Shmeruk.

These classics were my introduction as a teenager to Yiddish literature.

It was the memory of those books that led me, as an undergraduate at Hampshire College, to the Yiddish Book Center, where I spent countless hours working in the book repository and as a tour guide. And it was through the Center’s internship program that I first met Ruth, who one day during my time there gave an inspired lecture on the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever that seemed to instantly clarify passages I had previously found stubbornly obtuse.

Later, when I was a doctoral student under Ruth’s tutelage, she continued to guide my exploration of Yiddish literature and culture. To say that Ruth is my teacher and mentor is almost an understatement. I am not alone in this sentiment; indeed, Ruth’s former students include Yiddish academics, writers, and kultur-tuers (cultural activists), among them the novelist Dara Horn, scholars Justin Cammy, Rachel Rubinstein, and Jeremy Dauber, the Yiddish Book Center’s academic director Joshua Lambert, and its founder and president Aaron Lansky.

Ruth is that rare teacher of literature who requires students not only to read and understand a text but to articulate what it really means—what it means to literary history, to Jewish history, to modern Jewish life, to posterity—to us. In the classroom, she has challenged generations of students to locate what is most important to them in Yiddish texts, igniting a passion that has resulted in countless books, articles, dissertations, artistic projects, and even—in the case of the Yiddish Book Center—entire institutions.

Ruth was drawn to the study of Yiddish literature by what she describes as its association with “a youth of phenomenal excitement”—the exuberant youth of her parents growing up in Vilna, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania; the endlessly exciting youth of a generation of writers who came of age as Jewish life itself was rapidly modernizing; the fascination with youth among groups of writers who gave themselves names like Di Yunge (The Young Ones) or Yung Vilne (Young Vilna).

“My greatest frustration in telling people what I do,” she confided to me one day this spring over chocolates and lemonade in her Upper East Side apartment, “is the degree to which people associate [the study of Yiddish literature] with old age. But the incongruity is that here’s a literature that, if it suffers from anything, suffers from its youthfulness, from the exaggerated emphasis on innovativeness and on modernity and originality. And yet when it came to people’s expectations about what you were doing, they associated it with an old folks home.”

By any account, Ruth Wisse is a pioneer in the field of Yiddish literary studies. Born in Czernowitz, Romania, in 1936, Ruth grew up in Montreal in a home where Yiddish language and literature were part of the texture of everyday life. She attended McGill University, where she received her bachelor’s in English literature.

A pivotal conversation with the great Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever, whom she met while working for the Canadian Jewish Congress after college, inspired her to incorporate Yiddish into her graduate studies. Hearing of Ruth’s plans to continue studying English in graduate school, the poet asked her why she wasn’t planning to study Yiddish instead.

Initially, she told the Forward in a 2014 interview, she laughed off the idea (“And what would I do? Teach Sholem Aleichem?”). But a few years after college, while enrolled in a master’s program in comparative literature at Columbia, she had the opportunity to study with the venerable father-and-son Yiddish linguists Max and Uriel Weinreich. She returned to McGill for a PhD in English and, as a faculty member there, began teaching Yiddish literature and helped to found the Department of Jewish Studies. In 1993 she was named the first Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard, where she taught until her retirement in 2014. Along the way, she helped shape the field of Yiddish studies and create a home for it in the university.

In the early years of her career, Ruth recalled, she was intrigued by virtually everything about Yiddish literature. The literature came of age in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, against the backdrop of rapid modernization, political turmoil, war, migration, revolution—an extraordinary moment that was simply “throbbing with eventfulness.” That in turn enabled a prodigious literary flowering. “It wasn’t as though you had to look for subjects or look for tension or look for crises,” she mused, eyes sparkling. “They were happening all the time, and it was like writers were just walking around with bushel baskets, not knowing what to do with all this that was happening and available to them.”

But what about now? I asked. What continues to draw students and readers to this body of literature? What does it hold for twenty-first-century Jews, who associate Yiddish with old age rather than youth and who typically are generations removed from Yiddish as a spoken language?

Ruth told me about a Yiddish literature class for Haredi (strictly orthodox) women that she recently taught in New York. The students—all of whom spoke Yiddish but were largely unaccustomed to reading the language—read texts in Yiddish and English side by side. Unlike many of Wisse’s college students, who often required detailed explanations of the particularities of Jewish religious references and practices, the women in the seminar were familiar with the world in which these texts were written. One participant, the principal of a school for Hasidic girls, was so inspired by I. L. Peretz’s short stories that she decided to introduce them into the curriculum of her school. Perhaps, we mused together, this may be a pathway for building a future readership for this literature. But what of the students who come to Yiddish through a book, as I once did, or through a university course, perhaps one taught by Ruth’s dozens of former students?

“I’ve often compared the loss of Yiddish to a lobotomy,” she replied. “Because Yiddish was simply taken out of the whole experience of the Jewish people as it developed in the twentieth century. It’s like a piece of it was completely cut out, with everything that it contained. In my mind, the process of modernization of the Jewish people took place mostly in Yiddish. And so, not to have all that cultural evolution at your disposal means that you really don’t have access to the whole process of your modernization. Yiddish is a key to the essence of the Jewish people.”

I asked her what she thinks ought to be the priorities for the teaching and preservation of Yiddish in the twenty-first century. She replied in characteristic fashion, turning the question over to me, her former student. “The priorities will be an outcome of your deepest needs. In other words, what do you need from Yiddish literature? What do you need it to provide you with? What are the missing pieces about those years? That’s when it comes alive.”