Ruth Wisse is clearly a national treasure—that’s not in question—but of which nation?
The subtitle of her important new book, Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, insinuates the quandary. Only someone for whom public and private are deeply felt—and passionately lived—as conjoined, in profound, productive interconnection, could conceive such an autobiographical argument with the present in light of the past.
This is the story of a woman whose Judaism, Zionism, and classical liberalism are inseparable, in other words. As are both the quality of her personal reminiscences and urgency of concern for our collective fate in these troubled times, when the meaning of democracy is at stake in riots and DEI training sessions.
Thus, Free as a Jew is a revealing look back on eight decades of an individual life well lived, with an eye toward what may yet come to pass for all of us—in terms of the currently dire cultural-political climate, in which dissent from woke capital’s administrative state mind-control is punishable by cancelation. Not “good for the Jews”—or any other free people.
As much prophetic critique, therefore, as token of past battles joined (a call to arms in the form of an indelible example of what standing up for freedom looks like), this memorable memoir (required reading for all Zionists, North American patriots, university faculty and administrators, as well as, needless to add, scholars of Yiddish literature) is as inspiring as it is a sheer joy to read. Always a lucid, incisive writer, Mrs. Wisse’s understated elegance as a prose stylist is on display here, in this charming portrait of the academician, scholar, and public intellectual as a young woman. Her trademark, bright, smiling eyes, set above that knowing grin, seem to wink at the reader on page after page of gentle irony—seducing further interpretation of all this conflict recollected in tranquility.
Moreover, the extraordinary level of accomplishment such an account inevitably records does not come along every day, either. Unless you’ve been asleep under a rock (or have no interest in 20th-century politics and culture), you know that the author was instrumental, along with other giants, such as the late, great Irving Howe ז׳׳ל (about whom more below), in establishing Yiddish literature as a fit topic of academic study.
Chapter by chapter, therefore, a remarkable, indeed, emblematic story unfolds; as much the spiritual journey of a generation that moved “from left to right” (as Nancy Sinkoff puts it, in the title of her book on Wisse’s senior colleague in the nascent field of Yiddish literature, Lucy Dawidowicz) as an individual quest for liberty in solidarity. Hence Free as a Jew’s striking conflation of the idiosyncratic and universal: For once, the overhyped adage, “the personal is the political,” is earned.
Which nation claims such an heroic woman’s legacy, then?
Surely the nation in question must be Romania; where Wisse was born, after all, to a Jewish family living in Cernowitz? Or is it, rather, Ukraine; to which Cernowitz now belongs? Lithuania, perhaps; where her family was from and retained deep ties? Canada; where she grew up and earned a Ph.D. at McGill University? The United States of America; where she joined the faculty at Harvard in 1993, as the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Comparative Literature? Or, more likely, Israel’s Jewish state; where she has taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, and has every reason to feel at home, having fled Europe’s genocidal anti-Semitism as a child?
In this respect, being born a Jew in Europe, in 1936, on the cusp of World War II, would seem to have done little enough to root her there permanently, in any obvious way. Nevertheless, she returned, triumphantly, to her roots, both figuratively and literally, rescuing Yiddish literature from the ashes where it was nearly buried by the Nazis—including in an important anthology, The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, coedited with Irving Howe and Khone Shmeruk.
Remarkably, however, the junior partner in this bashert collaboration never saw the Yiddish language as an inherent instrument of socialism, the way Howe did. For if, in the eyes of Dissent’s founding editor, Yiddish was, above all, the language of “the little guy” or even “the little Jew” [sic], as she recounts, Wisse knew better. She could have done without such sweeping “grand formulations,” finding all the grandeur she needed in the works of Yiddish literature themselves. There was, for her, nothing essentially leftist, let alone victimized—and certainly nothing little—about being Jewish.
Nor was there anything to admire in those who saw modern Hebrew as the language of the oppressor. Once more, she was ahead of trends, this time in bringing the Israeli “New Jew” together with the ghost of Europe’s older one: “Yiddish was for me and my siblings—as for our parents and teachers—the vehicle not of socialism but of a Jewishness that naturally included Zionism, the organic connection of Jews to their homeland.” This ecumenical move was key. Something for which she will not be forgotten. Whatever linguistic family feuds may have taken place, once upon a time in Palestine, the future destiny of these Jewish languages was that of mishpocha.
That’s why, for example, from the other end of the political spectrum, as I would like to suggest here, Fania and Amos Oz could, quite rightly, call their coauthored book of 2012 Jews and Words (and not, as one sour review from the left had it, “Israelis and Hebrew”). Political differences are one thing; not the only thing. Albeit, there are limits: “From the time that anti-Zionism began to make its way into America, I could not respect, much less befriend, anyone who joined the prosecution.” In view of what eventually became, in her eyes, Howe’s “leftist opposition to Israel,” Wisse records that their collaboration would have been impossible. Timing was everything.
So, at the time, to his enthusiasm for the subject, she lent her expertise. They “split the difference between intellectuals who knew a little about a lot and scholars who knew a lot about a little.” While Howe “understood spoken Yiddish,” it was the junior partner in that fabled collaboration who read with genuine mastery.
And thus, together, this odd couple of geniuses succeeded, brilliantly, at changing the Levinasian “face” of our intellectual inheritance. Moreover, in the wake of World War II’s catastrophe for Yiddish speakers, Wisse had recovered libraries, dusted them off, and created syllabuses based on pioneering research. A child of Europe, she remained.
Yet, beyond that, for decades a frequent contributor to Commentary, the leading journal of American public opinion and Jewish life, she helped invent the very role of “public intellectual,” when it still meant something more than a professor with a Twitter account. And thus, the self-deprecating “difference” between herself and her legendary coeditor, in this respect, did not last long—as she closed the gap between scholarship and l’écriture engagée in her own multifaceted persona.
Which meant that, as an out of the closet “neocon” at a liberal bastion like Harvard, in the 1990s and 2000s, she found herself out of step with her surroundings. Identity politics never interested—or rather, never persuaded—her. Only the eminent Straussian political philosopher, Harvey Mansfield, proved a reliable ally—the Professor of Government recognizing, in the literary scholar, an acumen for judging public affairs increasingly rare on campus, as the social sciences, like the humanities, plunged fatefully into political correctness.
Of the woman question, she writes, “The resemblance of politicized feminism to Bolshevism was never far from my mind.” Ahead of others, her sensitive totalitarianism detectors told her what has become increasingly apparent since, with the rise of ideologically driven Gender Studies, Black Studies, and Queer Theory: the idea of “liberal education,” as a truth-seeking enterprise, cannot survive its ruthless (no pun intended) politicization.
While naturally hailing the “evolutionary” progress of possibilities for modern women, liberated by science from nature’s age-old oppression of biological females, conscripted into motherhood (including the once all-consuming chores of childbearing and child rearing), Wisse never signed on to radical feminism’s setting of men and women against each other. “I never thought such welcome evolutionary developments warranted an ideological power struggle between men and women whose loving partnership was the bedrock of any sane society,” she recalls, “and I feared that the politicization of gender would damage America at least as much—if not more—than communism did Russia.” She was right, of course; as America’s insane “culture wars” rage on, still, to the point where the banal utterance, “a man is not a woman,” can earn nontrivial censure from lunatics.
What went wrong? Mrs. Wisse attributes the more obstreperous variants of feminism to a fear of change. Appalled, she marvels at the destructive “women’s movement,” conducted by the few (including lesbian separatists) in the name of the many (women at large): “Whatever anxieties accompanied the fact of greater opportunity, how could women confuse their relief from the historical dangers of childbirth and child rearing with some kind of patriarchal oppression?” Hysterical overreaction to a world of new possibilities, but also new responsibilities, led to litanies of complaint at the behest of resentful rabble rousers, where gratitude would have been more in order. “The incredible lightness of being a modern woman in a Western democracy ought to have elicited hosannas beyond the thanks we owed to God for the gift of life itself,” she writes, in frank disbelief at the feminists’ insane rejection of patriarchy’s gifts.
Likewise, her love of Israel, in itself, didn’t necessarily have to put her at odds with anyone. But with the rise of BDS, and related harangues against Israel’s legitimacy as a member of the family of nations, her unswerving commitment to Jews’ sovereignty in their native land made her a target of the so-called “new” anti-Semitism (novel only insofar as it was supposed to have been more calibrated in its aim at the Jewish state). Attacked for the thoughtcrime of (in the words of outraged detractors) “denying that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are separate phenomena,” she was unflinching: “I had indeed shown that anti-Zionism was a more advanced form of anti-Semitism, the former launched against the Jews in dispersion and the latter in their homeland” (emphasis added).
What was so special about Jewish nationalism, after all? To make it more plain, “Zionism resembled dozens of contemporaneous movements of national self-liberation and the Jews’ indigenous right to the Land of Israel is as solid as the claim top the Chinese to China.” In this light, selectively denying one particular nation its state was plainly anti-Semitic. You don’t want Jews in the club of established UN members, irrevocably recognized as such by international law? What else would you call it?
It wasn’t so “new” after all, then! For, already in 1975, as she saw clearly, with the passing of the USSR-backed UN Resolution 3379, branding Zionism as racism (later revoked in 1991, at the end of the Cold War), “Anti-Semitism had demonized the Jews in dispersion; Soviet conceived anti-Zionism demonized the Jews in their homeland.” And so it was, later, with BDS—which had taken up, again, what was essentially a Stalinist line against the Jews.
She takes fashionable “intersectionality” to task, as well, observing that it “made Larry Summers [then president of Harvard] its first target,” when, in 2006, he was hounded from office for expressing the most mild demur as to some of feminism’s more dubious, least scientific, shibboleths about the foundations of male and female social psychology. Once again, Mrs. Wisse was out front, ahead of the rest in sensing the controversy’s larger significance. She unsuccessfully urged a reluctant Summers, at the time, to fight his “cancelation,” before the term existed in its current usage.
The mild-mannered former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury landed on his feet, of course. But what of the terrifying message his ritual sacrifice sent to others, less “uncancellable”? Not coincidentally, it would be Summers, himself, who later coined a most apt phrase for describing such discursive pogroms, akin to BDS, as “anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
Nor does she give Black anti-Semitism a pass here. Undaunted by taboos against doubting romanticized pictures of the oppressed Other (including women, Third World peoples, workers), she faces facts on matters of race, too. While anti-Semitism was generally on the wane in the 1990s, she records, “it was on the rise among black Americans, especially [sic] the younger and more educated.” This too, then was a part of l’affaire Summers. “Within a year of his arrival, two professors of African and African American studies had labeled the president a racist and Zionist-racist opponent of free speech.”
It was fallacious. What it revealed was that “anti-Jewish politics did not end with the Holocaust but rather morphed into attacks on Israel” and its defenders. That’s what intersectionality meant at its inception, and what it means now.
So, of which nation, then, is Mrs. Wisse the enduring, uncancellable, and much beloved “national treasure”? Surely that is clear at this point.
Why, the Jewish nation, of course!
For if the German-Jewish American philosopher, Hannah Arendt, notoriously lacked ahavat Yisrael, not so the Litvak Canadian author of Free as a Jew.
Moreover, with her blend of universal and particular, local and global commitments, her “rooted cosmopolitanism” (to borrow Mitchell Cohen’s felicitous, subversive trope) is surely representative of both the Jewish and human race at its best. “I pinned my hopes for human civilization on the ability of the Jews to maintain their national sovereignty,” says it all. How does the old joke go? “Yiddish literature scholars are like other people…only more so”?
Her newest book, therefore, will be of enormous interest to Jews and human beings alike; as it will to those with open minds on the political left, right, and center. A story of indomitable courage in the face of would-be intimidation; commitment to both free speech and academic freedom in the face of threatened censorship; and, above all, fidelity to what it means to be a mensch in an inhuman, anti-intellectual period of regressive progressivism, “woke racism” (in John McWhorter’s inevitable appellation), and intensified ideological terror: Mrs. Wisse shows us all what it meant—and means—to be free as a Jew. Indeed: as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother, as scholar, as a teacher, and as an advocate for what and in whom she believes, Ruth Wisse personifies what it means to be an auto-emancipating member of a free people, in and through the roles to which nature’s God has so generously suited her.
With this highly readable self-authoring—sure to engage average readers looking for good gossip from one of the last of the New York Intellectuals, as much as scholars tracing 20th-century intellectual history—she has bequeathed to posterity not just a tale of “national self-liberation,” pointedly blurring the difference between tribe and trieb, but a new genre of writing and way of being: life as polemic.