The publication of this autobiography by Ruth Wisse is an important occasion. Wisse is a towering figure in the Jewish world, with a brilliant career in Yiddish and Jewish literature. From 1993–2014, she was Professor of Yiddish literature and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, during which time she received the National Medal for the Humanities. Prior to this, she helped found the Jewish Studies Department at McGill, chaired the Association of Jewish Studies, and authored five respected books. In addition, Wisse is an outspoken conservative political commentator and activist who, for decades, has published opinion pieces and essays in prominent journals and newspapers. The relationship between these two parts of Wisse’s intellectual life, the literary and the political, is perplexing, even paradoxical, to some, especially those who mistakenly view Yiddish as primarily a linguistic repository for socialist ideals. Wisse’s excellent autobiography, like the two lenses in one pair of glasses, brings together these two aspects of her intellectual life and shows how they interrelate, providing a three-dimensional portrait, with visual and conceptual depth, of a remarkable woman and a remarkable life.
Ruth Rojskes (later, in Canada, Roskies) was born in 1936 in Czernowitz, then part of Romania (now Ukraine). In 1940, she fled with her parents and older brother Ben from Soviet Russia’s invasion of Romania, and after a month reached safety in Montreal. Wisse is careful to make clear that, although members of both her parents’ families were subsequently murdered by the Nazis, at the time of her family’s escape they were fleeing not German fascism but Soviet communism (a factor perhaps relevant in her longstanding abhorrence of communism). Wisse attributes her family’s survival to two of her father Leo’s capacities: his economic success as an industrialist, which earned him a medal from the king of Romania, thanks to which Leo could acquire exit visas; and his political realism. He foresaw the danger posed by the Soviets, where most others did not; Wisse’s parents were the only ones among their friends or acquaintances who left Czernowitz in 1940. Wisse prizes her father’s political realism and has tried to emulate it. And her autobiography refers repeatedly to the necessity of both power (economic or otherwise) and political realism if Jews are to survive.
An anecdote Wisse tells in this book about an incident that occurred during her family’s escape illuminates both her own self-perception and the way she was regarded by her parents. Whenever the family came to a checkpoint, her parents would place her in front of them, in the hope that she, “an adorable mascot” with curly blond hair and perfect, “cheeky” German, would help get them through. On one particular occasion, before boarding the ship in Lisbon that would take them to North America, there was a problem with acquiring their temporary visas for the stopover in the United States, and without these they were going to miss their ship, perhaps their only chance to escape from Europe. Leo argued with the official, who then said that Ruth reminded him of his own daughter and handed over the necessary visas. Whatever the precise reason for this official’s about-face, in her family’s narrative, Wisse, at age four – through her personal charm and self-confidence – helped them avert disaster. Wisse seems to have had, from an early age, a sense of her own capacity to influence her environment and the outcome of events, and to protect her own and others’ lives in the face of danger, threat, or the indifference of “neutral” players.
One crucial element in this story is the fact that Wisse – and she alone; not her parents or her nine-year-old brother – spoke flawless German with a perfect accent. She writes: “…my mastery of German would prove its true value during our escape from Europe” (p. 22). She learned her German from her Jewish, German-speaking, punctilious nanny/governess, Peppi, who shared a bedroom with her and saw to her every need. So, early on, Wisse grasped the power of language. It could be a tool, a weapon, in the fight for survival. The key to life.
This appreciation of the importance and power of language was reinforced at home by Wisse’s mother Masza, who played a prominent role in Montreal’s Jewish community as a convenor of literary evenings in support of Yiddish writers and poets. She was also an amateur performer of Yiddish songs who had received praise from Yiddish poet-songwriter Mordecai Gebirtig for her interpretations of his songs. Masza had a passion for Yiddish culture, which she actively instilled in her children. Wisse recalls growing up “at the center of a lively literary world that imbued [her] with a reverence for writers and books” (p. 44). The elementary school she attended, the Shloime Wiseman-led Jewish People’s School (Folk Shule) – which, in her view, was an ideal Jewish school – meshed seamlessly with the culture and values of her home. These values included the obligation to help others, especially Jews. Her parents generously aided not only writers and artists, but myriad relatives and other Jewish immigrants to Montreal. Similarly, the chief value at the Jewish camp where she spent every summer from age five to nineteen was that of mutual responsibility. Wisse’s sense of duty and community obligation was a cornerstone of her upbringing and childhood, both at home and beyond.
This sense of responsibility manifested itself both vis-à-vis the Jewish community and the community at large. In the absence of a Jewish high school in Montreal at that time, Wisse attended the local Protestant one, Strathcona Academy, where she quickly adapted to the new culture, and in her senior year was elected President of Student Council. Throughout high school, she’d abhorred the practice of strapping boys as punishment, and abolishing this was part of her campaign platform and one of her motives for running for president. She made good on this promise once elected, successfully persuading the school’s administration to discontinue this mode of discipline.
Wisse’s self-confidence and leadership abilities continued to find expression in college. As an undergraduate at McGill, she volunteered at the student newspaper, The McGill Daily, writing articles on literature and culture, and then becoming the paper’s Features editor. At that point, her politics were progressive, at least partly because she relished the folk and protest songs of that era. However, not long afterwards her politics began to change. Although she was in her forties when, for the first time, she did not vote Liberal in a Canadian election, by then she had already established herself as a political conservative, publishing polemics against the left in the conservative American magazine Commentary, outraged most of all by the left’s embrace of anti-Zionism. This phenomenon did not affect her day-to-day work at McGill, where she was teaching; she enjoyed her academic life as a respected scholar and sought-after teacher. (Disclosure: I was one of her students back then.) When Wisse went to Harvard, however, in 1993, she experienced campus anti-Zionism first-hand. There the Palestinian narrative, which demonized Israel and questioned its right to exist, had permeated the left, and through the left and its allies, come to dominate campus politics. Wisse, throughout her two decades at Harvard, was valiant and outspoken, battling the attacks against Israel and Jews as best she could, sometimes singlehandedly. Most disappointing and infuriating for her were her Jewish colleagues at Harvard and elsewhere who remained silent in the face of anti-Zionist assaults or even supported them. She viewed with blistering contempt Jews who “prided themselves on their goodness, and therefore had to hold other Jews responsible for the enmity that Jews aroused… the tolerant liberals whose generosity extends to the perpetrators” (p. 251). Such Jews reminded her of a Yiddish adage that she’d learned from her mother: a rakhman af gazlonim iz a gazlen af rakhmonim (pity for the cruel is cruelty to the truly pitiable) – which helped her to understand why liberalism, along with its followers, “so often betrays itself by sliding into the illiberal left” (p. 193).
In her prologue Wisse acknowledges that most North American Jews do not share her conservative views or vote the way that she does. This being the case, some readers of this book who (like me) identify as progressive may be dismayed by Wisse’s wholesale dismissal of all things progressive, including feminism. Yet Wisse is clear-eyed and accurate in defining left-wing anti-Zionism (which is not to be confused with legitimate critiques of Israel or its leaders) as a form of antisemitism. This antisemitism is precisely the reason that many progressive, Israel-loving Jews no longer consider themselves a part of the left.
As for the relationship between Yiddish and Wisse’s politics, it was not only her mother’s Yiddish adage that shaped her conservative views. She writes: “I Iearned political realism from Yiddish literature” (p. 179), and “Amazing how the study of Yiddish literature had educated me in politics. In sour moments I said that I had been teaching the history of Jewish mistakes” (p. 288). An example of what she gleaned about politics from Yiddish literature is her comment about Mendele Mocher Sforim’s novel The Mare: “This exposé of the Jewish condition and the potential harm Jewish reformers can do on an already hostile continent was the boldest, most incisive treatment of modern Jewish politics I had ever seen, and it informed my subsequent understanding of the relations among Jews, their intellectual elites, and the enemies who are out to get them” (p. 135).
This autobiography is wonderfully written and a pleasure to read. Wisse’s prose is lively and engaging, and she is a skilled raconteuse who uses language masterfully and artfully. The characters, stories, and experiences in this autobiography come to life so vividly that some of them remained with me for days, even weeks, afterward (as happens with good fiction). The parts of this book that I found most memorable or compelling were the ones dealing with Wisse’s personal life and development as she grew up within Montreal’s Jewish community, rather than the polemical sections which mainly reiterate ideas already published in her previous books or essays. Still, these sections are essential, given that this is an intellectual autobiography, and their intertwining here with the events in Wisse’s life imbues them with additional context and resonance. So ultimately the polemical and personal sections together form a satisfying and cohesive whole.
Also satisfying, and enlightening too, while accompanying Wisse on her journey, is that one is in such interesting company. The people she has crossed paths with as mentors, colleagues, associates, and friends reads like a Who’s Who of Jewish leaders, intellectuals, and celebrities of her day. In Montreal, this included Leonard Cohen, Irwin Cotler, and David Hartman; elsewhere she met Montreal-born Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Elie Wiesel, Norman Podhoretz, Neal Kozodoy, Hillel Halkin, Lucy Dawidowicz, Irving Kristol, Martin Peretz, and Salo Baron. And what a thrill for those of us who love Yiddish to meet, through Wisse’s eyes, some of the luminaries of the Yiddish literary world: Montrealers Chava Rosenfarb, Melech Ravitch, Rokhl Korn, and J.I. Segal; as well as Avrom Sutzkever, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Max Weinreich, Irving Howe, Itzik Manger, Chaim Grade, Leib Rochman, Avrom Reisen, Uriel Weinreich, Benjamin Harshav, and Khone Shmeruk. Sutzkever has a special place in Wisse’s life: he diverted her career path from the study of English literature at McGill to pursuing graduate work in Yiddish at Columbia – thus changing not only the course of her life, but that of Yiddish literature, as well. There is a photograph in this autobiography of Sutzkever with Wisse, and there are also wonderful, evocative pictures of her with other colleagues and family and friends, which visually enrich this book. Photographs also figure in a happy episode that she recounts, when five years ago the photo album belonging to an aunt murdered in the Holocaust was miraculously recovered and restored to Wisse and her family. This autobiography is also well-edited, with only one mistake in 354 pages: Robert Bourassa, who lived on the same Montreal street as Wisse when they were both growing up, became Premier of Quebec, but never Prime Minister of Canada.
In Free as a Jew, there are some silences, omissions, as there are in the Bible or any book. This is not a tell-all autobiography full of secrets, exacting self-scrutiny (which, Wisse writes, is something she mistrusts), or intimate revelations about herself and her contemporaries. She does mention, in passing, a few of her insecurities and uncertainties as a young woman, but this is not a book about self-doubts or regret over paths not taken. It is an intellectual autobiography that traces the evolution of Wisse’s thinking and ideas in the context of her time and place, and as such, it is fascinating and illuminating. Part of what makes it so is its richness, intelligence, and verve, as well as another element that is reflected in the subtitle of this autobiography, “A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation.” For Wisse, the personal and the national/collective are enmeshed. So to read this story of her life is to follow, through her, the thread of recent Jewish history (from 1940 to the present), which includes what she calls one of “the human wonders of the world” (p. 354), the establishment of the State of Israel.
Wisse, in writing this autobiography, has a clear purpose, which she makes explicit in the prologue. In contrast to personal memoirs about individuals who have surmounted personal obstacles, she explains that her story is worth telling “not because of what I overcame, but because of what we all have yet to overcome” (p. 8). Its raison d’être, then, is to educate, to warn. Indeed, when Wisse began writing this book, its working title was To the Graduating Class. Wisse, a lifelong and devoted educator, is acutely aware of the potential losses to the Jewish people if they attend only “to self-improvement without commensurate care for self-protection” (p. 344). And Wisse has experienced losses. Regarding her escape from Europe, all she can remember is “a little green leather purse… that disappeared, and I mourned its loss… Maybe I had to lose it, as a stand-in for all the things that I did not remember parting with” (p. 29). She parted with her home, her city, and everything and everyone she’d known up to that point, including relatives and her nanny/governess, Peppi, none of whom she ever saw again. But what concerns Wisse far more than past losses are future ones: the possible loss of the security, freedoms, and rights that so many naively take for granted, and which, according to her, must be fought for and defended if people, including Jews, want to keep them.
To Wisse, essential to accomplishing this is education. Part of her own education, her ardour for Yiddish culture, came from her mother, but it was from her adored older brother Ben that she was exposed to culture of other kinds via the books and magazines he brought home (which is how she first discovered both Saul Bellow’s writing and Commentary). Ben influenced her taste in music and literature, helped shape her political ideas, and imparted to her a passion for Zionism. When he died at the age of forty-three, Wisse reacted not with sadness or despair like those around her, but with rage. Then, not long afterward, she began, for the first time, to express her political views in writing, and to publish in Commentary. Writing (as writers know) is sometimes born of rage, and other times out of love or grief. Free as a Jew contains a mix of all three, but this time in relation not to an individual but to the Jewish people as a whole. “Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past,” this book seems to be urging. “Let us not invest all our efforts in self-improvement while neglecting the need to protect ourselves.” Free as a Jew is an important autobiography that should be widely read. Yet it is also more than that: it is a clarion call. And it’s one that, in the dangerous times in which we live, we would do well to heed.