Ruth Wisse remembers

Ruth R. Wisse is a leading scholar of Yiddish literature. To many conservatives, she is best known for her frequent contributions to Commentary magazine.

Wisse has published her memoir. The book is called Free as a Jew: A Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation.

Cynthia Ozick, Wisse’s fellow Commentary comrade-in-arms, calls the book an “intellectual autobiography. . .of profound moral force and scathing political discernment.” I agree.

The book begins with a riveting account of pre-World War II Eastern Europe — the world of Wisse’s parents and the world from which Wisse escaped with her family at the age of four soon after Hitler and Stalin signed their pact. Her father saw their departure as an escape from Soviet Communists as well as from German Nazis. This insight might explain why, unlike so many intellectuals in her North American circles, Wisse was never seduced by the hard left.

The Wisse family ended up in Montreal. Her account of growing up Jewish there, particularly during the time of the struggle to establish Israel as a Jewish state, depicts a fascinating milieu with which I was unfamiliar.

The remainder of Free as a Jew weaves Wisse’s professional progress — she eventually became the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard — together with the many intellectual battles she fought. Wisse may have been a somewhat reluctant warrior at first, but she became a fierce one.

Wisse wasn’t always right. She confesses to having believed that feminism was just a fad. But her record holds up very well in my estimation, especially when it comes to detecting early on the descent of the academy. Even more important than her discernment was her willingness to sound the alarm and engage in the fight.

The book concludes with Wisse’s thoughts about Jewishness and the place of Jews in the world. She writes:

Primo Levi, who survived the Auschwitz death camp, thought it immoral to pray to God for personal salvation. He came to Auschwitz a nonbeliever, and his experience compounded his disdain for the idea of a divinely ordained humanity. When a Jew prayed after having been spared selection for the gas
chambers, Levi wrote, if he were God he would spit on that prayer.

I have taught his views, but continue to believe that he got the message backwards. The God of the Jews had always known about the degeneracy of Sodom. Judaism had come to repudiate Nazism before the fact, to keep a people morally strong and psychologically vibrant despite what they were made to endure and could neither prevent nor avenge. The Aleinu prayer trusts us to ensure that Sinai will prevail over Auschwitz.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Vichy, France, believed that Jews had an existential duty to remain Jews in defiance of those who came to annihilate them. The only Jews whom Sartre knew were leftists like himself, thoroughly assimilated individuals who were forced back into their Jewishness by Christian
opposition and Hitler’s racial laws. From a psychological-philosophical viewpoint, he thought it shameful for these Jews to try to escape their responsibility, and urged them to resist the anti-Jews by affirming their Jewishness. As though they were characters in a Sartre drama, he insisted
they remain Jews because Jewishness was being denied.

[Leo] Strauss saw it differently, as do I. Jewish faithfulness was not a reaction to enmity, but to the people’s own experience of slavery in Egypt and of the demoralization that followed their release. The Bible’s account of Exodus shows them forged as a people by the law through Moses, and history con-
firms how generations of exegetes instilled respect for the Torah as the civilizing alternative to undisciplined freedom.

Perhaps, as I argue in Jews and Power, Jews succeeded too well, concentrating on their own decency without paying enough attention to the villainy around them. Yet just as the released slaves in the desert became the nation worthy of entering the promised Land of Israel, so the Jewish survivors of Europe and the Arab Middle East in the twentieth century learned to rebuild and then to protect their recovered state.

Jews are not the reaction to barbarity: they are its eternal autonomous alternative.

Wisse draws insights like these from literature, history, and her own journey. The journey and the insights make for a compelling memoir.