Destiny; or, How I Found My Two “Basherts”

Ruth R. Wisse discovers her husband and her subject.

Avrom Sutzkever, the Yiddish poet, during his days as an anti-Nazi partisan in Poland. 

Avrom Sutzkever, the Yiddish poet, during his days as an anti-Nazi partisan in Poland. 

Observation
Nov. 1 2018
About the author

Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


We present here the sixth chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found here. Further installments will appear over the next months.

You may be familiar with the Yiddish term bashert—“destined” or “preordained.” It conjures up the image of a divine matchmaking service in which, 40 days before a child is born, a heavenly voice proclaims: “The daughter of so-and-so is intended for the son of so-and-so.” Commonly invoked by Jews looking for their partners in life­­­, this folk belief (with its source in the Talmud, no less) escorts the male basherter and female basherte to the marriage canopy under which they establish a new unit of the Jewish people.

And there’s something more: to be identified in this scheme specifically as someone’s daughter or son implies that even if the respective parents haven’t directly involved in locating the destined soulmate, they approve the match. Love results in a marriage ratified and sanctified by the community in fulfillment of the Almighty’s plan.

The literature I studied at college inverted this scheme. The eponymous Tristan is sent by his ruler King Mark to Ireland to fetch Iseult, the monarch’s intended bride. Mindless monarch! In reading the famous medieval romance, I could hear my father’s voice rendering his beloved passage of the Passover Haggadah, “‘And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt’—not by the hands of an angel, and not by the hands of a seraph, and not by the hands of a messenger, but by the Holy One, blessed be He, Himself in His own glory and in His own person.”

The king’s plan backfires because he failed to heed God’s teaching: if you want something important done, you must do it yourself. On their long sea voyage, Tristan and Iseult are not merely drawn to one another as any two hot-blooded youngsters might be; they “inadvertently” drink the love potion intended to be shared by Iseult and Mark at their wedding. Who can doubt that this pair are now destined  to give themselves up utterly to love?

Affected as I was by this passionate story and its contemporary teaching—a caution against the error of “arranged” marriages—I nevertheless knew I had to abide by the expectations of my community and accept the conjugal inevitability of what Mother in one of her rotten moods called “a truss and a bedpan.” In life, my parents fiercely supported each other—Father, often at the expense of his children who would have liked him to take their side. They were holding hands when they visited me at camp; on our long car trips, they sang together the songs of their youth. Their marriage granted us life and a steady home and a model to follow so that, whatever fantasies we might entertain about illicit love, we wouldn’t pursue it.

 

I.

 

The few boys I introduced to my parents in my freshman year of college probably left them reassured that I was not yet eager for sex. But that my older brother Ben was seriously looking for his intended I learned one morning when I saw him shaving in the bathroom with the door open, and walked in to ask how his date had gone the night before.

Fine.

When are you going out with her again?

I’m not.

Why not? You said it went well.

Because I don’t want to marry her.

(Incredulously) You mean you’re only going to date girls you want to marry?

Otherwise, what’s the point?

As yet unprepared to absorb “the point,” I was all the more surprised to hear soon afterward that Ben had reached it. Several weeks later, at a weekend seminar with the religious philosopher Will Herberg, I introduced my brother to Louise, a junior I had met at a previous college event. He offered her a lift home. They were engaged in May and married in August.

I will not say that I followed Ben’s example, but neither can I deny that his romance and marriage affected my timing. During the same semester when he met Louise, the sports editor of the McGill Daily asked me whether I might be interested in a summer job as camp counselor. I told him a job was waiting for me at Pripstein’s, the camp I had attended since childhood. He said he was recruiting for a Jewish boys’ camp. A boys’ camp? Was I interested? Need you ask?

It emerged that the owners of Camp Leawood, Jules and Frances Leavitt, had a five-year-old daughter and were looking for a female counselor to take charge of the small group of girls they intended to create for her. In hiring me, Jules said I was welcome to hang out with the male counselors, but he hoped I would not become involved with any one of them lest it interfere with the camaraderie that was one of the camp’s biggest attractions.

This I perfectly understood—male society was one of the camp’s biggest attractions for me, too. Still, despite my interest in men in the plural, I was slightly afraid of the need to mate, let alone the prospect of same—which, all of a sudden, now seemed imminent. Turning up for the staff meeting at the owners’ home a couple of weeks before camp opened, I found their daughter waiting on the doorstep—as it turned out, not for me but for a much-respected counselor who’d been at the camp for the past few summers. When he arrived, I fell in love with him on sight.

I was already regretting my agreement with Jules. But how could I let it stand in the way of a potentially much more consequential contract? Once camp started, I invented an excuse to adjust my schedule of days off so that at least one would coincide with Len’s. On the first such day, he and I walked twenty miles and everything fell into place.

Upon being informed, Jules actually seemed pleased rather than angry and told me how impressed he had been with this modest young man who spoke little but had turned out to be a stellar counselor. No one else in the camp seemed to begrudge us our happiness, either.

To complete this part of the tale, it turned out that Len had been sports editor of the Daily four years before I arrived at McGill and joined the paper. He was also a graduate of the same Jewish Peoples School that Ben and I had attended, and had actually been present at Ben’s bar-mitzvah party in our home.

How’s that for bashert?

In the sweet year that followed, I concentrated happily on school, friends, work on the Daily, and classical and folk-music concerts. Len was studying law at the University of Montreal, where I sometimes went to meet him in the library. We spent much of our spare time together, and even attended a McGill dance—the first for either of us. The next summer we were back at Leawood, which was turning coed.

Yet what saith Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? “The course of true love never did run smooth.” First off, I learned that our families were not strangers. Len’s mother had died when he was four; his father had then married the proverbial wicked stepmother, who sent him packing to his mother’s sister Vera, where he was still living when we met. Aunt Vera and Mother had been part of a local amateur Yiddish-theater group, and it was during their abbreviated friendship that Mother had invited Len to the bar-mitzvah party in our home. Then came a fatal quarrel, and the two women had not spoken since. Mother, who initiated the break (I never learned over exactly what), apparently stopped acknowledging Vera when they showed up at the same events.

So I had found the only person in the city from whose surrogate parent my family was actually estranged. But, in our case, the Montague-Capulet feature—I did know my Shakespeare—merely added spice to our romance, and besides, both sides saw advantage in our union.

For me, the bigger hurdle was the aura of inevitability that made us so compatible. In my reading I’d come across the stifling marriages of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, even D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley. (I hadn’t yet read Jane Austen, whose heroines learned to appreciate appropriateness in marriage.) Romantic literature encouraged me to take high risks even if they ended in tragedy, and reminded me that I’d had no real adventures since my childhood flight from Europe, of which I retained no memory. If I were now, in my late teens, to pass from the parental nest into feathering my own, was I doomed to remain a dull, comic foil?

More afraid of entering into such a marriage than of remaining an old maid at eighteen, and despite my fear of losing Len, I told him I was not yet ready and that I was leaving for New York at the end of my junior year. It is hard to reconstruct what I thought I was doing.

The evening before my departure, my parents asked to have a word with me. I had given them no information about my plans because I had none to give. Two of my longtime high-school buddies were driving to New York the next day and would give me a lift to an apartment where another friend of ours was staying and where I could have a mattress until finding a place of my own.

One might have imagined Mother and Father frantic with worry. Did I intend to return for senior year? Was the breakup with Len irreversible? Showing remarkable little anxiety about my departure, they said only that they had not yet had a chance to advise me about life. This was technically true, since I never went to them with my personal problems and had in fact developed the unnecessary habit of lying to them in order to conceal my blameless activities. Now, more to set their minds at ease than to elicit their guidance, I said, very well, each of you can give me one piece of advice that I promise to follow.

Father said, “Don’t drink when you are alone.”

Mother said, “Don’t play cards.”

Until then I had not drunk anything more than the Manischewitz wine served on Sabbath and Passover and had never owned a deck of cards. God only knows where they had picked up these notions of debauchery. These were the enchantingly innocent 1950s, a nonreplicable, incomparably wholesome interval in human affairs when the greatest threat to adolescents came from medieval and Romantic literature.

My subsequent months in New York fully justified their parental trust. I found a fifth-floor, one-room walkup on West 23rd Street and part-time work at the city’s most exciting bookstore—the Gotham Book Mart on West 47th. There, things once again went effortlessly when the owner Frances Steloff learned that I was from Montreal. This mattered because the Gotham was home to the James Joyce Society and the Montreal poet A.M. Klein had published a “talmudic” commentary on a chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses and was said to be writing a similar treatment of the entire book. Miss Steloff asked whether I could prevail on Klein to attend the store’s upcoming annual Bloomsday celebration on June 16, the day on which the novel is set. Thanks to my McGill teacher Louis Dudek, I had read Ulysses, or as much of it as I needed to follow his lectures, and thanks to conversations with him about Klein’s poetry, I could let her know that her prized Joycean scholar was “suffering from a severe depression” and had ceased to write. So while her Canadian invitee was not at the celebration of Bloomsday that year, I was.

New York enchanted me. With my friend Jack Novick I walked the streets, once until dawn. A musician friend of Jack’s made me a present of Bach’s Orchestral Suites that became my favorite record. When Jack acquired a girlfriend, the three of us would go to the movies together and then argue about the film for hours. French films were for us the most exquisite since the amount of French we knew was enough to follow the dialogue while simultaneously imparting a soupçon of exoticism.

Despite all the free time at my disposal, I didn’t get beyond a couple of pages in the novel I had vaguely intended to write—enough to persuade me that I was better suited for marriage than for bohemia. After about a month I also realized that my modest savings were running out. Even if working at Miss Steloff’s could have become a regular job, I wouldn’t have wanted it on a permanent basis and I didn’t know what else I could do that could sustain me in New York. I liked being on my own just enough to know that I wouldn’t like it for much longer. So I returned to Montreal for my senior year at McGill, and Len and I married the following March—a month before my final exams and three months before he finished law school.

It had been a risible rebellion, but I was in for a surprise. The morning after our wedding, I awoke to find almost everything unchanged. Len was asleep beside me and that was comforting—though I could not imagine anyone sleeping after dawn—but I had not expected to be having the same thoughts and facing the same questions that I thought marriage would resolve. Exams faced me the following month, then graduation, then the honeymoon summer of travel we had planned, but once that was over? I had still to decide what to “do with my life” not in those ironic quotation marks but really and truly.

To be sure, marriage involved the happy prospect of moving from my parents’ house into our own apartment, and I was not under the same pressure as my brother or my husband to support a family. But I knew I would have to go to work.

 

II.

 

When I left college I didn’t expect to see the inside of a classroom ever again. In junior year I had won a scholarship from the Canadian Women’s Press Club, so upon returning from our honeymoon I approached it for help in finding a job in journalism, offering as credentials my multiyear experience on the McGill Daily. Rather than the placement I hoped for on one of Montreal’s several English newspapers, the Press Club’s women, with whom my being Jewish had never come up in discussion, directed me to a position that had just opened as press officer of the Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC).

Somewhat dismayed that these journalists had “pigeonholed” me, I was nevertheless glad to find employment in an institution that, if less glamorous than I had imagined, was conveniently located just a few blocks from our downtown apartment. For $65 a week I was expected to put out a monthly Congress Bulletin, arrange the annual CJC conference, prepare press releases, and “fill in” wherever I was needed.

The Congress was founded in the wake of World War I. As the national organization of Canadian Jewry, it had acquired great urgency in the 1930s when anti-Semitism demanded coordinated action both locally and abroad. Samuel Bronfman, the wealthiest Jew in the country (and mentioned earlier in these memoirs as the employer of A.M. Klein), was persuaded to assume the CJC presidency. Perhaps to offset Bronfman’s reputation as a former bootlegger, the person chosen to head the organization was an elegant lawyer, Saul Hayes, whom no one would have taken for a Jew. Not only the perfect public face of the still largely immigrant Jewish community, he was also an excellent boss who trusted me to get things done.

It may seem perverse that, initially annoyed at being branded a Jew, I no sooner began working for a Jewish organization than I felt it was not Jewish enough. My first quarrel with Mr. Hayes, as I always referred to him, arose over his indifference to the prospect of government funding for Jewish day schools. I’ve described earlier how Quebec’s confessional school system had prompted the establishment of separate Jewish schools that were sustained entirely through fees and private donations. In 1958, a group of Jewish parents formed to seek government support for the “secular” part of their children’s schooling, arguing that their taxes should not subsidize Protestant schools without reimbursement for the universally mandated part of education to which all Canadian children were legally entitled.

The group wanted CJC, representing Canadian Jewry, to press its claim with the province, but the board members, almost none of whom sent their children to Jewish schools, were unwilling to challenge the government. I took the side of the parents, arguing that they were showing greater confidence in their country’s fairness than were their acculturated representatives at the CJC. Things got so heated over this issue that at one community meeting a parent unplugged the microphone cord during a board member’s speech. But the parents eventually prevailed, and, with just a little extra pressure from the CJC the provincial government granted their appeal.

I also tried to use the CJC Bulletin to promote local Jewish culture. Having discovered Gimpel the Fool, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first collection of translated stories, I coaxed my friend Leonard Cohen into reviewing it, thinking that one great writer (for so I considered Leonard) would know how to appreciate another. You need not bother looking this up. Rather than turning me down, Leonard kept delaying the submission. As the deadline for the issue approached, I called to say that I’d come by that evening to pick up the review, sure that this would force him to complete so simple a task.

Instead, at his place on Stanley Street we passed the hours in conversation until I finally realized there was nothing to be had; to fill the assigned space, I had to write the piece myself. Lest you think this diminished my affection or respect for Leonard, it was quite the opposite: in those days I respected him all the more for not writing solely out of obligation, and continued to believe that he would have done the better job.

The year 1959 had been designated the “Bicentenary of Canadian Jewry,” and my job was to help plan and publicize the celebratory events. The capstone of the Bicentenary year was the dedication of a plaque to the memory of Aaron Philip Hart, one of those first Jewish settlers and one who prospered mightily in his new land. Maurice Duplessis, Quebec’s premier, was to do the honors, and Mr. Hayes instructed me to place an ad in the local papers inviting all members of the Hart family to join us.

I hesitated, having read, in B.G. Sacks’s History of the Jews in Canada, that Hart had enjoyed a version of the medieval droit du seigneur—a master’s first right to girls on his estate on their wedding night—but we received several cheerful responses and no complaints from French Canadian claimants to the family line. I looked forward to interviewing some of them, but it was not to be. Premier Duplessis, whose repressive reign was dubbed Le Grand Noirceur—the Great Darkness—died days before our event, which we canceled as a result.

Duplessis’s death ushered in a period of liberalization that rapidly transformed Quebec’s fundamentally Catholic society. The birthrate dropped spectacularly. Nuns and priests disappeared from among us. Monasteries were transformed into music schools. But the Hart family legacy also made me realize that our province had always been more complicated than it seemed.

 

III. 

 

To describe how I eventually found my destined career I must backtrack slightly to the months Len and I spent in Israel in the summer of 1957. From our home base in Tel Aviv we tried to take in everything in the country from beaches and theaters to a center for children with Down syndrome. We visited European friends of my parents who had survived the Shoah and Father’s cousins who had gone to Palestine in the 1930s. Thoughtless North American that I was, I did not realize that rationing had put a strain on our hosts’ domestic economy; nor did we heed their warnings against visiting certain parts of the country. Youth seemed never-ending, and war something over and done with.

The great Yiddish poet Melech Ravitch, a close family friend, had written ahead to his fellow poet Avrom (Abraham) Sutzkever in Tel Aviv to let him know we were coming. (About some of what follows I’ve also written elsewhere.) Beyond his literary fame, Sutzkever’s biography had made him legendary. He had begun writing in his teens in Vilna, then one of the most culturally productive cities in the Jewish firmament, and published two books of poetry before he and his wife were incarcerated in the Vilna Ghetto in 1941.

With faith in the deathlessness of great poetry, and in himself as its creator, Sutzkever had continued writing in the ghetto even as he and his wife also worked in the underground resistance. Before the ghetto’s liquidation they escaped to the forests to join a partisan group. A Lithuanian partisan leader took his poems and delivered them to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the Soviet Union, which dispatched a small plane to a landing strip near the forests to airlift him and his wife to Moscow.

Sutzkever’s report on the Vilna Ghetto was the first news of the fate of Polish Jewry to be featured in the Soviet media. After the war, he testified at the Nuremberg Trials, and was then repatriated to Poland with his wife and the daughter born to them in Moscow. From there they went to France, and with the intervention of Golda Meir (then still Meyerson), to Palestine in 1947. In Tel Aviv he founded a Yiddish literary quarterly called Di goldene keyt, the Golden Chain, signifying the unbroken traditions of Jewish life and literature.

Though I had not yet read Sutzkever’s work, I would have contacted him even without Ravitch’s urging. His powers were immediately apparent. When I called, he asked us to meet him outside the building that housed the quarterly’s printer, where he was correcting page proofs. Emerging into the blazing sunlight in shirtsleeves and a peaked cap, he told us he had no time to spare just then but invited us to join him and his wife at a wedding the following evening: the children of his good friends were being married and would “surely welcome [us] among their guests”—a sentiment Len and I very much doubted given the anxious days we had spent paring down lists of relatives and friends for our own recent marriage.

But Sutzkever’s wish seemed everyone’s command. When we showed up at the wedding, we were indeed treated as favored guests, and a couple of days later during our visit at his home we again fell in with Sutzkever’s plans when he suggested that we travel together to Ein Gedi—the oasis where David had hidden from King Saul. The trip proved as spectacular as were his poems about that region.

In sum, I was still very much under the impression of that summer when I began working at the CJC, and one of the first things I proposed to Mr. Hayes was that we organize a Canadian speaking tour for Sutzkever, with Montreal as his home base.

The visit was arranged for the spring of 1959. Several Jewish organizations in the United States had clamored for such a tour, but Sutzkever was denied an American visa despite valiant efforts by his fellow poet Judd Teller, who was well connected in Washington. Both men traced the American authorities’ denial of a visa to a letter denouncing Sutzkever for having been awarded a prize by Stalin. (They believed the informer was the wife of the Yiddish poet and novelist Chaim Grade, whose notoriously zealous guardianship of her husband’s reputation led her to damage his competitors’.)

Whatever the reason for the denial, we in Montreal became its beneficiaries. On Sutzkever’s first public evening, crowds jammed the hall. Yiddish writers came from New York to meet this envoy from a vanished world. Though he was by inclination a lyrical poet, Sutzkever spoke as that envoy. He declaimed poems of ghetto resistance—of the teacher Mira Bernstein who saw her underground school reduced from the original 137 children to none, of the Jewish underground that smelted lead printing plates into bullets. I arranged with Sam Gesser, the local impresario, to record Sutzkever for the Folkways label. And bringing my worlds together, I took him to meet Louis Dudek and listened as the two men spoke in Polish about Polish poetry.

Sutzkever also asked me to arrange a meeting with A.M. Klein, who had translated reams of Yiddish and Hebrew poetry into English and whom I’d still not met. Once again, as I’d done with Miss Steloff in New York, I explained that Klein’s depression discouraged visitors. But once again, Sutzkever prevailed. When I called the Klein home, the poet answered and cheerfully invited us over, and when we showed up on the appointed day he showed no hint of gloom. As the two Abrahams conversed in Yiddish, Sutzkever showed himself remarkably well-informed about Klein’s translations into English, a language he presumably did not know. I was torn between wanting their conversation to continue forever and worrying about our host’s alleged fragility.

Before the end of the visit, Klein invited us to see his study. It seemed an odd but touching courtesy at the conclusion of a wonderful meeting. I was thus surprised when, afterward, a visibly troubled Sutzkever stopped at the first street corner to ask me what I thought. “Are you serious?” I replied, “It was splendid! He was buoyed by your coming. I am so glad you and he got together!” Sutzkever looked grim and said, “Didn’t you see his desk? There was nothing on it. Not a pen or a shred of paper. When that happens, a writer is finished.” Was that what Klein had meant us to see, or had he hoped that Sutzkever’s presence would inspire his return to work? As far as I know, he never did.

In addition to public readings, Sutzkever was also feted in private homes, including by my parents. Most of the people that evening were from Vilna: one had been with him in the forests, several others were survivors, and some like my parents had left the city before the war. Leaning against the mantelpiece and slowly draining his tumbler of Scotch, Sutzkever spoke of Yung Vilne (Young Vilna), the pre-war literary circle of Chaim Grade, Leyzer Volf, and Elchanan Vogler.

But then, veering from the major poets in the group, he reminisced about a certain Moyshe-Itske Barg who alternated between bouts in a mental institution and spurts of creativity. One day, at the point of slipping into his bout of madness, he announced to Sutzkever that he, Moyshe-Itske, was immortal: he was never going to die! Fearful for his friend, Sutzkever tried to reason with him by pointing out that, of the three men Moyshe-Itske most admired—Dostoevsky, Napoleon, and Moses—Dostoevsky had managed to cheat death but once, Napoleon had died in exile, and Moses was not even accorded entry into the Promised Land. After a significant pause the man shouted, “Someone’s got to break through!” Sutzkever raised his voice in imitation of this cry. And he was done.

From apparently artless rambling about a manic-depressive there had emerged the power of a community driven beyond conceivable limits to affirm its eternity. Someone had broken through: Sutzkever now lived in the Promised Land that Moses had never reached. One did not have to use a word like “miraculous” to invoke miracles. The otherworldly people so casually smoking and drinking in our living room and I had just heard the lecture of a lifetime.

Hence, the next turn in my life was not surprising. As his departure from Montreal neared, Sutzkever asked me what I intended to do in the coming years, implying that I was not destined to work at CJC forever. Of that opinion myself, but as yet undecided, I said I might resume study of English literature. “Why not Yiddish literature?” he asked. I laughed and said, “And what would I do? Teach Sholem Aleichem?”

Before the words were out of my mouth I wanted to retract this implied insult to Yiddish and the Yiddish poet before me. I reworded: there was no place for such study. But Sutzkever had apparently anticipated this. Professor Uriel Weinreich at Columbia University, he said, offered scholarships to students of Yiddish language and literature, and I would surely be admitted to his program if I applied. The next day I called, and began my studies at Columbia in the winter of 1960.

I was so used to charting my own path that I was sure marriage was no impediment to my plans and that Len would not object to my getting a graduate degree in this non-existent field. And so greatly did I enjoyed spontaneity that I also failed to notice the human agents of destiny’s shaping hand. Among those who came to see Sutzkever in Montreal was his former Vilna teacher Max Weinreich, Uriel’s father. Once upon a time in Vilna, Max had recruited Jewish youth, including Sutzkever, to Yiddish studies, and he was now doing the same in America.

From the Sutzkever-Weinreich correspondence later published in Di Goldene Keyt, I would learn that the two had talked in Montreal about recruiting for his son’s Columbia program and recognized in me a fish eager to take the bait. So it was at Weinreich’s prompting that Sutzkever suggested I study Yiddish literature; I simply fell in with their plan.

Bashert.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Memoir, The Memoirs of Ruth Wisse