Perseverance; or, My Fight to Study, and to Teach, Yiddish Literature

In the late 1960s, appointments in Jewish studies were springing up in tandem with the “adversarial culture.” But we intended to strengthen the universities, not to trash them.

A Columbia University student responds violently to a campus strike in  protest of the Vietnam war that has blocked his way to class. Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

A Columbia University student responds violently to a campus strike in  protest of the Vietnam war that has blocked his way to class. Mel Finkelstein/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images.

Nov. 29 2018
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at Tikvah. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

We present here the seventh 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.

Enduring graduate school was harder than I had anticipated.

I arrived in New York at the beginning of January 1960 armed with a friend’s offer of temporary lodging, only to find the room so cold that I slept in my winter coat. Until I could register at Columbia University and make use of its facilities, I stayed warm in the main branch of the New York Public Library, plucking Yiddish books from the shelves of the Judaica reading room and hoping to get a head start in my studies. Though in the past I’d often chafed at the requirement to follow a prescribed syllabus at a set pace, now my random reading made me long for a teacher’s guidance.

Most of the people in the reading room were elderly dozers; the most alert among them was a regular who kept long hours surrounded by an array of books. One day, browsing a shelf near his table to see what he was studying, I realized from the way he was turning the pages backward that he could read neither Hebrew nor English. Over the next few days I became touched by his worshipful imitation of a scholar. Burdened by a doubt that would stalk me through the years, I wondered whether I, too, might be something of a fake, more attracted by the ambition of scholarship than fully equipped to achieve it.

In attending McGill and getting married, I had been doing what I wanted but also what was expected of me. Now that I was cutting my own path, I had to persuade myself I was doing the right thing. Columbia did not make it easy. Uriel Weinreich, who had admitted me into the Yiddish program, chaired the university’s department of linguistics, in which the other students of Yiddish were duly enrolled. To pursue studies in literature I had to register instead in the department of English and comparative literature, which meant taking most of my courses in subjects other than Yiddish and passing language-proficiency exams not only in German but in French and Latin instead of any of the Slavic tongues closer to my field of interest.

I was thus at once the school’s only literature student in Yiddish and the only Yiddish student in literature. Were it not for my weekly tutorial with Uriel’s father Max, I might have returned to Montreal.

Yiddish says: tsu shlimazl darf men oykh hobn mazl—even bad luck needs its good luck. Because Uriel was on sabbatical, his father Max, a philological genius and a professor of Yiddish at the City College of New York, had taken over his seminar on Yiddish literature, with me as his only student. He proposed that we devote our weekly sessions to the work of a single writer, Sholem Yankev Abramovitch (1836-1917), better known by his pen name Mendele Mokher Sforim or Mendele the Book Peddler. Max was certain that Mendele—as he always referred to him—was so central to the development of both modern Yiddish and modern Hebrew literature that knowledge of his work would provide solid foundation for my further studies.

Though our author was affectionately crowned the “grandfather” of Yiddish fiction, and though Max was sixty-six to my twenty-four, you may dismiss all notions of effete colloquies between sweet old men and fragile young women. Mendele was the toughest writer I had so far encountered, Max the most demanding teacher, and I the happiest I was ever to be in any classroom before or since.

It was agreed that each week I would report on one of Mendele’s works. Because Max had a special interest in the process of writing, and because Mendele was a compulsive reviser, my assigned task was to compare variants of the week’s chosen work whenever they existed. In truth this exercise did not thrill me as it did my teacher, whose fascination with language excited his curiosity about every exchange of a Slavic-based term for one from German or Hebrew, or the slightest modification of a character’s speech. For my part, dazzled by Mendele’s intelligence and bruising candor, I wanted to understand how he had developed from an angry young critic of his society into its most incisive interpreter.

But Max himself was no less fascinating. Born in Latvia, he had studied in Russia and Germany, earning a PhD in philology from the University of Marburg before moving to Vilna in the late 1920s as a co-founder of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Once in Vilna he consecrated much of his time to the education of young Jews, including by founding and becoming head scoutmaster of a youth organization to combine Baden Powell’s healthful discipline with immersion in Jewish national culture.

Max could also speak as lovingly about Vilna as did my mother. Thanks to her, I could trade anecdotes like the one about Max’s father-in-law, the prominent Vilna doctor Tsemaḥ Szabad, who had cared for my grandmother when she was dying of tuberculosis and on one of his last visits had remarked, “you can’t patch up silk.” What he may have intended as a tribute to the patient’s refinement, my then-teenage mother heard as a premature death sentence.

Had Hitler not intervened, I might have found myself in 1960 traveling to study with Max in Vilna and boarding there with my uncle Grisha, Mother’s older brother, who lived about a fifteen-minute walk from the YIVO building. Murdered in 1942, Grisha had assisted Doctor Szabad in his work in local orphanages and clinics. By then, providentially, Max had established a branch of YIVO in New York, which after World War II took over as the institute’s organizational center.

After every class, Max treated me to dinner at a Chinese restaurant underneath the elevated subway platform at Broadway and 125th Street. Missing sight in one eye—courtesy of anti-Semitic hoodlums in pre-war Vilna—he had shown great bravery in championing his beliefs and standing up to attack from left and right alike. Aspiring to be as bold as he, after our meals I would insist on accompanying him to his subway stop at Lenox Avenue. This for me meant walking back alone in the dark along 125th Street in painful awareness of being the only white person on the street. If I got nervous, I would stop someone to ask the time. Even a curt exchange relieved the tension and made me regret my lack of trust.

The following fall, once Uriel returned from his sabbatical, I signed up for all of his Yiddish courses and for the seminar given by the great Jewish historian Salo Baron, which met weekly in the professor’s home. To satisfy the seminar’s research requirement, I chose the topic of Yung Vilna (“Young Vilna”), the group of poets and writers about whom, as I’ve recounted in the previous chapter, Abraham Sutzkever had rhapsodized in my parents’ living room.

Offered no guidance in going about a literary-historical project of this kind, I decided to read the entire 1930s run of the daily Vilna Tog, which sometimes published the group’s work. In the YIVO library, then at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 86th Street, I ordered up one year’s folio at a time and lost myself in the news stories and advertisements while searching for anything relating to “my” writers. I was wildly excited whenever I came across the occasional poem or reference to a soccer game the group had played against another team. The day I turned a page in the 1939 volume and suddenly found nothing beyond it, I was as unprepared as the young poets must have been on the day in Vilna when the Soviets swept in. For a while, I didn’t know how to go on.

But how my other courses paled by comparison! Even the writings of Samuel Johnson—with whom I felt the greatest affinity—could not vie with the immediacy of my Jewish readings. One week, Baron canceled our seminar because he had flown to Israel to testify at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the proceedings of which I watched on television with my landlady every evening. My Jewish-studies courses throbbed with the life of those now dead.

To be sure, all was not book and candle. Len and I rendezvoused every few weeks either in Montreal or in Albany, midpoint between our two cities, and Montreal friends sometimes dropped by to lure me from study. One evening I walked with Leonard Cohen to a double feature at a theater on 42nd Street that screened foreign films. As always, Leonard’s responses to things never ceased to surprise me: he fell asleep during the obligatorily “meaningful” postwar film (Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini’s Open City, if I’m remembering right) but was riveted by the histrionic Russian version of Othello. When the movies ended we sat in a coffee shop for another couple of hours talking about the poetry of Wordsworth, he in praise of “Tintern Abbey” and I increasingly worried about the next day’s assignment.

I made a few great friends in those classes. One of them, Bruce Ducker, turned up at the beginning of March in white shirt, slacks, and tennis shoes to declare, in F. Scott Fitzgerald mode, the start of gin-and-tonic season. In a course on American literature with Richard Chase, my classmate Peter Shaw already seemed the professor’s equal in sheer intellectual verve; he also beat me at ping-pong.

Mostly, though, and despite a sexual restlessness that I would be delinquent not to mention, I tried to stay focused, and by the spring of 1961 I had completed my MA and all requirements for the PhD except for comprehensive oral exams and a dissertation. Feeling the need to return to Montreal, I fully expected to cram for the tests and complete my degree from there. Uriel and I tentatively agreed on a topic for my dissertation: the question of whether Yiddish literature possessed a comic tradition independent of the towering master Sholem Aleichem.

None of this worked out as planned. Of the two professors who would have guided my work, Richard Chase took his life in 1962 and Uriel Weinreich was diagnosed with cancer. I did not want to trouble him once I learned that he was ill, and by the time he succumbed in 1967, at an absurdly young age, I had long since let my Columbia affiliation lapse. Let me explain why.




Before leaving Columbia, I had scheduled an obligatory meeting with the director of graduate studies to confirm the areas that would be covered in my comprehensive exams. Following guidelines, I presented my proposal to Professor N. My major field would be Yiddish literature, with two minors in Romantic and American literature and, for the fourth exam on a major writer (the set choices were Chaucer, Shakespeare, or Milton) an exam on all three “classic” Yiddish masters, Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, and Y.L.Peretz.

Professor N. refused altogether to accept Yiddish. Thrown off guard, I protested that I had been admitted on the understanding that Yiddish literature would be my main area of concentration. Very well, he conceded, I could use Yiddish as one of my two minor areas; but to compensate I would also have to pass an additional exam in Renaissance literature. Why, I asked? My program of study had its own requirements, and I was fully prepared to assume requirements related to it. Couldn’t we design a set of exams with my priorities in mind?

From some of my fellow students, I knew that, had I made a similar case for French or Russian, my modifications would have been accepted. Moreover, in my previous exchanges with officialdom both in New York and in Montreal, I had absorbed the impression that if only I could explain things satisfactorily, a reasonable compromise would invariably ensue. But this man’s position hardened with each explanation I offered. I asked Uriel whether he could intercede on my behalf, but he demurred, suggesting I find another champion inside my department. By then, however, something in me had stiffened, and I refused that option. Professor N. was the department’s head of graduate studies, and I’d be damned if I would give him another chance to turn me down.

Not prepared to grovel any more, I returned home to Montreal with no plan in hand, and eventually let the deadline run out for registering with absentee status. Because of my pique at leaving a degree program I was on the path to completing, I would later have to redo all of my graduate work in a course of study even farther from my goal.

But I was baffled. Why should that elegant, well-mannered, and respected scholar seek to harm me as a Jew studying Jewish subjects? Only years later did I hear that he, too, was a Jew—and then suddenly I saw him as clearly as when mist lifts from the lake on a summer’s dawn. He had expected Columbia to insulate him from the shabby Jewishness he thought he had escaped, and as an aspirant to high culture he must have felt the same disgust for Yiddish that Henry Adams recorded feeling for the jabbering Jews he saw descending on New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Whatever the particular sources of N.’s contempt, I felt certain that were he not a Jew, he would have shown me greater academic respect.

If the entire course of my life had been determined in childhood by the war against the Jews in Europe, this was the first time that anti-Jewishness affected me as an adult. The incident left me dissatisfied with the reflexive term “Jewish self-hatred” when I found it applied by the sociologist Kurt Lewin to exactly the sort of behavior I had witnessed. The professor did not hate the squelched Jew in himself but the Jew present in me. The psychological source of his aggression, implied in the concept of “self-hatred,” was less relevant than its manifestation against a member of the tribe.

Anti-Jewishness in a Jew hurts because one has lost a potential ally, and because, as Lewin explains, members of a social minority who want to be liked by everyone else may respond by trying even harder to repudiate their origins and their group. After this I began to pay attention to the phenomenon of anti-Jewish Jews, or as I preferred to think of them, Jewish anti-Semites. In this way Columbia taught me more than I had aspired to know.




Once back in Montreal and eager to share my accumulated learning, I applied for a position at the local Jewish Teachers’ Seminary, a small institution that had been established by the Canadian Jewish Congress to restock the thinning ranks of European-trained educators for the network of Canadian Jewish day schools. The administrator informed me that, alas, the Seminary was being phased out, apparently on the assumption that teachers from Israel could begin to replace those no longer coming from Europe. But as small recompense for my failed application, and in the way that one thing often leads to another, I was invited to deliver a public Yiddish lecture to an adult gathering at one of the local Jewish day schools.

Lectures being the main entertainment of my parents’ circle, I had attended enough of them to know what was expected. At Columbia, Uriel had introduced me to the sonnets of the American Yiddish poet Mani Leib, whose “children’s verse” I’d learned in elementary school. With the chutzpah of the insufficiently educated, I set out to demonstrate what I took to be the undervaluing of the poet’s artistic achievement. In fact, I argued, this apparent versifier for children used pashtes, from the Hebrew term for plainness, as his touchstone for beauty, truth, and moral clarity. Adhering to the strict sonnet form, which, like a Jew restricted to the confines of Jewish law, he had mastered during his recuperation from tuberculosis, he had fashioned a secular liturgy in celebration of life, in the process transposing the Jewish virtue of modesty into a modern aesthetic of restraint.

In the audience for my lecture, besides my parents and relatives, were members of the local Yiddish intelligentsia. Their applause and appreciative questions assured me that I had passed what was probably the most rigorous test to which I would ever be subjected. But at the point of leaving, one of my former teachers drew me aside and whispered, “Men zogt [one says] ‘sarfen,’” correcting my mispronunciation of a word in a Mani Leib sonnet I had quoted. Never having heard the word spoken, I’d said sreyfen, inferring the pronunciation from the noun sreyfeh, conflagration, a Hebrew root word that had been adopted by Yiddish and also turned into a verb, meaning to set afire.

Though I was sure that all the teachers and writers in the room had taken note of this gaffe, none had exposed my ignorance by correcting me during the question period. This community of Yiddish speakers embodied the refinement in which I had been raised and the delicacy that Mani Leib extols in his verse. Need I draw the invidious comparison between these cultured Jews and the provincial bigot who headed the graduate school’s literature program at Columbia?

That lecture led to other local talks, in English, about Yiddish literature. Encouraged by the palpable interest in the subject, I proposed to the director of the YM-YWHA that I set up an institute of Jewish studies for adults. I would pull together a group of local scholars to offer evening courses in Jewish philosophy, literature, history, and art, with their salaries covered by registration fees. The director managed to override objections from several members of his board who considered my proposal “too Jewish,” that is, too divergent from the YMCA model of sports facilities and recreational activities that they had adopted as their template.

But a younger generation with greater cultural self-confidence, buttressed by survivors who had come after the war, was about to turn the Y around, to the point where even its cafeteria was made kosher. Once I got my go-ahead, I launched the Harvey Golden Institute for Jewish Studies, named for the director who had approved the project.

I knew that the institute’s biggest draw would be Rabbi David Hartman, who had arrived in Montreal in 1960 to head the city’s largest Orthodox congregation. He was charisma personified. Lithuanian Jews like my parents valued skeptical intelligence in their standard-bearers over the magnetism for which ḥasidic rabbis were famed, but Hartman combined a hard intellect with emotional flair. The first time I heard him lecture, I confided to my journal that I was like one “awakened from sleep.” Both the sentiment and its mode of expression now embarrass me, but I was angry with those who thought he faked emotion and I welcomed the intensity he brought to the study of Jewish sources.

Hartman interpreted Jewish texts through whatever happened to excite him. In those days it was Norman O. Brown’s radical existentialist manifesto Life against Death. His congregation soon became a destination. An Orthodox synagogue that did not yet include women on its board, it was laxer in admitting people who lived beyond the prescribed Sabbath walking limits. This allowed Len and me to become members and, like others, park on neighboring streets to complete our journey by foot.

In general, rather than emphasizing halakhic observance, Hartman urged us to “get on the bus” of Judaism and travel as far as we were prepared to go. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose Chabad movement was also gaining strength in Montreal at the time, advocated something similar but in the opposite sequence, urging observance of a single mitzvah as a pathway to an eventually fuller Jewish life. Between them, Chabad and Rabbi Hartman—Duvy to his friends—were drawing those of us from non-observant homes closer to Jewish practice.

I somewhat distrusted how Hartman’s changing enthusiasms influenced his definitions of Jewishness, but I could not resist the liveliness of his mind. He would begin a lecture by commending the ancient Greeks for their intellectual mastery, go on to demonstrate their striving for absolute perfection through the ideal form of the circle—and then, just as he seemed on the point of reaching for a climactic tribute to their genius, his semantic register would change, his body language shift, and he would show us how the Talmud, in total contravention of the Greek ideal, trumped it by discussing the ritual purification of the high priest in the ancient Temple alongside directives on the positioning of toilets in the Temple edifice. No one would ever again be tempted to subordinate the intricate, messy, complexly human struggle of the Jews to the rarefied air of Athens.

He did more than lecture. Anticipating the approach of the Hartman Institute that he would later establish in Jerusalem, he drew together the most dynamic rabbis on the continent for annual “interdenominational” retreats away from the city in the Laurentian mountains. Those all-male gatherings generated less tension—a word he adored—among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform participants than between religious conservatives and liberals in each group. I was allowed to audit the proceedings. In return I happily ran errands, like picking up Elie Wiesel (invited not as a survivor but as a Jewish thinker) at the airport and driving him to the retreat. During our ride, in the only oblique allusion to his wartime experience in Auschwitz, Elie asked for reassurance that he would not have to share a room with anyone.

Observing the sessions from the sidelines, I formed impressions of the various personalities—the theologian Michael Wyschogrod, the liturgical specialist Jakob Petuchowski, the religious activist Irving “Yitz” Greenberg—and the dynamics of their interaction. I especially enjoyed the biblical scholar Moshe Greenberg—who, against the “two Adams” thesis favored by biblical critics on the lookout for discrepancies in the first two chapters of Genesis, stressed the importance of Adam’s singularity. Greenberg illustrated his point by placing a stick figure atop the blackboard with, beneath it, an inverted pyramid to show that only thus, and from Adam’s single “rib,” could one prove the common origin of all humankind.

Somehow, I did not mind being relegated to the sidelines, having come to consider Jewish women so much better off than their menfolk that I never begrudged males their confederacies. I condescendingly thought of talmudic competition as the Jewish male sport; without this intellectual equivalent of boxing, I feared, Jewish men would cease to be manly. Besides, Hartman included me when it mattered. Just as I had organized the Harvey Golden Institute for adults, he had the idea of organizing a summer evening series of Jewish-studies courses primarily for college students, held in his synagogue and timed to begin after the end of the spring semester.

In this enterprise, and at his invitation, I taught an early, abbreviated version of courses I would later offer at McGill. One of the students, Richie Cohen, who had told me that he intended to go on to study “the Holocaust,” and now retired as a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, recently thanked me for the “lectures at Hartman’s shul . . . at a turning point in [his] life.”

Circumstances determine opportunities. In the 1920s, Europe’s hostility to Jews had inspired the rise of institutions like the stellar Lehrhaus of Frankfurt. Mutatis mutandis, liberal North America encouraged Jews to move into the mainstream. No sooner did we begin our informal evening courses than I itched to procure academic credit for them. Why pour effort into high-level studies in separate institutions if they could be offered in places where students earned degrees?




Columbia’s faculty then still included several professors without PhDs, but I knew that McGill would make no such exception for me, especially if I intended to introduce a brand new subject into its curriculum. So I enrolled as one of the first students in the university’s newly inaugurated doctoral program in English literature. The only favor I asked on the way to my “union card” was that in the fullness of time I be permitted to write my dissertation on a topic in comparative literature.

Along with McGill, I, too, had expanded by the time I returned in 1965, eight months pregnant with our second child. Raising a family focused me on coursework to the exclusion of whatever else was happening on campus. On class days, I would return home early enough for a long stroll with our three-year old son Billy, who seemed almost capable of raising himself. The remodeled house we had bought from architects, who’d been forced to sell it when the city refused them a permit to use it as a business office, had plenty of room for our au pair from France. I told myself that it was no harder to raise several children than one, and as for combining that with schoolwork, I could not have returned to McGill without a husband and children, without extended local family and friends, or—so little pleasure did I anticipate from the academic process—without a part-time teaching position to take my mind off the task I had set myself.

It was sometimes maddening to realize that I was studying Edmund Spenser, Jonathan Swift, and Percy Bysshe Shelley in order to get to teach Suzkever, Sholem Aleichem, and the brothers I.J. and I.B. Singer. Most of the professors I had already encountered as a McGill undergraduate. The atmosphere was chilly: our son Jacob was born so conveniently in mid-October that I did not have to miss a single session of one of my weekly seminars, but neither the teacher nor any student remarked on my condition when I turned up minus most of the 50 pounds I had been carrying the week before.

Determined to stick it out, I completed the coursework and written comprehensives on everything in English literature between Beowulf and Virginia Woolf in a little over two years. Like the biblical Jacob who labored seven years for Leah so that he could work another seven for the hand of Rachel, I looked forward to writing my dissertation on a subject of my choice.

When that happy hour arrived, adapting the topic of Yiddish comedy that I had chosen with Uriel to the requirements of an English department, I proposed to write on “The Schlemiel as Hero in Yiddish and American Jewish Fiction,” tracking this comic figure from his European sources to Anglo-American language and culture. Having sought out Louis Dudek, my favorite undergraduate teacher, as my adviser, I confided to him my intention of introducing Yiddish literature into the curriculum. “Why would you do that?” he asked, pointing to the bookcase behind him. “All you have to do is master the books on this shelf and you could become a professor of Canadian literature!” He himself was that very professor. Was he therefore belittling his own academic pursuit, or mine? I could not tell.

In any event, the only book Dudek had read in my proposed bibliography was Saul Bellow’s Herzog. Yet he agreed to our unusual arrangement, and his requests for clarification as the thesis progressed often elicited my best explanations and most ambitious interpretations. In this I was helped by the scarcity of secondary material, which gave me free rein to develop my own ideas about my chosen figure: the Jewish innocent who outmaneuvers his superiors.

The schlemiel is the Jewish soldier in the Austrian army who, when commanded to unsheathe his bayonet for hand-to-hand combat, says, “Please, sir, show me my man. Maybe we can come to some agreement.” He thus functions in a high-stakes struggle for sanity and survival within a politically dependent and threatened community, and only at great cost does his foolishness command the moral high ground. My literary prooftexts credited the character’s resilient strength, but given the fate of Jews in the World War II, I myself remained ambivalent about whether to admire or condemn this celebration of the loser-as-winner. Around that ambivalence, I built my thesis, later to be published as a book.




Once the doctorate was in reach, it was time to persuade the university to let me teach Yiddish literature. I started with my department, where I was already teaching a freshman section of the English-literature survey. Along with a sample outline of the course I proposed to teach, I circulated Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg’s Treasury of Yiddish Stories, the impressive anthology that I intended to use as its anchor. Anticipating the objection that Yiddish did not “belong” in the English department, I said that, in the absence of a comparative-literature program, there was no more appropriate home for such a course. Surely the linguistic relation between Yiddish and German did not suggest that it belonged in the German department! Besides, I explained, the high proportion of Jews and Yiddish speakers in the student body would generate a constituency for courses in the original language as well as in English translation.

The vote in my favor was almost unanimous. As if to confirm my earlier experience at Columbia, the sole “no” vote was cast by the department’s only other Jew, a recent hire who had come from America to Canada to evade the draft for the Vietnam war.

Departmental endorsement in hand, I now had only to secure administrative approval and, crucially, community funding, since the English department could not support my position if I was not teaching its curriculum. Both the dean’s office and my former employer Saul Hayes at the Canadian Jewish Congress gave me what I called the “cotton candy treatment,” never refusing the proposal but never scheduling the meeting I requested.

Says the Book of Esther, “Relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place.” Just as I was growing impatient I learned that someone else at the university was making a pitch like mine, only not on his own behalf. David Hartman had independently decided to complete at McGill the PhD in philosophy he had left unfinished at Fordham University in New York. Now his McGill adviser, Professor Harry Bracken, wanted to hire his protégé to teach in the philosophy department.

When Harry and I learned of one another, we teamed up for a two-pronged operation. His credentials as a tenured professor, and a Gentile, carried the day with the Montreal Jewish Federation, which promised three years’ seed money if we could get the university’s approval. Once we paired up, we found ourselves pushing open doors. The university was eager to enlarge its scope, and the Jewish community was ready to invest in that expansion.

Thus, by the time I got my PhD in 1969, I was teaching Yiddish literature at a university where David Hartman was teaching Maimonides. Within a few years a full-fledged program in Jewish studies, later to become a full-fledged department, had its own premises and secretary and several full-time faculty members. Harry served as provisional chair; I took over three years later. To avoid being marginalized, we made most of our appointments jointly with the departments of history, literature, and philosophy, and with the divinity school that then housed courses on religion. McGill’s may have been the only Jewish-studies department in North America established by a university not through special endowments but having been gifted with small amounts of seed money and then supported wholly by the university itself.

In 1970 Harry and I drove down to Brandeis University for the second annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), founded (though we weren’t aware of it) in the very same year as our program. The approximately 50 members who came together at Brandeis constituted most of the tenured or tenure-track college professors of Jewish studies on the continent. Several were on the Brandeis faculty, many were rabbis educated and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Without encouragement from their institutions or colleagues, they had founded AJS as part of the “normalization” of Jewish studies in American higher education.

In fact, their predecessors, European-born and -trained men with rabbinic ordination who taught in the various denominational seminaries, had founded the American Academy for Jewish Research in 1920 on an elitist model that accepted for membership only those whose work adhered to the highest “proven” standards. By contrast, the founders of the AJS, mostly American-born and -trained, although they briefly considered making membership conditional on a working knowledge of Hebrew, dismissed even that qualification as impractical, instead opening registration to anyone in the field.

In this period of the late 1960s and early 70s, university appointments in Jewish studies were springing up in tandem with the Woodstock Festival, the antiwar movement, and everything entailed in what Lionel Trilling referred to as the period’s “adversarial culture.” We Jewish-studies academics were more distinct from this culture than from that of our European elders. We intended to strengthen the universities, not to trash them. We were for the enhancement of academic rigor, for shoring up hard-won gains of rational enlightenment. We were determined to enrich Western civilization with our Jewish contribution. Channeling Wordsworth at the spectacle of the French Revolution, we were certain it was bliss in this dawn to be alive, and to be young was very heaven.

I, too, very far from revolutionary action, was intent on proving myself worthy of the academy, the institution that had enfolded us in its arms. At McGill and for the most part in Canada as a whole, that embrace would remain firm over the decades, withstanding a number of attacks from within and without, both cultural and political. Elsewhere, however, as we shall see in due course, the story would be utterly different.

More about: Academia, Arts & Culture, The Memoirs of Ruth Wisse, Yiddish literature