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This Week’s Guest: Ruth Wisse
By reading literature, one can experience what it’s like to be, say, a king, or a soldier, or a mother, or a stranger, or a tyrant, or for that matter a slave, not to mention far more.
What of modern Jewish literature? How did its storytellers speak not only to individual readers, but also to a nation—a nation which until recently was dispersed through many lands and spoke to itself in many languages? How did fiction become one of the primary ways that modern Jewish culture was created and conveyed? And how have the greatest Jewish writers confronted the Jewish people’s enduring dilemmas?
Those are some of the questions that Ruth Wisse, professor emerita at Harvard, Mosaic’s columnist, and senior distinguished fellow at the Tikvah Fund, asks of herself and her students in her courses on Jewish literature. And they animate her new podcast series “The Stories Jews Tell.” On this week’s podcast, in conversation with Mosaic editor Jonathan Silver, she orients listeners to the questions of Jewish literature.
Musical selections in this podcast are drawn from the Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, op. 31a, composed by Paul Ben-Haim and performed by the ARC Ensemble.
I sometimes wonder personally about my own choices in life, because the only discipline that ever attracted me really was literature. At the time I never thought of it, I just wanted to go into literature because I loved reading and I loved reading books, but I loved reading particularly fiction, poetry, and not works of philosophy or economics or even history so much. But then in recent years, in thinking about that choice, I realized that in fact literature was interesting to me because it seemed to me the most capacious of all the disciplines. It was the one thing that included everything.
Philosophy seemed to me extremely limited. It dealt with ideas in a brilliant way often, but it was only ideas and they seemed always to be abstracted from the human condition. And then every other discipline could be looked at in that way, as being very interesting in itself but not the entirety. Whereas if you read a great novel or even a great short story, you got it all. It could have, of course, the economic content, it had the psychology, it sometimes had a lot of history embedded in it, I could go on. It seemed to me so much richer as a way of knowing, and it was exactly what I was looking for. What is life, what is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How do you be good in life? Literature seemed to be the way to go about exploring those questions.