Arrival; or, Yiddish Makes Its Way to Harvard Yard

At arguably the moment of Harvard’s greatest involvement with Jews and Judaism, new movements in (anti-)intellectual thought started to creep in, too.

Harvard. iStockPhoto/Roman Babakin.

Harvard. iStockPhoto/Roman Babakin.

May 29 2019
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 thirteenth chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found here. Further installments will follow. 

On January 1, 1993, I arrived at Harvard to take up a newly endowed professorship in Yiddish literature. It seemed preposterous—me at Harvard, Yiddish at Harvard. But as the taxi deposited me at the entrance to Lowell House, a new chapter of my life began in pretty much the way new chapters begin in some of the novels I teach.

The temperature was in the mid-50s, which, coming from snow-bound Montreal, I took as a splendid omen. A student resident of the house who introduced himself as Shai Held (later to become the noted rabbi and author) directed me to the apartment I was renting. It was more than ample for my needs: bedroom with desk, cupboard, lamp; sparsely furnished living and eating area; smaller second bedroom in case one of our children came to visit; galley kitchen; bathroom with shower. Len would not be joining me for several months, so I did not expect to entertain. Our ground-floor apartment looked out on the courtyard, which, it being winter break, was wonderfully still.

Harvard had never figured in my aspirations. Several years earlier, I had received a phone call from the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, my friend and my literary benefactor (having established the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature in part to support the series of Yiddish classics I was editing). She confided that a position in Yiddish literature was being set up at Harvard and that I would likely become its first incumbent. I laughed, asking whether she was exchanging the practice of history for prophecy. This may have discouraged her from saying any more about it.

Lucy died on December 5, 1990, scant weeks after learning that she had cancer of the liver, and thus was not around when Harvard announced that Martin Peretz, publisher of the New Republic and a former lecturer at the university, had endowed a chair in Yiddish there. When I later asked Marty how Lucy could have known of his intentions two years before they were made public, he replied that she was probably one of those he had consulted but he no longer remembered what, if anything, they discussed.

Had I asked Lucy to explain herself instead of advertising my indifference, I might have learned how the initiative came about. Both Marty (b.1938) and Lucy (b.1915) were New York Jews from similar Yiddish-speaking immigrant homes, so it would have been natural for him to turn to her once he decided to establish an academic position in this field. By the time he sought her out, they were both writing on similar political issues, but whereas Marty remained sentimental about his boyhood in a Jewish socialist summer camp, Lucy had reevaluated her earlier leftist sympathies and joined the neoconservatives.

Lucy may have reasoned that if Marty was consulting her about the proposed professorship, he was hoping the position would go to someone like her, which is to say someone like me—that is, someone who approached the study of Yiddish culture without a socialist bias. But since donors are supposed to have no direct say in who is appointed to the positions they endow, this is mere speculation. Just as I disregarded Lucy’s augury, so, when the new position was announced, I ignored Harvard’s call for applications and never looked at the job description.

In truth, I felt very much at home in Montreal, where I had grown up, and at McGill University, where I had worked hard to establish the program in Jewish studies. As I’ve written earlier  in these memoirs, Len and I had already left Montreal once—in 1971, when we moved our family to Jerusalem, the only other place I had wanted to make my home. Returning from there after a single year had ruined any further appetite for relocation. I also appreciated how attached Len was to his birthplace, which had been his father’s before him. We had a good life in Montreal with family, friends, and colleagues.

Yet by the 1990s things were not so straightforward. On the professional side, I had been appointed to McGill’s first named chair in Jewish studies; but since the university funded no graduate fellowships in our field, I would continue teaching mostly undergraduates and thus miss the chance to prepare future scholars of Yiddish.

Moreover, as if to prove the limits of Montreal’s appeal to the oncoming generation, our own children had joined the exodus of English-speaking youth. Our elder son Billy was working at the quiz show Jeopardy! in Los Angeles; Jacob was studying art history in New York; and Abby, in Israel, was employed at the Jerusalem Report. Apart from my job at McGill, almost everything else in my working life—publishing, lecturing, participating in the Boston-based Association for Jewish Studies—was situated in the United States. If we were ever going to make a move, this was the right time to do it.

Thus, when the biblical scholar James Kugel, the head of Harvard’s search committee, called to invite me to be considered for the new position, I did not immediately decline. I asked what the process required, and he replied, not much: I was to submit my curriculum vitae, deliver a seminar-style lecture, and meet informally with faculty and students. No commitment was expected on either side.

Len urged me on, saying I had nothing to lose—which, except for the tranquility of a predictable future, was true enough. In the years that followed, when people asked, “How do you like Harvard?,” my mind would slip back to my exploratory visits when I repeatedly asked myself the very same question. Harvard subsumes those in its orbit. No one had ever asked me how I liked McGill.




Cross Harvard Yard any day of the week, and you have to skirt clusters of tourists photographing the statue titled John Harvard, Founder, 1638, that stands outside the administration building. Campus guides enjoy pointing out that the statue is “a trio of lies.” John Harvard was but a mere contributor to the college; the college was founded in 1636; and the statue is actually a likeness of someone else. Yet far from tarnishing the school’s reputation, these fictions have become part of its mystique.

So, too, as I came to know the place, any weaknesses I discovered made me feel duty-bound to help correct them, possibly because burnishing the university’s reputation was a way of polishing one’s own. When I was already teaching there, an exchange student from China told me she had sought me out because I was the world’s expert on American Jewish literature; refusing to accept my demurral, she insisted that it must be so or I would not be at Harvard. In turn, the credit she was conferring on me would redound to her as well, for studying with me, and to the Chinese institution that she would return to serve back home. There is no discounting presumed value, and it is not always groundless.

My impressions of Harvard had been formed mostly from what I knew of its program in Jewish studies. Harry Austryn Wolfson, the first tenured professor in this field in the United States, who taught philosophy there from 1915 to 1958, was world-renowned for his erudition; he was said to have been the first to enter and the last to leave Widener Library every single day of the week. Some of his repute devolved upon his successor, Isadore Twersky, who received his PhD from Wolfson and then built a program in classical and medieval Jewish studies that was labeled, only half in jest, Harvard’s “yeshiva.”

I had had a taste of Twersky’s intensity several years earlier during a week of research in Widener on the great Yiddish writer Y.L.Peretz. The entire Yiddish collection was then still on open shelves, and the scholarly part of my soul delighted in the monastic stillness of the lamp-lit cubicle assigned to me in a corner of the stacks. In my otherwise favorite place of study, the Judaica reading room at the National Library in Jerusalem, half a dozen colleagues might intercept you as you tried to find a place at a table; depending on how many of them were grabbing a smoke in the foyer, a trip to the restroom could cost you an hour’s reading.

Twersky’s air of chilly authority garnered respect for Jewish studies at Harvard. Of the other ordained rabbis who were by then teaching in universities, he was probably the most demanding and certainly the most intriguing. Scion of the Talner ḥasidic dynasty that dated from the mid-18th century, he would later inherit his father’s position as spiritual leader of the Talner congregation in Brookline, where, in addition to his full-time Harvard position, he carried out the duties of teacher, pastor, and religious authority. Somehow, Rabbi Professor Twersky managed to satisfy both of his constituencies, while simultaneously setting a standard for expertise in primary Jewish sources that made the Harvard program preeminent in scholarship.

Though I admired the Twersky academic model, the search committee for the Yiddish chair was looking for something else. In endowing it, Marty Peretz wanted to moderate what he considered the rigidity of Jewish studies with its overemphasis on medieval texts. The introduction of Yiddish and its modern secular literature would shift the academic stress from rabbinic culture to the everyday life of Jews.

Some of my prospective colleagues, similarly eager for more modern subjects, also thought that my administrative experience at McGill and the Association for Jewish Studies would qualify me to succeed Twersky as director of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies (CJS). And my gender—ah, my gender! Let’s just say that by the 1990s an all-male program in an almost exclusively male department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations (NELC) felt obliged to appoint a female. Thus did the female for whom Harvard’s “yeshiva” had been her ideal of Jewish studies become a shoo-in for the position in the program she was loath to change.

The ironies of my appointment did not end there. The department of comparative literature, where I was to hold a joint appointment with NELC, was by then undergoing its own transformation. Founded by polyglot scholars who enjoyed investigating the creative interplay among literatures, the department was now moving instead in the direction of literary theory and interdisciplinary approaches described to me by one student as “making ingenious connections among the least likely subjects.”

This quip reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s unflattering verdict on the Metaphysical poets, in whose verses “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together.” But at least those poets had been dealing in ideas. By 1993, no self-styled academic conservative like me, who taught literature old style, one text at a time, reading along the grain rather than against it, with appreciation for its texture, its historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts, could have won the vote of some of the department’s trendsetters had I not been a woman. In yet another irony, these progressive members of the committee did not know that I had opposed affirmative action for women at McGill.

The net result was that, in both Jewish studies and comparative literature, I was appointed at least in part on the basis of a policy I deplored. “Tits and ass,” I would occasionally mutter to myself in the years that followed, quoting one of the most cynical songs in the Broadway musical A Chorus Line.


In the event, the interview process for the Harvard position proved almost as easygoing as Jim Kugel had promised. I enjoyed it immensely, inured against failure by not having sought the job in the first place. In his memoir Making It, Norman Podhoretz writes that not wanting a job is a reliable way of getting it. While I would probably have felt some disappointment had the position gone to someone else, part of me also wished to be spared the decision-making that would be required if I were offered it.

Because I did have misgivings. About a decade earlier, Twersky had invited me to Harvard to speak at a symposium on modern Jewish studies. On the appointed afternoon, I’d made my way to a hall where the sun shone in on almost empty rows. No one approached to greet me. I thanked our host for having invited me and took my seat on the platform with the other three speakers, all of whom were from the Hebrew University.

Without preamble, Twersky read off our names and topics, adding that the four of us would present our papers in sequence, with discussion reserved for the end. A half-hour into the program, I had already lowered any expectations of a lively give-and-take when a female student suddenly appeared at the back of the hall and began to shout, “You should be teaching love, not spreading hate! You’re preaching hate! Hate!” Our chairman did not react. Taking their cue from him, the other participants tried to continue as if nothing were amiss. But the screaming girl was not to be ignored, and the lack of a response only induced her to yell louder.

Finally stepping down from the speakers’ platform, I asked her to join me in the hall outside. There she began to lay out her Palestinian grievances against Israel and the Jews. Resisting the urge to reeducate her on the sources of aggression—with herself as exhibit A—I said merely that her interference was inappropriate in an academic gathering on subjects far removed from those that were concerning her, and that she had no business harassing Jewish-studies scholars.

The young woman appeared to accept my objections and took off without another word. I returned to the hall, where there had been no pause in the proceedings. At the close, in saying our goodbyes, Twersky thanked me so obliquely that I was not sure whether he was alluding to my participation in the event or to my intervention with the protester. But the awkwardness inside the room and the assault from outside hardly endeared the place to me.

When I met again with Twersky as part of the interview process, he again set me a little on edge by probing for my weaknesses rather than discussing subjects of mutual interest. The more he probed, the less I tried to impress him—I was not, after all, his graduate student—leaving him obviously disappointed with me. Quoting his predecessor, Harry Wolfson, he said, “Scholarship is not writing everything you know about a subject, but knowing everything that is to be known about a subject.” I replied, “That’s very wise,” wondering whether his teacher might have once wounded him as he was now trying to wound me.




Greater than my doubts about fitting into the quasi-rabbinic culture of the Harvard department was my growing discomfort at the prevailing group-think already palpable in the rest of the university. If I were to leave Canada for the land of the free, I didn’t wish to be mired in political correctness. Being out of the mainstream had never bothered me; friends sometimes accused me of cultivating opposition for its own sake. But I wanted to be among at least some like-minded people.

In Montreal, I had only to drop into the kosher bakery to be among fellow Jews who were feistier than anyone I knew in the academy. Where around Harvard would I find such uplift? Cambridge was so politically hegemonic it had not fielded even a Republican candidate for Congress since the early 1950s. William Kristol, who had lived in Cambridge while studying and then teaching at Harvard, recounted that in one election he had checked the box for the only alternative candidate, thinking he was voting Republican, only to discover from the next day’s paper that he had cast his ballot for a Communist.

At one point in the interview process I shared my concerns with Phyllis Keller, Harvard’s associate dean for academic affairs, who seemed to be running the university from behind the scenes. One of her close faculty friends, the historian Stephan Thernstrom, had lately been accused by students of “racial insensitivity” for his failure to include slave narratives in the curriculum for his course on American history. Though his tenure at the university was not threatened, he was bitter at the lack of departmental support against these allegations.

In relating this story and thus confirming my uneasiness, Phyllis was claiming me as an ally. As she escorted me from one administrative interview to another, she paused in the stairwell to say, “You know, we read you in Commentary.” The intimation that some at Harvard would welcome me into their club became an incentive for taking the job if offered. It did not occur to me to ask how many others were included in her “we.” Len and I would later befriend all four couples.

Political atmospherics apart, the meetings with colleagues were warm and pleasant, and my talk was what the profession calls “well received.” For the record, I spoke about one of my favorite Yiddish novels, the 1873 allegory The Mare by Mendele Mokher Sforim, pen-name of the Yiddish and Hebrew master Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh. I was glad to speak on a masterwork that meant so much to me, and that harked back to my own beginnings as a graduate student.

Then, interviews over, I returned home and went on with my life, which included an annual trip to Israel at the end of the school year. Thus I was in Jerusalem, hurrying to my cousins for Sabbath dinner, when I heard my name called by the literary scholar Dan Laor, who lived on the neighboring street. Catching up with me, he seized my hand and congratulated me on having gotten the job. I protested my ignorance. Whether or not he believed me, his access to the Harvard grapevine made me credit his information more than I had Lucy Dawidowicz’s years earlier. And his was no idle curiosity, since his prospects of continuing to spend semesters at Harvard had until then depended on the disposition of Isadore Twersky, who as the director of the Center for Jewish Studies ran it pretty much as he pleased.

A year after I took the job, I was made the Center’s director in turn. Jacob Katz, one of the shrewdest professors at the Hebrew University, having been asked by anxious colleagues how this change at Harvard would affect their future sabbatical rotations, took to advising them, simply, mi-kan v’hal’ah tsarikh l’haḥanif et rut vays, from now on you’ll have to play up to Ruth Wisse. He shared this witticism with Neal Kozodoy at Commentary, who cheerfully shared it with me.

But things had changed. Eager to avoid Twersky’s (undoubtedly judicious) exercise of his power, my new colleagues and I instituted a formal, competitive application process for a subsidized annual seminar on a different research topic. When the academic market later took a sharp downturn, we alternated this with a post-doctoral seminar to help recent PhD graduates jumpstart their career. I considered this open process a definite improvement, but the rest of the picture is murkier. It would prove easier to bring down the “yeshiva” than to replace it with anything sounder.

Among Harvard’s blessings—Widener Library foremost among them—are its limitless opportunities. Having been assured that my chair would be accompanied by a lectureship in Yiddish language, I set up a full ladder: language instruction, undergraduate courses, and a track for graduate student supported by generous stipends. That two of our first graduate students in Yiddish had studied with me at McGill fortified my sense of having done the right thing.

As director of the Center, I also organized a conference in 1995 to mark the 50th anniversary of Commentary (which Irving Kristol called the most influential Jewish magazine in history) and a much larger one in 1997 on the centenary of the founding of the Zionist movement. For the latter I partnered with Jehuda Reinharz of Brandeis University and Anita Shapira representing the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, and raised funds from private donors for a gathering at Harvard in the fall and then again in Jerusalem the following spring.

Daniel Pipes, a Harvard graduate and by then a recognized scholar of Middle East studies, told me he had not imagined it would be possible to hold such a conference at Harvard. I was delighted, but in truth I hadn’t consulted anyone at the university apart from my colleagues. By contrast, our counterparts in Israel arranged for President Ezer Weizman of Israel to host their opening event at the presidential home in Jerusalem.

In retrospect, I should not have kept a low profile for these conferences but instead tried to win them the broadest possible coverage in the Harvard Crimson, the Boston Globe, and beyond. I did not fully realize that the anti-Israel, anti-conservative, and anti-Jewish forces were growing stronger and had to be confronted. But in truth I had been warned.




Months before my move to Cambridge, Marty Peretz called to say he was organizing a party for the inauguration of the chair and could I please supply a list of invitees. In the early years of our marriage, Len and I used to throw exuberant New Year parties. There were always too many people for the available space, and I imagined Marty’s “party” as some such rollicking reception with a couple of toasts and abundant hors d’oeuvres.

But I did not know my man. He was planning an elegant sit-down dinner, and rather than telling me to trim my list by two-thirds, he moved the event from the smaller venue he’d reserved to the grand foyer of Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum. A week before the event, he dropped by my Lowell House apartment, its first visitor, to arrange the seating—which is when I first took in the enormity of my mistake, and the additional costs he must have incurred to accommodate it.

He waved off my apology and said he enjoyed organizing this kind of event. Indeed, the evening would be a tribute to his skills. I knew nothing of his negotiations with Harvard for the space, but I saw how much care, as both impresario and heart of the proceedings, he would lavish on the comfort of his guests.

The February evening of the dinner was intensely cold. By contrast, I and my guests were thoroughly warmed by the grandeur of the room, the excellence of the food, and the spirit of the welcome. From our perspective, the evening had some of the amiable excitement of a bar-mitzvah reception. It may well have been Marty who invoked the bar-mitzvah analogy that evening. To him, Harvard’s reception of Yiddish, that lowly vernacular, ought to be marked in style. The university had been offering courses on the Hebrew Bible and medieval Jewish philosophy, but Yiddish was the language of the immigrants whom Henry Adams feared as he beheld them invading “his” America, the argot that Henry James foresaw corrupting the English language.

In his remarks, Marty said that Harvard’s president A. Lawrence Lowell, who in the 1920s had instituted quotas limiting the admission of Jews, must be turning in his grave. His sentiment was echoed by the New Republic’s literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who had studied under Twersky as a postgraduate member of the august Society of Fellows. Most of the evening’s remarks—by Jeremy Knowles, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Henry Rosovsky, its former dean, the writer Cynthia Ozick, Marty, and me—were celebratory, splendidly topped off by Marty’s friend, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, playing Bach.

Between speeches I spoke mostly with my tablemates: Neil Rudenstine, Harvard’s president, and his wife Angelica, née Zander, an art historian. I happened to know a little about her family because my Jerusalem cousins were friends of her brother, the orchestral conductor Benjamin Zander. In 1937 their father Walter had fled from Berlin to London, where he was interned at the beginning of the war as an enemy alien. A passionate Zionist and founding secretary of the British Friends of the Hebrew University, Walter Zander was also passionate in his belief that conflict with the Arabs in Palestine could be avoided.

I was curious to know what Angelica knew and felt about her father’s life and politics, but interruptions kept sending our conversation off its path so that we found ourselves talking instead about the father of her friend and fellow art historian Leo Steinberg. Both their fathers had left Berlin for London, but Leo’s was the more famous of the two. Didn’t I know about Isaac Steinberg, who was associated with Yiddish?

I certainly did know about I.N. Shteynberg, founder and theoretician of the Frayland lige—the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonization—but it had not occurred to me to associate him with the Leo Steinberg whose writings on art I had read alongside those of his New York counterparts Meyer Schapiro and Harold Rosenberg. Were Shteynberg and Steinberg truly father and son? The father had led a double or triple life: justice minister in the first Soviet government, founder of the Territorialist movement to promote the establishment of semi-autonomous, Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities wherever Jews gathered in sufficient numbers, and an Orthodox Jew. Anticipating the implementation of minority rights for Poland’s three-million Jews, Shteynberg had envisioned a secular culture that could sustain limited Jewish sovereignty without doing battle for it.

This was the bond between the two parents: Angelica’s father had harbored within the Zionist movement a belief, similar to Shteynberg’s outside the Zionist movement, that Jews would not have to engage in military self-defense. She also seemed to imply that Leo was as removed from his father’s idea of Jewish peoplehood as she was from her father’s Zionism, and that the two of them had taken the bloodless Jewish nationalism of their parents a giant step farther by leaving Judaism for art.

Our conversation was of special interest to me since our son Jacob was studying to become an art historian and curator. With his attentiveness to detail, Marty had seated Jacob at the table of Joseph Koerner, another son of refugees (from Vienna rather than Berlin) who had become an art historian and was teaching at Harvard. How many more Jews had followed the lead of Bernard Berenson in turning from Judaism to the Religion of Art?

Not long before this, Jacob and I had been at dinner in New York with some friends, including Cynthia Ozick. When Jacob said he was studying artists of the Northern Renaissance, Cynthia leaned across the table—she was sitting at the opposite end—and asked: “How can you specialize in Christian art!?” I saw that Jacob was puzzled. My mother—his grandmother, to whom he dedicated his doctoral thesis—had a houseful of paintings and artwork, much of it of no obvious ethnic or religious derivation. The subjects of his dissertation were 15th-century city painters of the Burgundian Netherlands. They did not function under the aegis of the Church, so he did not necessarily identify the art of Christian Europe as itself Christian.

But in asking her question Cynthia was not being provincial. She knew full well that many Jewish students of art had left the tribe without a formal conversion to Christianity, dubbed by Heinrich Heine the “ticket of admission to European culture.” She may have harbored some such concern for our son. Indeed, the protagonist of her novel The Cannibal Galaxy is a European Jew who survives World War II and expects to escape cultural conflict by designing a “dual curriculum” of Jewish and secular studies. The book can be read as a cautionary tale about even the best-intentioned program of cultural amalgamation. If Cynthia was troubled by the thought of a dual curriculum, small wonder she might worry about a Jew specializing in European art.


And here was something strange. In coming to Harvard to teach Yiddish literature, I had not considered Jewishness a matter of concern. There had been little anti-Israel agitation or Jewish discomfort at McGill, and I’d expected even less at Harvard. Yet there was palpable unease at our head table. Probably because he associated me with “Jewish,” Neil Rudenstine spoke of being the child of a mixed marriage. His brother considered himself Jewish, and Neil had recently attended his nephew’s bar mitzvah. But he had evidently been rattled by Marty’s and Leon’s references to Harvard’s history of anti-Jewish discrimination. When his turn came to speak, he set aside his prepared remarks and instead offered an impromptu defense of President Lowell (dead since 1943) with a weird account of how Lowell had once come to the rescue of his sister, the poet Amy Lowell.

Maybe he was reaching for the only redemptive detail about Lowell that came to mind, but more peculiar than the incident he recounted was his attempt to justify his precursor as though his own reputation were at stake. His obviously improvised talk raised eyebrows. One of our invited friends—Anglican, as it happens—asked me why President Rudenstine had “lost it.” Why didn’t he just say he was glad that the prejudices of Lowell’s day had since then been overcome?

I had opened my prepared thanks that evening with the Yiddish quip, “If a Jew eats a chicken, one of them must be sick,” intending to demonstrate its obsolescence. The dinner was so elegant, most people had not noticed that the food was kosher. The security of Jews, which I took, and still take, as the barometer of a morally and politically secure society, seemed assured by the satisfactory condition of Jews and chickens alike. Yet the tremors of unease I sensed at our table were about to cause a tectonic shift.

The tremors were complex and of multiple kinds. University culture was becoming less tolerant of Jewishness, quite as though it had expected Jews to shed their identifying characteristics in return for being admitted, and now wanted to undo the mistake. As it happened, moreover, quite a number of those in attendance that night were themselves Jews who, having exited the fold, were hugely discomfited at seeing elements of tribalism being openly affirmed. Meanwhile, that lone Palestinian student shouting “Hate!” at the back of the hall in the 1980s was about to be joined by other Arab and Muslim students whom Harvard did nothing to disabuse of their conviction that Israel was to blame for the Arab and Muslim aggression against it.

The percentage of Jewish students probably peaked about the time I came to Harvard, and dropped precipitously with the boost of affirmative action into virtual quotas.

There would never be another such evening during my tenure, or in any foreseeable future.




When I took up my position at Harvard, most of my colleagues in NELC and in comparative literature were traditional scholars, having been hired (as my Chinese exchange student would assure me) because they were considered “best in the world”—a ludicrous standard to my way of thinking but one that, in emphasizing academic excellence, underscored what was expected of us.

I was not involved in undergraduate admissions, but, weighing in on the graduate-school application process, I saw no instance there of anything but academic criteria being taken into consideration. Affirmative action in faculty appointments was only creeping into place when I arrived, and there were as yet no administrative bureaucrats like the Soviet commissars who monitored ideological and political compliance.

This is no idle comparison: despite the differences between the two systems, enforcers know that their job depends on proving the need for it, which means finding ever-increasing demonstrations of infraction and then passing more rules that guarantee further infractions. The policy introduced in the name of greater fairness, equality, social justice, and other such virtues can thus destroy the institution that tries to impose it.

The school I entered was still pretty feisty. “Every tub on its own bottom”—a puzzling motto the first time I heard it—described the university’s highly decentralized authority that allowed independent fiefdoms to flourish. The Center for Jewish Studies (one of dozens such) had been founded to supplement the academic teaching of Jewish studies through conferences, scholarships and prizes, fellowships for visiting academics, intramural and intermural publications, and town-and gown community outreach. This academic entrepreneurship made for a lively campus, with seriously competing attractions on any given day. No matter how carefully I checked the university calendar to avoid major conflicts, any event we scheduled was bound to coincide with others of comparable merit—a veritable embarrassment of riches.

I had been warned that the students whose ambition propelled them into Harvard tended to be docile, reluctant to challenge those from whom they wanted less to learn than to earn an A. Indeed, when I once sat in on a class in art history that my son Jacob was teaching at Stern College in New York, I envied him the hands that shot up for questions. Our students feared that asking questions would betray their ignorance.

But they also delighted me when they pushed back a little. Once, teaching a work that had been written under harrowing conditions, I mocked by contrast the luxury of Virginia Woolf’s complaint about lacking “A Room of One’s Own.” A student beside me said, in a very low voice, for my hearing alone, “Oh, that’s not fair!” I was so enchanted that I took up this objection to explain why my comment had indeed been unfair.

I also appreciated the several students from the former Soviet Union who protested my emphasis on the literary genius of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry; to them, I seemed to be condoning the great author’s immorality in having joined a brutal and anti-Semitic regiment of Cossacks. And then there was the day, during a seminar on the New York intellectuals, when I saw my student Sue Kahn, subsequently a professor of anthropology, shaking her head and asked what troubled her. She said, “We will never be able to write like that, never, never. . . .” That was exactly why I’d wanted to teach their work in the first place.

I am now faced with the need to describe the academic decline I would witness over the next 21 years: a decline I was powerless to arrest and see no prospect of being reversed.

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