Who is a Jewish writer?

A variety of authors reflect on Ruth Wisse's earlier book about identity and culture.

Franz Kafka 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Franz Kafka 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon Edited by Justin Cammy, Dara Horn, Alyssa Quint and Rachel Rubinstein Harvard University Press 705 pages; $75 Unlike other Jews, Harvard professor Ruth R. Wisse never seems to have been at war with herself. In fact, there isn't a hint of romanticism about her. She is a hard-nosed intellectual pragmatist who does not seek your sympathy or empathy, but rather demands your attention. Her target audience is secular Jews whom she fears have become misguided. In Wisse's universe, Jews are perennially in trouble. Her masterful thesis The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture reflects her life's thinking along these lines. Wisse fully embraces the "otherness" that Judaism bestows upon her and wears it proudly. She is wary of the rhetoric of the anti-Zionist Left and other political forces that seduce Jews into a false sense of security. Wisse decided to study Yiddish literature after being questioned by Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever about her plans for her future. When first approached by him, she mocked his inquiry replying, "And what would I do? Teach Sholem Aleichem?" Guilt pangs soon followed and she wondered how she could have ever belittled the tradition in which she had been raised. Her parents had fled Romania, where her maternal grandmother had run a Yiddish publishing house, during the late 1930s. Wisse went on to become the first professor to introduce courses in Yiddish literature at McGill University in Canada where she was raised. Wisse is bothered by how many Jews still consider it their burden to appease gentiles to win their favor. She points out how the politics of blame has simply been shifted from European politicians at the beginning of the 19th century to the Muslim and Arab rulers of today who prefer to blame Jews for their own shortcomings. She cautions Israel against adopting a "failed Diaspora strategy of accommodation." In The Modern Jewish Canon Wisse attempts to identify what she considers the best prose fiction by contemporary Jewish writers from all over the world that capture the inner life of the modern Jew. Cynthia Ozick describes Wisse's journey as nothing short of a spiritual quest devoted to finding authors whose material is filled by "an imagination so infused by Jewishness that the voice of the writer would emerge within the adopted language as a choral voice, a communal voice, the echo of the Lord of History." Harvard University Press has now published a huge volume of essays by a wide variety of writers who reflect upon Wisse's opinions about Jewish identity and culture and its representation in literature, and elaborate with their own insights about what precisely constitutes a modern Jewish canon. Many of them take issue with her on a number of points. For example, Hillel Halkin does not understand why Wisse rejects Lionel Trilling from her canon even though he possessed a strong Jewish identity that he was unable to transfer to his fiction. He is confused why Marcel Proust is discarded because he did not possess a strong Jewish identity but still was able to write brilliantly about Jews. Finally, he is baffled by the fact that Wisse allows Franz Kafka in her canon, since Halkin believes he "felt Jewish like Trilling but like Trilling kept Jews out of his fiction." He is thrilled by some of the writers Wisse includes, such as Mendele Mocher Sforim, David Grossman, Primo Levi, Yosef Haim Brenner, S.Y. Agnon, Aharon Appelfeld, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Abraham Cahan, Henry and Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Ilan Stavans resents Wisse's focus upon Ashkenazi literature and claims that the work of writers like Alberto Gerchunoff, Moacyr Scliar and Isaac Goldember should not be overlooked. Alan Mintz believes Wisse has ignored much of Israeli literature. Jewish identity often is confusing for Jewish writers; they are forced to grapple with their own complex relationship to their native language, the land of their birth and a sense of multiple loyalties. Henry Grynberg's remarks capture this dilemma: "I am a Jew who lives in America and writes in Polish about Jewish fate. For the Poles, I am a Jewish writer, for the Americans a Polish writer, for the Chinese, an American writer. My soul is Jewish and Polish and Polish-Jewish, but my mentality has become American. Americans are my brothers, with the Jews I share my fate, with the Poles my language and wounds (without my wounds I could perhaps forget to be Jewish). I am a child of the Jewish fate who has been adopted by America but the most important part of myself has remained in my Polish language." Wisse describes herself simply as a "skeptical rationalist of Lithuanian stock" rather than a "hassidic enthusiast," but the reader senses an underpinning of zealotry about her. One senses she doesn't hear competing drumbeats in her head, but only her own reasoned arguments, which she has been espousing for decades. Some of the essayists in this volume, a few of them her former students, seem to be goading her to consider some alternatives to her established doctrines. But she is immovable and convinced that the Jewish struggle is not about land or borders or anything tangible, but a more frightening and pervasive force that targets Jews everywhere. She will not allow us to forget this uncomfortable truth and marches on comfortably out of step with the dominant ethos of the liberal academy.