What makes a great Jewish book? What makes a book "Jewish" in the first place? Ruth R. Wisse, one of the leading scholars in the field of Jewish literature, sets out to answer these questions in The Modern Jewish Canon. Wisse takes us on an exhilarating journey through language and culture, penetrating the complexities of Jewish life as they are expressed in the greatest Jewish novels of the twentieth century, from Isaac Babel to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Elie Wiesel to Cynthia Ozick. The modern Jewish canon Wisse proposes comprises those books that convey an experience of Jewish actuality, those in which "the authors or characters know and let the reader know that they are Jews," for better or worse.
Wisse is not content merely to evaluate the great books of Jewish literature; she also links the works together to present a new kind of Jewish history, as it has been told through the literature of the past hundred years. She tells the story of a multilingual, multinational people, one that has experienced an often turbulent relationship with Hebrew (the liturgical and scriptural language) and Yiddish (the commonplace vernacular tongue), as well as with the numerous languages spoken by Jews around the world. Wisse insists that language informs the essential meaning of a Jewish work, creating and ratifying political and religious alliances, historical and cultural circumstance, and methods of interpretation.
Drawing from a broad sweep of twentieth-century Jewish fiction, Wisse reintroduces us to the deeper side of much-beloved books that remain touchstones of Jewish identity. Through her eyes we reencounter old friends, including:
- Tevye the Dairyman from Sholem Aleichem's landmark Yiddish stories, the character on whom Fiddler on the Roof is based
- Joseph K. of Kafka's The Trial, who "without having done anything wrong" was famously "arrested one fine morning"
- Anne Frank, whose poignant diary has shaped the way we think about the Holocaust
- Nathan Zuckerman, the enigmatic narrator of numerous Philip Roth novels
Destined to be a classic in its own right, one that reshapes the way we think about some of the classic works of the modern age, The Modern Jewish Canon is a book for every Jewish reader and for every reader of great fiction.
Wisse admits that making selections for a modern Jewish canon was far from easy: "The modern list will probably never be as firmly redacted as the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible, because no contemporary community is as confident as its ancestors, and because moderns are generally warier of any process that smacks of authority." In spite of difficulties, Wisse, who teaches Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, goes through what she believes are the greatest works reflecting the extraordinary varieties of 20th-century Jewish experience, from Sholom Aleichem's Tevye stories to the near-stream-of-consciousness, post-Zionist novel Past Continuous by Israeli Yaakov Shabtai. But whether dealing with well-known writers, such as Nobel laureates S.Y. Agnon, I.B. Singer and Saul Bellow, or introducing readers to such little-known but significant writers as the early Hebrew novelist Yosef Haim Brenner or the Canadian A.M. Klein, Wisse writes thoughtfully and insightfully. She places each work in a historical, cultural and linguistic context (Jewish literature is unusually polyglot), probes its worldview and the writings of other scholars and critics. Wisse has a gift for succinctly capturing a work's narrative and moral import, as in this statement about what she calls "one of the finest political novels in the Western canon," Singer's Satan in Goray: "Evil is never so powerful as when it claims to be redemptive, the promise of redemption is never so persuasive as when it follows great suffering, and no suffering will compare with `forcing the end' of history." Some readers will quibble with her choices, but no matter; Wisse has provided a great service to those interested in modern Jewish imagination, world views and sensibilities. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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April 15, 2003
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Excerpt from The Modern Jewish Canon by Ruth R. Wisse
In the late 1960s, during a period of general expansion in higher education, I won permission to introduce courses on Yiddish language and literature at McGill University, where I was then teaching sections of the English literature survey. A decade earlier, when I was an undergraduate at McGill, not a single course in any department offered instruction about the Jews. McGill of the 1950s was not unusual: there were then only three full-time positions in Jewish Studies in North America -- Harry Wolfson at Harvard, Salo Baron at Columbia, and Walter Fischel at the University of California at Berkeley. In proposing to teach Jewish literature, I argued that an expanded humanities curriculum would broaden the university's coverage of Western culture, legitimating the university's claim to be teaching Western, rather than Christian, civilization. Since it may prove relevant to my discussion of the works presented in this book, I might as well relate that the only member of the English department who voted against my proposal was its only other Jew, an assistant professor of English who had recently arrived from New York City.
During my undergraduate years at McGill, I had not given much thought to the exclusion of Jewish culture from the curriculum. Nevertheless, it did seem strange to me that my introductory economics course overlooked the role of Jews in trade and talked about the Rothschilds without mentioning their Jewishness, and it was painful to read certain passages in Chaucer and Celine that libeled the Jews without being invited to discuss the authors' prejudice. Although McGill had rescinded its discriminatory admissions policy in 1950 and Jews in large numbers were to be found on campus, our presence was never acknowledged, and I was occasionally troubled that the intellectual traditions and culture of the Jews went unmentioned. "Mais sois gentille," my French teacher might have said had I raised the problem with her. Be grateful that you have been welcomed here despite your Jewishness, and don't expect to have your Jewishness included along with you. Why not take your place in this society as a Canadian and a Quebecer, speaking English and French and performing Shakespeare and Moli?re, to the point of becoming a teacher yourself should you be able to match your ability with your ambition? Why not, indeed?
But shortly after I graduated, I surprised myself rudely. The defining moment occurred during the first visit to Canada in 1959 of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, whose speaking tour I had helped to organize. Survivor of the Vilna ghetto and witness on behalf of Russian Jewry at the Nuremberg trials, Sutzkever had become what Yiddish literary criticism calls "more than a poet" -- he had become a symbol of the creative Jewish spirit after the devastation of the Second World War. His lyrics, which I read in private and heard in his public readings before Yiddish audiences, moved me to arrange a reading of a selection of his poetry for Folkways Records. (I had already been introduced to Yiddish literature: it was taught in the Jewish day school I had attended, and more importantly, my parents' adoration of Yiddish culture had brought many of the leading contemporary Yiddish writers and poets into our home.) One day, when Sutzkever asked me about my professional plans, I told him I was thinking of going to graduate school to take a degree in English literature. "Why don't you study Yiddish?" he asked. I laughed aloud. "And what would I do? Teach Sholem Aleichem?"