Campus & Community

The canon according to Wisse

7 min read
Photo of Ruth
Ruth Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature. Staff photo by Jon Chase

Ruth Wisse hesitates to compare her latest work to the Bible, but she admits there may be some similarities.

In “The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture” (The Free Press, 2000), Wisse writes about the works of prose fiction that, in her opinion, define the Jewish experience in the 20th century. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the stories she has culled and analyzed do for modern Jews what the stories of the Bible did for the ancient Hebrews.

“The modern canon is never going to have the authority of the biblical canon, because no one is going to claim God’s guidance in this. But that is not to say that the Jewish people have not continued to testify to God’s presence, or at least to the ongoing argument with God that was initiated by Abraham,” Wisse said.

While the modern Jewish canon won’t achieve the status of Holy Scripture, Wisse believes that the story these works tell as a whole constitutes an epic of enormous scope and power, which, like any great story, brings its protagonists through hellish depths to the most exalted triumph.

“I think the history of the Jews in the 20th century exceeds in its miraculous aspects any of the stories that are told in the Bible,” she said. “I don’t know if you can find a parallel to a people that is subject to such crushing humiliation as the Jews were in Europe during World War II, and then within the same decade, reclaims its political sovereignty, defends its territory, and begins to settle its refugees, and nurture a decent democratic society. This is an unparalleled story of heroism, ingenuity, and creativity.”

Wisse’s canon begins with Sholem Aleichem, whose Yiddish stories of Tevye the Dairyman inspired the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” and ends with the literature of contemporary Israel, which Wisse believes will define the core of the Jewish experience into the 21st century. In between are the perplexing fables of Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel’s tales of Russia in the throes of revolution, the writings of Anne Frank and other Holocaust victims, the post-war soul-searching of Americans Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow, and many more – a panoply of voices, visions, and languages.

Wisse, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature, said this is the first of her books to come directly out of her teaching, specifically her Core course “The Modern Jewish Experience in Literature.” Like the book, the course reflects years of thinking about what constitutes modern Jewish literature, and her conclusion that the term must be defined broadly.

“I began to conceive of a course that would really encompass an inclusive idea of Jewish writing in the modern period. And since the Jews themselves were a multilingual people, the literature was also multilingual.”

Putting together a group of works written in different languages and calling it a literary canon is somewhat unorthodox, given the way literary studies are generally conducted. French literature is assumed to be literature written in French, the same for English, German, Japanese – almost any literature one might care to name.

But Wisse is convinced that the term Jewish literature has meaning, that the works she has selected, though separated by language and nationality, are tied together by history, experience, sensibility, point of view.

“I can’t say that I discovered this canon. It was simply there, and it was a question of recognizing it and setting it out for people, who could then do with it as they wished. I’m sure there are people who would arrange different versions, but I don’t think anyone would argue with the conception of a modern Jewish literature. It seems to me indisputable that such a phenomenon exists.”

The question of language occupies Wisse throughout the book, and this perspective often yields revealing insights. For most critics, one of the least ambiguous things about Franz Kafka was his use of German, but in Wisse’s analysis he emerges as profoundly uncomfortable with the language in which he chose to write and of which he was such a master.

Raised in Prague, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kafka received the finest German education, and naturally wrote in that language. But in his diaries and letters, he compares Jews who write in German to kidnappers and extols the virtues of a local Yiddish theater company to whose performances he returned night after night. He also studied Hebrew as an adult with the idea of moving to Palestine, but never acquired enough mastery to use it for literary purposes.

In Wisse’s view, Kafka’s most famous work, “The Trial,” reflects the anxiety of a man cut off from his roots. Its hero, Joseph K., whose abbreviated last name conceals his ethnic identity, she describes as “a caricature of deracination.”

Another famous writer, Nobel Prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer, continued to write in Yiddish long after that language had ceased to be a lingua franca for the Jews of Eastern Europe, remaining faithful not only to the language, but to the traditional world in which he had grown up.

Wisse describes Singer as holding “a deeply conservative estimate of his artistic opportunities,” which compelled him to return in book after book to pre-War Jewish Warsaw, the only world of which he could write with authenticity.

When she comes to American Jewish writers, Wisse is sparing in her praise. Some, like Norman Mailer and E.L. Doctorow, she does not include because they don’t deal meaningfully with Jewish themes. Others, like Roth and Bellow, especially in their early novels, she characterizes as writing almost exclusively from the perspective of Jewish sons in rebellion against the religious and cultural world represented by their parents’ generation.

Only in later works, Wisse asserts, like Bellow’s “Mr. Sammler’s Planet” (1970) and Roth’s “The Counterlife” (1987) do Jewish characters begin to take responsibility for the traditions they have inherited. Wisse also singles out Cynthia Ozick for being one of the first to grapple with what it means to be both a contemporary American writer and an observant Jew.

Other novels, less well known to English-speaking audiences, assume a central place in Wisse’s discussion. The Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon’s novel “A Guest for the Night” is one of Wisse’s favorites. A complex, modernist work that tells the story of a man’s return to the town in Poland where he grew up, the novel makes great demands on the reader.

Another favorite work, “The Second Scroll” (1951) by the Canadian-Jewish writer A.M. Klein, shows the influence of James Joyce in its narrative of a Canadian poet’s quest to find a long-lost uncle whose life has been inextricably linked with the founding of Israel.

About the basis of her selection process, Wisse says that she has not been especially systematic, relying mostly on her own taste and the responses of her students. “I have to confess, I’m more interested in the works than in the theory behind their choice,” she said.

But systematic or not, Wisse defends her right to make choices and to create a canon based on her own perceptions, her own likes and dislikes. That, she says, is the right of every reader who cares about literature.

“That’s the great joy of culture. You put your oar in the water and you row. Everyone has the right to do it, and I would even say that everyone has the responsibility to do it, because if you take culture seriously, you have to possess it, and in order to possess it you have to choose what means the most to you.”