Free as a Jew: A Per­son­al Mem­oir of Nation­al Self-Liberation

  • Review
By – February 2, 2022

Struc­tured the­mat­i­cal­ly rather than chrono­log­i­cal­ly, Free as a Jew tells the sto­ry of Ruth Wisse’s devel­op­ment as a Jew, an intel­lec­tu­al, a schol­ar, an aca­d­e­m­ic, a Zion­ist, and a con­ser­v­a­tive, to name a few of her attrib­ut­es. To each could be added the adjec­tive out­spo­ken.” Under­scor­ing them all is her pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to the lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture of Yid­dish, most notably expressed in her long aca­d­e­m­ic career that began in Mon­tre­al at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty and cul­mi­nat­ed at Har­vard University.

Wisse starts her mem­oir at the begin­ning, with her birth in Czer­nowitz (then in Roma­nia) in 1936, some of her family’s his­to­ry in the region, and her immi­gra­tion to Cana­da in 1940 with her par­ents and old­er broth­er. Those dates, she empha­sizes, do not make this a Holo­caust mem­oir, although the loss of many fam­i­ly mem­bers made it an indeli­ble part of her life.

Wisse grew up and was edu­cat­ed in Mon­tre­al dur­ing a peri­od when the city was Canada’s cen­ter of Jew­ish life. It was a com­mu­ni­ty that employed the writer A.M. Klein to write speech­es, press releas­es, and essays on behalf of the Cana­di­an Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, and where Yid­dish writ­ers includ­ing Itzik Manger, Melekh Rav­itch, and Rokhl Korn were guests in her par­ents’ home. When Wisse began at McGill in 1953, fel­low stu­dents includ­ed Leonard Cohen and Lionel Tiger, and writ­ers such as Morde­cai Rich­ler were gain­ing inter­na­tion­al recognition.

At a time when Yid­dish was not part of any uni­ver­si­ty cur­ricu­lum, it was the Yid­dish poet Avrom Sutzkev­er, whom she first met in Israel, who sug­gest­ed that she pur­sue the study of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. She laughed.

With twists and turns that includ­ed study­ing Yid­dish with Max Wein­re­ich, then his son Uriel at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, she returned to Mon­tre­al with­out her doctorate.

Even­tu­al­ly she enrolled as a doc­tor­al stu­dent at McGill, lat­er per­suad­ing the Eng­lish depart­ment that she teach a course in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture. At that time, Rab­bi David Hart­man, who had moved to Mon­tre­al from New York and would have a major impact on Wisse’s Jew­ish life, had begun teach­ing a class on Mai­monides in McGill’s phi­los­o­phy depart­ment, where he had com­plet­ed his PhD. It all led to a pro­gram, and then a depart­ment, in Jew­ish studies.

For Wisse, these were also fam­i­ly years, rais­ing three chil­dren with her hus­band Len. It was, she writes, a won­der­ful life.”

These descrip­tions bare­ly scratch the sur­face of what is a won­der­ful telling of that life. There’s Zion­ism, the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment, writ­ing for Com­men­tary, the Cold War, fem­i­nism, Que­bec sep­a­ratism, oppo­si­tion to the Oslo Accords, how to com­mem­o­rate the Holo­caust — all issues to which she brings her inde­pen­dent, often con­tro­ver­sial, view­point. Like­wise, there are friend­ships and encoun­ters with Isaac Bashe­vis Singer, Nor­man Pod­horetz, Cyn­thia Ozick, and oth­ers. Through it all was what she sees as the grow­ing illib­er­al­ism” of lib­er­al­ism, and with it her increas­ing­ly con­ser­v­a­tive outlook.

The book would have ben­e­fit­ed from an index and more care­ful copy­edit­ing; hope­ful­ly, these omis­sions will be cor­rect­ed in a sec­ond edi­tion. Over­all, Free as a Jew is a stim­u­lat­ing, thought-pro­vok­ing — and enter­tain­ing — life story.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

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