RUTH R. WISSE
Contention was so much a part of modern Yiddish culture that, in any study of that culture, it was all but taken for granted.
Irving Howe in New York in 1982. Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images.
We present here the eleventh chapter from the memoirs-in-progress of the renowned scholar and author Ruth R. Wisse. Earlier chapters can be found here. Further installments will appear over the next months.
I am often asked whether political adversaries can also be friends. But without knowing the historical circumstances, the question is meaningless. Otherwise compatible Gentile and Jewish laboratory partners in 1930s Berlin would have discontinued their scientific collaboration had the former decided to join the Nazi party; by contrast, tennis partners in the United States were unlikely to split up after the 1984 election if one had voted for Ronald Reagan and the other for Walter Mondale.
But why not offer a complicated case of my own?
Irving Howe (1920-1993) was important to me before I came to know him. In an earlier chapter I’ve described how A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, the 1954 anthology he co-edited with the American Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg, helped me persuade McGill’s English Department to let me teach Yiddish literature under its auspices. Howe’s introduction to this brilliant collection did much to establish the cultural, as opposed to the more narrowly ethnic, value of Yiddish literature.
A professed socialist, Howe said he’d returned to the Yiddish of his immigrant upbringing when looking for solace at a time of political discouragement in the early 1950s. Whatever motivated him, he found in “Leyzer” Greenberg the ideal partner for a project that neither of them could have undertaken on his own. Until then, American Jewish writers in Yiddish and American Jewish writers in English had coexisted with almost no interaction between them. But when the Yiddish writer Greenberg came across a review by the English writer Howe of a book of Sholem Aleichem’s stories in translation, it occurred to him that this man could help him introduce Yiddish literature to American readers. Their collaboration began at their first meeting.
Howe understood spoken Yiddish but read the language at only a beginner’s level. So, in determining whether or not to include a given author, and if so, which stories, Greenberg would read aloud a selection of work and the two would then reason their way to a decision. This association was so satisfying that they followed up the first Treasury with another on Yiddish poetry.
In 1970, Howe asked me to translate an essay for their third anthology, Voices from the Yiddish. As translators were then in short supply, and as such an anthology would be useful in my own project of teaching Yiddish literature in English translation, our collaboration made perfect sense and was mutually beneficial. Correspondence with Irving about my assigned essay—on the humor of Sholem Aleichem—quickly moved to a first-name basis and into a working friendship that must have resembled his with Greenberg: he deferred to me on points of scholarship and I to him on most points of English style.
I also liked his idea that transposing from emotionally inflected Yiddish to English required “lowering the temperature,” though it was clear that he felt free to make generalizations of this kind because he was uninhibited by too much knowledge. For example: speaking as a socialist, he would affectionately refer to Yiddish as “the literature of the little man” or, sometimes, “the little Jew”—without considering the negative connotation of that phrase in Mendele Mokher Sforim’s debut Yiddish novel, where it refers to a corrupt little schemer. Admiring the grand formulations in his own writings, I would have liked to split the difference between intellectuals who knew a little about a lot and scholars who knew a lot about a little.
As the two partners were preparing their fifth anthology, Greenberg suffered a stroke; Irving asked me to help him finish the book. Although I could never replace his beloved Leyzer, our work went so well that a few years later, when Irving was invited by Martin Peretz, publisher of the New Republic, to edit a collection of Sholem Aleichem stories for a new line of books under the magazine’s imprint, he asked me again to be his partner. The introduction to The Best of Sholem Aleichem was written by us together in the form of an exchange of letters.
Irving’s industry amazed me. I once came to his apartment as he was going through the mail: opening an envelope, glancing at the contents, writing a reply when warranted on a pre-stamped postcard, then dropping the rest into the wastebasket and thereby disposing of the pile in a matter of minutes. He referred to his essays as shtiklakh, negligible piecework, yet could not seem to live without publishing.
As the junior partner in our association, I left entirely to him the negotiations for our Sholem Aleichem volume, without realizing that he might have regarded a simple request for payment as an unforgivable betrayal of his socialist principles. Accepting for each of us a fee of $2,000, he forfeited royalties entirely, leaving us without recompense when the book received a front-page notice in the New York Times Book Review and proceeded to go through several editions. He did no better financially with our next project, the Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, on which we began work in the early 1980s and for which we recruited as co-editor Khone Shmeruk of the Hebrew University.
To be sure, financial profit was the last thing on our mind in that three-way New York-Montreal-Jerusalem partnership in which Irving recruited the translators, Khone and I made the first cut of poems, and Irving and I determined the final manuscript. What would have taken Khone and me a dozen years was managed by Irving in just two. Once we had decided on the contents, it was my job to provide our translators with literal prose renderings of the poems and to point out linguistic features or allusions they were likely to miss. Few of the translators had more than a basic knowledge of Yiddish; some had none at all. But we felt that in working with the last great living Yiddish writers we were performing a sacred act of cultural transmission, and were thrilled when poets like John Hollander, Cynthia Ozick, Irving Feldman, Chana Bloch, and Robert Friend turned in poems as good as their own.
Only one of our problems proved insurmountable. I was no longer in the good graces of the notoriously testy Chaim Grade (1910-1982), having translated his novel The Well for the Jewish Publication Society and then declined his invitation to translate another. Writing me an angry letter, he turned his sense of insult into an occasion for insulting me. It was thus left to Irving to secure permission for the poem we intended to include. Grade agreed that Hillel Halkin would translate an excerpt from Mussarists, a narrative poem based on the author’s youth in an exceptionally harsh Polish yeshiva.
But Grade died in April 1982, before giving us his written consent. We turned to his widow, Inna Hacker Grade, who replied by telegram: “CHAIM GRADE’S INSTRUCTIONS WERE TO FORBID IRVING HOWE THE TRANSLATION AND/OR PUBLICATION OF ANY OF HIS WORKS. COPIES OF THIS TELEGRAM GO TO OUR LAWYERS.” In what he would call one of his most masterful literary compositions, Irving replied tartly that the telegram was not really necessary—“a postcard would have had the same result”—and reminded her that her husband had actually given his verbal approval. “We all know the kinds and degrees of damage that have been done to literature by various agencies,” he added, “ranging from state censorship to foolish advisers. But tell me—has anyone yet written a study of the damage done by widows?”
Although we did indeed suspect the widow of exerting her power less over us than over her deceased husband, Irving never wrote that study about this most intimate form of posthumous contention. As for our anthology, it featured only 39 of our projected 40 poets.
When Irving and I began working together in the 1970s, his marriage to Ariel Mack was unraveling and he was recovering from a political hit. The socialist credentials that should have won him the respect of the then-flourishing New Left instead turned its radical members against him with the special venom reserved for closest rivals. His clashes with activists like Tom Hayden alienated him from the student revolutionaries who were using the war in Vietnam as a pretext to trash American institutions. As his former student and intellectual biographer Edward Alexander would later write, the “traditional university”—where from time to time Irving would find a home—was “the one institution that Howe very much wanted to conserve.”
Irving’s clash with the New Left was aggravated by his newfound attachment to Israel. Admitting that he had never been among “those who danced in the streets when Ben-Gurion made his famous pronouncement that the Jews, like other peoples, now had a state of their own,” he dropped his earlier indifference or hostility to Zionism when Arab armies encircled Israel in 1967, and later took his first trip to the Jewish state.
Combined with this warming to Israel and cooling to its leftist opponents, Irving’s war with the New Left also drew him closer—temporarily—to the people around Commentary. He and I joked that we were now like the eponymous “neighbors” of a poem in our Penguin anthology whose author, Joseph Rolnick, feels his earlier estrangement from a Communist Yiddish writer matters less than their cultural affinities:
We talk like good old friends,
we talk plainly and honestly,
though he’s left through and through
And I—just a bit to the right.
With our political differences rendered almost irrelevant, I joined in celebrating the reception of Irving’s most ambitious book, World of Our Fathers (1976), whose subtitle—“The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made”—aptly summarizes its contents and theme. He had been afraid that the influential Times Book Review would assign it to Harry Golden, the popular Jewish writer whose work, including the best-selling Only in America, he had panned. Instead, he won the National Book Award, made the best-seller list, and enjoyed his first taste of celebrity.
In touring to promote his book, Irving complained that the well-heeled audiences that turned up to hear him at synagogues and Jewish community centers no longer resembled the socialist garment workers and union organizers whom he had so lovingly written about. I said that I sympathized, but also that he was lucky: after all, in celebrating all those “little Jews,” his book had ignored precisely the parts of the community that prospered and endured: the synagogue-goers, Zionists, and businesspeople who had made good in the unshackled democracy of capitalist America—and who were now the buyers of his book. Why begrudge American Jews their success?
The irony of this reversal ought to have been cause for rejoicing; not for Irving, however. And it was not the only irony. Aside from its enthusiastic popular reception, his book owed a good part of its laudatory critical reception to a shift under way in the higher reaches of the political culture. Where other New York intellectuals had been falling out of favor for turning “neoconservative,” Irving was rewarded for remaining formally attached to his boyhood faith. His wistful literary portrait of the Jewish immigrant generation as a socialist enclave on the banks of the Hudson turned out also to have been propitiously timed. The socialist label that had been a liability in the 1950s, and insufficiently radical for the revolutionists of the 1960s, became a badge of honor by the mid-70s and later as anti-Western and anti-American attitudes took over universities, journalism, and Hollywood. Opposed as he was to some of these manifestations, Irving was also, as an author, their beneficiary.
The ugliest aspect of the swing to the left was the embrace of anti-Zionism. The groundwork had been laid by generations of Arab leaders who, in a masterstroke of inversion, had transposed the belligerent Arab threat to “drive the Jews into the sea” into the claim that the Palestinians were the ones dispossessed, and by Jews. The political alliance formed by Arab autocrats with the Soviet bloc allowed for the passage in 1975 of UN Resolution 3379 defining Zionism as, precisely, racism, the term for the most villainous accusation in the liberal vocabulary.
To many, it was shocking to confront libelous representations of Jews as “colonizers” and “imperialist occupiers” of their own land taking hold not only at the United Nations but on American campuses and among media and cultural elites. But the maneuver succeeded, winning the sympathy of people on the lookout for certifiable victims of “racism and racial discrimination” (in the anti-Zionist phrase of the UN resolution).
As in the past, these accusations also peeled off sectors of the Jewish left itself. Such Jews could now blame the enmity of their enemies on the actions of the “Jewish right,” lately personified for them in the 1977 electoral victory of Menahem Begin’s Likud party over Israel’s Labor party; the latter had been in power uninterruptedly since the founding of the state.
From the moment the UN passed its anti-Zionist resolution I urged Irving to use his authority as editor of the socialist quarterly Dissent to speak out against it. Only the left, I said, could effectively counter this attempt by parts of the left to discredit Israel. He patted my shoulder and said, “Ruthie, no one pays any attention to the United Nations.”
That’s how out of touch he was. But he didn’t stay detached for long: following his divorce from Ariel Mack, he married Ilana Weiner, an attractive Israeli who drew him into her literary circle on the far left of Israel’s political spectrum and into the movement that had formed around the slogan “Peace Now” (shalom akhshav). The movement was delighted to conscript this prominent American intellectual into its newly-formed support group, American Friends of Peace Now.
If Irving’s elegiac lectures to Jewish audiences about American socialism’s glory days were turning stale, the “peace movement” enlisted him in a new field of combat. To me, Israeli citizen-soldiers like Ezra Mendelsohn, whose involvement with Peace Now I’ve described in an earlier chapter, had an obvious right to endorse their nation’s taking a risk on territorial surrender—even if I considered such a course suicidal. But those who toyed with Israel’s security from abroad struck me more like spectators at Roman gladiatorial games—and, worse, like spectators turning thumbs down on their own team.
Over the following years, in a series of essays in Commentary, I tracked these contemporary patterns of Jewish accommodation with anti-Jewish politics, and in 1992 collected the essays in If I Am Not for Myself, a book about the liberal betrayal of the Jews.
One dayin the late 1980s, a friend alerted me to an unsigned boxed notice that had appeared in Irving’s magazine Dissent. Its title was “Into the Depths”:
Each issue of Commentary strikes a new low in intellectual vulgarity and political reaction. In the May 1988 issue there appears an article, “Israel and the Intellectuals,” by Ruth R. Wisse, with the following sentences:The obvious key to the success of Arab strategy is the presence, in the disputed territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank of the Jordan River, of Palestinian Arabs, people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery. Indeed, if we were to measure reality by the degree to which we are exposed to it, no people in the world today would appear of greater substance or in a graver predicament.This remark, verging on or crossing into racism, is an instance of that dehumanization of the adversary that has been a curse of our century.
Dissent’s smear itself marked a truly “new low in intellectual vulgarity.” I did not deign to respond, but when, thanks to the Internet, the quoted passage turned my allegedly dehumanizing phrase “breed and bleed” into a permanent gotcha! on my record, I was obliged to reconstruct its original context. That context, I explained in Tablet, was my effort to distinguish the genuine suffering of Palestinians from the exploitation of that suffering by their fellow Arabs, and their real hardship from its phony attribution to Israel.
Thus, my first draft had represented Arab misery through Shylock’s questions—”If you prick us, do we not bleed? . . . and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”—thinking to strengthen the point by associating the afflicted Arabs with Shakespeare’s persecuted Jew. Whittled down through many revisions, the final version paired “bleed” with “breed.” Guilty at most of sacrificing precision to compression, I never dreamed that “breed” was anything but a synonym for being fruitful and multiplying.
What sort of mind would accuse me of indulging in “the curse of our century” for having traced Palestinian suffering to its source in Arab despotism? At first I could not believe that Irving had actively authorized the slur. But the following year, at a Jewish literary conference we both attended in Berkeley, he responded to a question I asked from the floor by attacking me from the chair. Robert Alter, one of the panelists and hardly my ally, felt obliged to intervene on my behalf, but Irving continued to glower.
“Try to understand,” he wrote me afterward, “that I genuinely did not wish to get into a fight with you.”
[This] was not because I dismissed you. It was . . . in part because I know that polemics exact a heavy price from you in pain and suffering, and I keep saying to myself that it would be best to avoid them. But also, to be honest, I don’t think you’re very good at political polemics, certainly not as good as you are in literary discussions; I feel it’s not your métier, that you force yourself to do it out of a sense of obligation (with attendant anxiety). But I don’t want [to] make it seem that it has been only my goodness of heart—though it’s there—which prompted me to refrain from public argument with you. I think you have no idea how aggressive and combative and provoking you can be, indeed were in San Francisco, and that this elicits strong responses in turn.
It was amusing to picture this veteran of City College polemics in the 1930s, and of a lifetime of verbal pugilism, being put off by mycombative style. Rather, in his alternately solicitous and patronizing way, Irving was relying on my side of our friendship, knowing that I would never attack him in kind. As frank as I was in our correspondence and conversations, I would not have insulted him in public. His admission in the same letter to “contradictory feelings in the matter,” and his satisfaction in our ability to remain friends as “perhaps the best that can be done under the circumstances,” I interpreted as a lack of intellectual seriousness in one unprepared to debate me on the merits.
Whatever doubts I may have originally harbored about my fitness for political writing, I never felt more confident than when I saw that Irving could not lay a glove on me. But I also saw that better arguments were not going to stop the left, including the Jewish left, from enabling anti-Zionism.
Do I sound as though I am trying to settle old scores—and unfairly at that, since Irving is no longer here to respond? He never dealt with any of this in his published writings, leaving me to figure out how he justified wanting to continue a friendship with an alleged racist. When he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” award, he called from New York to share the good news, assuming—correctly—that I would be happy for the financial security it brought him. After his daughter Nina settled in Montreal, he would sometimes drop by on his visits to her, to chat about family and such. I represented no danger to him. If anything, in protecting Israel, I made it easier for him to align himself with those exposing it to risk.
Irving’s last letter to me was dated the day before he died on May 5, 1993. We’d been out of touch for a long time. He wrote to say that he had undergone several heart bypass operations but was now, for the time being, mended. Retired from the City University of New York, he had undertaken to teach a course at Yale the following spring, and asked how I was managing my first semester at Harvard.
Getting old was no fun, he said: “I sometimes ruefully think of Robert Frost’s lines: ‘No memory of having starred,/ Atones for later disregard/ Or keeps the end from being hard.’” Since the letter arrived after his death, I could not properly thank him for our fruitful work together or hope for more honest exchanges in this world.
In 1983, while I was teaching at Stanford for a semester, I met Sidney Hook, the master of all the New York polemicists, then a fellow at the Hoover Institution. In trading views and impressions, I mentioned another political attack on me—not Irving’s—that I had chosen to ignore. Sidney reprimanded me, urging that I follow his example of never letting the slightest assault go unanswered, even if it appeared in some rural Kansas newspaper. (I recall the reproach exactly, though not the specific state.)
I agreed with Hook in principle, but, whether out of laziness or pride, I never followed his advice. Instead, I poured his counsel into the essays I wrote for Commentary, urging Jews to learn to fight for justice as hard politically as those in Israel learned to fight militarily.
Irving Howe’s reversion to his earlier disregard for Zionism and Israel took me by surprise because once he’d “discovered” the country after 1967, I assumed that he would care for it as I did. Yiddish had been for me the vehicle not of socialism but of Zionism as the organic outgrowth of the connection of the Jews to their homeland. The modern Yiddish theater pioneered by Abraham Goldfaden dramatized the national yearning for Jerusalem, and Sholem Aleichem’s 1898 Yiddish pamphlet, “Why Jews Need a Land,” sold many times more copies than did Theodor Herzl’s broadside The Jewish State. In Jewish elementary school, we sang the Zionide of the 12th-century Spanish-Jewish philosopher poet Yehuda Halevi, whose own journey to the Land of Israel inspired generations of Jews:
My heart is in the East
But the rest of me far in the West—
How can I savor this life, even taste what I eat?
How, in the chains of the Moor,
Zion bound to the Cross,
Can I do what I’ve vowed to and must?
Gladly I’d leave
All the best of grand Spain
For one glimpse of Jerusalem’s dust.
We sang this poem not in its original Hebrew, here translated by Hillel Halkin, but in the Hebrew poet Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik’s Yiddish rendition: Kh’hob fargesen ale libste “I’ve abandoned all my loved ones/ Left behind my cherished nest./ I’ve given myself over to the sea:/ Bring me, sea, to mother’s breast.” Eight centuries after Halevi set out for Jerusalem, Bialik quit his native Russia to settle in Tel Aviv, the first modern Jewish city.
Although Yiddish speakers were understandably pained by the insistence of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, that Yiddish must make way for Hebrew as the unifying language of the modern Jewish state, their disappointment did not lessen their gratitude for the state’s existence. When the Romanian Yiddish poet Itsik Manger was forced to leave Warsaw in 1938, he managed first to reach France and then England in safety. The self-advertised bad boy of Yiddish verse, Manger was a heavy drinker, smoker, seducer, and literary renegade. But in the late 1950s he settled in Israel and, like Bialik, channeled Yehuda Halevi:
For years I rambled in the world,
Now I’m going home to ramble there.
With a pair of shoes and the shirt on my back,
And the stick in my hand that goes with me everywhere.
I’ll not kiss your dust as that great poet did,
Though my heart, like his, fills with song and grief,
How can I kiss your dust? I am your dust.
And how, I ask you, can I kiss myself?
I associated that “rambling”—in Manger’s poem, valgern (to roll around)—with the Rolling Stones’ lead singer Mick Jagger, who cultivated an image of dissipation not unlike the Yiddish poet’s. But Manger’s rolling stone came to rest in Israel. On first arriving in the Land of Israel, many Jews kiss the ground; he already felt part of its soil.
Then there was Avrom Sutzkever, who, as I’ve narrated earlier, had brought me to the study of Yiddish literature. Following his 1943 escape from war-ravaged Vilna, his time as a partisan fighter in the forests, his life-saving airlift to Moscow, and his brief sojourn in Paris, Sutzkever and his wife arrived in British Mandate Palestine in 1947. There he wrote his own poem of thanksgiving:
Were I not here with you,/ not breathing your joy and pain here—
were I not afire with this land/ volcanic in its birth pangs;
were I not, after my akeydeh [the biblical sacrifice of Isaac],/ not reborn with the land
where every pebble is my zeyde [grandfather]—
bread would not sate my hunger,/ nor water quench my thirst,
till I would perish be-Gentiled, and only my longing arrive on its own.
Modeled after the sheheḥiyanu prayer that traditional Jews recite on joyous occasions, including upon first reaching the Land of Israel, the poem is cast in conditional form by someone who knows he might never have reached his destination. “Were I not . . . ”—the word not appears six times in eleven lines—stresses the likelihood of that failure, in which case he would have died fargoyt, a past participle invented by Sutzkever to capture the condition of being stripped of one’s Jewishness.
My clumsy translation tries to convey the poem’s throbbing anxiety not over what still confronts Jews in securing their homeland but over what would have overtaken them had they failed to achieve it in the first place. Speaking for the murdered millions, the poet avows that his yearnings would have arrived on their own, as Jewish yearnings had done since the Jews in Babylonian exile vowed “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem. . . .”
What Israel meant to Halevi, Manger, and Sutzkever also held true for me. I pinned my hopes for human civilization on the ability of Jews to maintain their national sovereignty. From the time that anti-Zionism began to make its way into America I could not respect, much less befriend, anyone who blamed the Jews for the aggression that had them in its sights.
Given my understanding of Yiddish culture as the repository of Jewish religion and peoplehood, students enrolling in my classes and unaware of my general views could be forgiven for expecting to find in their classroom a “normal” liberal leftist as their professor. One of them was the young Aaron Lansky, today the wonderfully inventive and energetic founding director of the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. Aaron likes to tell the story of how, in the summer of 1977, newly graduated from college, he read my book The Schlemiel as Modern Hero while manning a fruit-juice cart in Boston’s Copley Square, and thereupon decided to come to McGill for his graduate work.
I, too, had once decided no less impulsively on the same course of action, so we definitely had something in common. But politics was another matter. Attracted by my book’s portrayal of the hapless schlemiel as a positive cultural type, Aaron (as he writes in his 2004 memoir, Outwitting History) was surprised to find instead
the most right-wing person—or at least the most right-wing rational person—I had ever met: an unyielding hawk on Israel; a critic of feminism who opposed the ordination of women rabbis; a fierce anti-Communist who championed American military strength to a degree that made Ronald Reagan look like a dove. . . .
Aaron does grant that I was “unfailingly warm and generous” and that my classes were “intellectually exhilarating”—qualities presumably unexpected in your stereotypical political conservative. But I was equally in danger of stereotyping him. His impish appearance and demeanor bespoke a Woodstock hippie who had drifted into graduate school in order to escape whatever passed for “real life.” It did not take more than a single class to recognize in him a keen student with a lively intelligence and the creative drive of a born entrepreneur. Whatever may have attracted him to Yiddish literature, he was decidedly not your typical flower-child—and anyway, contemporary politics seldom entered into our classroom discussions.
Apart from his schoolwork, Aaron involved himself in the practical problems that beset me as a teacher. Montreal’s only Yiddish bookstore had closed a decade before Yiddish studies were launched at McGill, and to equip my students I had to rustle up copies of the books on my syllabus from locals I knew might have them. Poems I was able to circulate in mimeographed form, but the photocopiers then in use could not provide ten or twelve affordable copies of a Yiddish novel. This circumstance often determined what I could or could not teach.
In addition, McGill’s libraries as yet held no Yiddish books. The administration, however, did authorize me to order a basic collection of literature and reference works from Vaxer’s, a store advertised as the “last Yiddish bookseller on New York’s Lower East Side.” The promised date of delivery came and went before someone finally answered my calls and reported that the bookseller had died. My expression of condolence elicited further news: the contents of the store and warehouse were to be auctioned off as a single lot.
I flew into action, borrowed money from my older brother and sister-in-law, and, because I couldn’t leave the children to attend the New York auction in person, asked my younger brother David, then a student at Brandeis University, to go and bid on my behalf. David gives the story a comic turn. Given an absolute limit of $2,000 as his highest bid, he listened as the bidding crept up into the hundreds and then called out, “Two-thousand!” The auction came to a stunned stop.
Thus did I acquire many, many thousands of unsorted dusty volumes without having given a thought to what I would do with them once they were in my possession. Over many years, the work of packing, hauling, storing, and sorting would cost me dearly—money being the least of it. My efforts were still in their early stage when Aaron arrived. Because the windfall still did not supply enough copies of the works we would be studying, he started canvassing local donors for their disused Yiddish books. From this there evolved his idea of establishing a marketplace for exchange between those disposing of Yiddish books and those wishing to acquire them. In about the same number of years it had taken me to get a Yiddish library for McGill, he went on to establish the Yiddish Book Center, which he then proceeded to develop into one of the country’s loveliest Jewish institutions.
But to get back to politics. No one in the academic field of Yiddish could avoid the field’s own connections with leftism. Indeed, even as Aaron’s studies deepened his appreciation for the religious-national fusion of the Jewish way of life, support for his burgeoning institution often came from donors nostalgic for the progressivism they inevitably associated with the language. Actual surviving Yiddish-speaking communities in the diaspora still remained what they had always been—a living expression of Jewish separatism, mainly consisting of religiously observant Jews living culturally apart from the surrounding population. Simultaneously, however, the language had come to be enlisted by secular socialists as the designated Jewish vessel for their values of pacifism and “social justice.”
Young radicals, gays and lesbians, feminists, and others who felt marginalized sometimes found in what they regarded as the language of Jewish weakness—the language, that is, of Irving Howe’s “little Jews”—their ideal of moral purity. In the classroom I taught some of the texts infused with this ideology, while in my writing I tried to expose some of its dangers. Students were never in doubt where I stood on the subject, though they were free to express strongly dissident views. Contention was so much a part of modern Yiddish culture that, in any study of that culture, it was all but taken for granted.
On most Jewish matters, I felt comfortably aligned with my Montreal community, whose members boasted that if they were ever stranded on a desert island, they could rest assured that the country’s Combined Jewish Appeal would find and rescue them.
My first serious parting of ways with the community came over the issue of how to commemorate the Shoah. At about the same time that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was being built in Washington, DC, a committee formed to consider establishing something similar in our city.
Commemoration of the martyred Jews of Europe had been part of my life since childhood and formed part of my teaching of Yiddish literature. I knew that, going forward, we would have to find appropriate ways of collectively integrating mourning the dead into our rituals. My brother David gathered materials for an anthology, The Literature of Destruction, tracing how, from our beginnings as a people, responses to catastrophe would integrate each successive cycle into a collective memory of anti-Jewish violence. Such a ritual was already being incorporated in Yom Hashoah, Israel’s annual day of remembrance, in some synagogue services on Yom Kippur, and in family ceremonies like the one we had included in our Passover seder since 1946.
I likewise welcomed the research centers, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as well as those in America, Poland, and Germany, that undertook to record every known detail about the process Hitler had called the Final Solution. Verification and preservation of evidence constituted an urgent international, not merely national, priority. Even if there were to be no more trials, no more illusory hopes of condign punishment for unpardonable crimes, the facts had to be established and made known.
But I objected to putting the “Holocaust” on display. In my teens, the fate of the Jews in World War II came alive for me through The Wall, John Hersey’s fictional account of the real-life historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who had set up a network of reporters in the Warsaw ghetto to record its unprecedentedly hellish conditions. In rallying the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) for its final 1943 uprising against the Germans, the bookish Noach Levinson—Hersey’s fictional version of Ringelblum—quotes Y.L. Peretz:
I am not advocating that we shut ourselves up in a spiritual ghetto. On the contrary, we should get out of such a ghetto. But we should get out as Jews, with our own spiritual treasures. We should interchange, give and take, but not beg.
The resistance of those starved and poorly armed Jews lasted longer than any other anti-German insurrection in Europe.
I was not surprised to learn later that the historian Lucy Dawidowicz had done the research for Hersey’s book, since her own book, The War against the Jews 1933-45, scrupulously documented both the German war against the Jews and the Jewish responses to it, including the Warsaw ghetto uprising. She was not looking for heroic alternatives to the crematoria, but neither would she codify only the destruction.
By contrast, I thought, those who conceived the Holocaust museum in Washington and educational programs like “Facing History” wanted to turn the massacre into a universal redemptive story. They intended it to be a prophylactic tool against prejudice, as if learning about the atrocity would prevent its recurrence. Given that the Arab League’s war against Israel had been launched the very year the war against the Jews ended in Europe, I did not think the lesson would work as expected.
Consciously or not, the idea that suffering could be made redemptive struck me as being based on Christian rather than Jewish teaching. Jews had developed an entirely different idea of resurrection. The Passover Haggadah celebrates the passage from slavery to liberation. Within the single decade of the 1940s, the Jews who had just lost one-third of their people recovered their sovereignty in the Land of Israel, which had lain under foreign domination for two millennia. Moreover, they had readied the infrastructure of their newborn state in time to absorb the refugees of Europe and Arab lands.
There, in that stunning display of national resilience, was a story to inspire humankind! I believed—no, I was certain—that Holocaust museums and what cynics were already calling “Shoah business” would indelibly mark the Jews as convenient targets and invite imitation. If we were to insist that American curricula include a segment on the Jews, it should build instead on the Exodus example, ancient and modern.
Fortunately, our local Montreal committee declined to follow the American example, and the city’s modest Holocaust center was incorporated within an existing Jewish communal institution. But there seemed no way of curbing the opposite trend. In many American cities, Jewish organizations insisted on teaching the Holocaust rather than the recovery of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel, broadcasting the mass murder of their people—the triumph of anti-Semitism and the failure of Jewish political strategy—rather than the greatest comeback episode in human history.
People tired of hearing me go on about this at dinner parties, at family gatherings, and in talks to Jewish groups: how could I oppose the community’s commitment of resources to what others considered a sacred cause? Survivors wanted their stories told, and who could blame them for wanting to make known what others had tried to conceal?
Perhaps, in the end, nothing could have prevented Arab and Muslim propagandists from importing their anti-Semitic politics into North America—an effort whose late-ripening fruits are now all around us. But among all of the factors contributing to the success of that effort, I remain convinced that the sustained public emphasis on the “Holocaust” as the prime marker of Jewish identity helped materially to obscure the issues at stake in the post-Holocaust era, to disarm American Jews and their friends, and to ease the way of their enemies.
This was my strongest point of contention with a majority of my fellow Jews, and also the hardest to rally against. I regret having held back until now.
About the author
Ruth R. Wisse is a research professor at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her most recent book is No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).