Wisse, Ruth R. 1936–

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Wisse, Ruth R. 1936–

(Ruth Roskies Wisse)


Surname rhymes with "ice"; born May 13, 1936, in Cernauti, Romania; naturalized U.S. citizen; daughter of Leo (a chemical engineer) and Masha Roskies; married Leonard Wisse (a lawyer), March 17, 1957; children: William, Jacob, Abigail. Ethnicity: "Jewish." Education: McGill University, B.A., 1957, Ph.D., 1969; Columbia University, M.A., 1961. Politics: Neoconservative. Religion: Jewish.


Office—Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, 6 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138; fax: 617-496-8904. Agent—Glen Hartley Writers' Representatives, 116 W. 14th St., New York, NY 10011. E-mail—[email protected].


McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, assistant professor of Yiddish literature, 1968-71; Tel Aviv University, and Hebrew University, Tel Aviv, Israel, senior lecturer, 1971-73; McGill University, associate professor, 1975, professor, 1978-92, first incumbent, Montreal Jewish Community Chair in Jewish Studies, 1986-92, chair of Department of Jewish Studies, 1976-79; Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature, 1993—, director, Center for Jewish Studies, 1993-96. Visiting professor, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, 1975, Stanford University, 1983, and New York University, 1990. Member of publication committee, Jewish Publication Society; member of board of directors, Fund for Jewish Translation, 1985—; member of board of directors, Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Brandeis University, 1982—; member of board of directors, Avi Chai Foundation, 1993—; member of honorary board, National Center for the Hebrew Language, 1998—; and member of academic advisory board, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 2000—. Fiction judge, Kenneth B. Smilen Literary Awards, 1985, and Rohr Prize, 2007—.


American Academy for Jewish Research (member of board of directors), Association for Jewish Studies (president, 1985-89), National Foundation for Jewish Culture (member of board of academic advisors, 1979-82).


Fieldhouse Award for Teaching, McGill University, 1985; Manger Prize for Yiddish Literature, Tel Aviv, 1988; J.I. Segal Award for Literature, 1971 and 1989; Moment magazine award in Jewish scholarship, 1989; Torch of Learning Award, the Hebrew University, 1993; Maurice Stiller Prize of Baltimore Hebrew University, 1998; National Jewish Book Award, Jewish Book Council, 2000, for The Modern Jewish Canon; Jewish Cultural Achievement Award scholarship, National Foundation for Jewish Culture, 2001; National Medal for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2007. Recipient of honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University, 2004.


(Translator) Chaim Grade, The Well, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1967.

The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (nonfiction), University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1970.

(Editor, and author of introduction and notes) A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas, Behrman (New York, NY), 1972.

(Editor, with Irving Howe) The Best of Sholem Aleichem, New Republic Books (Washington, DC), 1979.

(Editor, with Irving Howe and Khone Shmeruk) The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, Viking Penguin (New York, NY), 1987.

A Little Love in Big Manhattan (nonfiction), Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1988.

(Editor, and author of introduction) The I.L. Peretz Reader, Schocken (New York, NY), 1990.

I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (nonfiction), University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1991.

If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews (nonfiction), Free Press (New York, NY), 1992.

The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture (nonfiction), Free Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Jews and Power (nonfiction), Nextbook (New York, NY), 2007.

Author of introduction to Burnt Pearls: Ghetto Poems, by Abraham Sutzkever, Mosaic Press (Oakville, Ontario), 1981. Contributor to Encyclopedia Judaica, The World Book Encyclopedia, and Encyclopedia of World Literature of the Twentieth Century. Political columnist, Montreal Gazette, 1987-89, Forward and Canadian Jewish News, 1991-93. Contributing editor, Jerusalem Report, 1991—. Contributor to periodicals, including Commentary, New Republic, Jewish Social Studies, New York Times Book Review, and Moment.


Ruth R. Wisse has been instrumental in reviving interest in Yiddish authors and the study of the language in general. Wisse is particularly interested in works of literature that reflect Jewish experiences in the twentieth century. She serves as the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. One of her significant publications is The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture, an overview of what she considers the seminal Jewish literary works of modern times. Reviewing this work in the New York Times, Esther Schor lauded Wisse for her "broad, even astonishing range." Wisse is also a passionate defender of the nation of Israel, as reflected in books such as If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews and Jews and Power. New Republic contributor Robert Alter noted of Wisse: "She has written sensitive criticism of Yiddish literature and has had valuable things to say about the cultural predicament of modern Jews. Her concern for the survival of Israel is deep and sincere."

"In the battle of ideas surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ruth Wisse ranks as a five star general on the pro-Israel side," declared David Singer in The New Leader. Singer further characterized Wisse as "a defender of Israel on the intellectual barricades." Wisse's controversial book If I Am Not for Myself chides liberals in general, and Jewish liberals in particular, for allowing Arabs to play upon anti-Semitic stereotypes as part of a propaganda campaign against Israel. As Robert Leiter put it in the New York Times Book Review: "It is [Wisse's] contention that liberalism, the very political ideology that would seem to provide shelter and promise for the Jews, was their undoing in the 1930's and 40's—and is in our day as well."

Reviewers were sharply divided on If I Am Not for Myself. In the New Republic, Alter stated: "One may grant Wisse the urgency of her emotional response to a genuine threat to the Jewish people and yet emphatically resist both the terms of her analysis and the consequences that she draws from her particular perception of the threat. The historical details of the Israeli-Arab conflict are rather more complicated than Wisse's version of them." Conversely, Leiter found the work "convincing and chilling," concluding that the book should be read "not only for its potent indictment of liberalism's failings. The work also stands as a warning to all Jews of a clear and ever-present danger." Singer deemed the book "a powerful polemic, beautifully crafted, brilliantly argued. For the reader committed to Israel's cause, its message is chilling in the extreme. Wisse shows clearly that the Arabs are intent on Israel's destruction, and how they are effectively employing ideas as well as bullets to achieve their aim."

Wisse's edited collections of Jewish literature and her volumes of literary criticism have been praised by reviewers. In a New Republic essay on The I.L. Peretz Reader, Stanislaw Baranczak wrote: "For any American reader, this will be a handy and skillfully edited selection of the most representative writings of one of the masters of world literature. For any Jewish American reader, it will also be a monument in commemoration of one of the central figures in modern Jewish culture." New York Times Book Review correspondent Anita Norich described A Little Love in Big Manhattan as "a powerful thematic analysis of the tensions and personalities that defined [a] chapter in Yiddish literature and of the encounter between displaced European Jewish culture and its modern American context." The critic added that the work "encourages us to view these men (and the very few women grudgingly admitted into their circle) as American poets and to claim a place for Yiddish literature within the American canon." In her more recent work, The Modern Jewish Canon, Wisse undertakes a survey of modern Yiddish literature, comparing major Jewish texts to the Western literary canon. Reviewing this work in the Wall Street Journal, Edward Alexander said that Wisse "makes a powerful case for recognizing as part of a coherent international Jewish literature writers previously thought to be essentially German, Russian or French." In an article for the Weekly Standard, Steven Lenzner lauded Wisse for writing "with wit, intelligence and unfailing spiritedness." He went on to say that "few readers can come away from her book without a desire to read the authors she treats." In a Publishers Weekly piece on The Modern Jewish Canon, a reviewer observed that Wisse "writes thoughtfully and insightfully. She … has a gift for succinctly capturing a work's narrative and moral impact." The reviewer concluded: "Wisse has provided a great service to those interested in modern Jewish imagination, world views and sensibilities."

Wisse's views on Israel are plainly stated in her book Jews and Power. Her book stands out for its unusual perspective. She does not focus on the questions surrounding the Palestinians who were displaced with the establishment of Israel, nor with the influence of Israel on American foreign policy. Instead, she begins with the premise that the nation of Israel is essential to the Jewish cause, and represents a long-awaited "Jewish return to sovereign power, in all its promise and complexity," stated Anthony Julius in the New York Times Book Review. Julius went on to say that Jews and Power "is a good, fighting book that contains much information in few pages, and offers a simple argument. Zionism is the solution to Jewish powerlessness; Israel is the guarantor of the Jews' safety. Further, the Jewish nation's resumption of sovereignty in 1948 created opportunities for the Jews to bring benefits to humanity as a whole." The very definitions of power and powerlessness are explored. The author offers a history of the Jewish people and the various political strategies adopted by them throughout the centuries, commenting that the loss of sovereignty was the most significant political event ever to take place in that history. She discusses various political responses to anti-Semitism, and how the political position of Jews in the world has failed to stabilize even since Israel was founded. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found the author "in fine form with well-reasoned, self-assured arguments bound to provoke heated debate among interested intellectuals." Bret Stephens, reviewing for Commentary, characterized the author's book as a "fascinating, subtle, and immensely learned study," and one that is written with "passion, eloquence, and peerless intellectual verve."



Cammy, Justin, editor, Arguing the Modern Jewish Canon: Essays on Modern Jewish Literature in Honor of Ruth Wisse, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2008.


Commentary, October, 1988, Donna Rifkind, review of A Little Love in Big Manhattan, p. 70; September 1, 2007, Bret Stephens, review of Jews and Power, p. 68.

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, November 1, 2007, William Kristol, review of Jews and Power, p. 45.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 2000, review of The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Language and Culture, p. 949.

Library Journal, August 1, 2007, Marcia Welsh, review of Jews and Power, p. 95.

New Leader, December 14, 1992, David Singer, review of If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, p. 12.

New Republic, January 21, 1991, Stanislaw Baranczak, review of The I.L. Peretz Reader, p. 35; November 30, 1992, Robert Alter, review of If I Am Not for Myself, p. 28.

New York Times, December 21, 2000, Esther Schor, "The Sacred and the Secular," p. 31.

New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1988, Harold Bloom, "Still Haunted by Covenant"; November 27, 1988, Anita Norich, "The Lower East Side Muse"; October 18, 1992, Robert Leiter, "Liberalism Was Their Undoing"; September 2, 2007, Anthony Julius, review of Jews and Power.

Publishers Weekly, August 10, 1992, review of If I Am Not for Myself, p. 62; August 14, 2000, review of The Modern Jewish Canon, p. 336; June 25, 2007, review of Jews and Power, p. 48.

Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2000, Edward Alexander, "From Tevye to Kafka and Beyond."

Weekly Standard, January 1, 2001, Steven Lenzner, "Judaism and Enlightenment," pp. 35-37.


Harvard University, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Web site,http://www.fas.harvard.edu/ (June 4, 2008), biographical information about Ruth R. Wisse.

New York Times Online,http://www.nytimes.com/ (September 2, 2007), Anthony Julius, review of Jews and Power.