Wisse, Ruth R.

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WISSE, RUTH R. (1936– ), scholar of Yiddish literature. A naturalized U.S. citizen born in Cernauti, Romania, Wisse received her undergraduate degree from McGill University in 1957 and her doctorate in 1969. She was assistant professor of Jewish literature at McGill from 1968 to 1971 and was a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1973. She returned to McGill as associate professor in 1975 and was appointed professor in 1978 and chairperson of the Department of Jewish Studies in 1986. She joined Harvard University in 1993, serving as director of the Center for Jewish Studies until 1996, when she was named Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish literature.

Wisse is considered a leader in the revival of interest in Yiddish literature and in the study of the Yiddish language. Her critically acclaimed work The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey through Literature and Culture (2000), an overview of what she defines as the notable Jewish literary works of modern times, has been said to define the modern Jewish experience through the Jewish literature of the 20th century. Her literary defense of the State of Israel, If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews (1992), generated a divided critique. Here Wisse contends that liberalism, which would seem to offer promise for modern Jews, has instead fostered an environment that has allowed a propaganda campaign against the Israeli cause. Criticized for an oversimplification of the Arab-Israeli conflict and for using revelations about her personal life in what was termed a political diatribe, the book nevertheless was considered a compelling argument by some reviewers.

Wisse's academic reputation rests on her edited collections of Jewish literature and her literary criticism. In addition to The Modern Jewish Canon, her works include The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (1970), A Little Love in Big Manhattan (1988), and I.L. Peretz and the Making of Modern Jewish Culture (1991). She served as editor of A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas (1972) and The I.L. Peretz Reader (1990), and as coeditor, with Irving Howe and Chone Shmeruk, of The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (1987).

She is also prominent politically, advocating strong support for Israel and combating what she perceives to be a surge in antisemitism at the turn of the 21st century. It was Wisse, among others, whom literary critic Leon Wieseltier had in mind when he described the "ethnic panic" among American Jews. She opposed a chair in Holocaust studies at Harvard. "It's a strange idea," she said, "You don't have a chair in modern Jewish history, but you have one on the destruction of the Jewish people." She was a member of the search committee, which rejected all candidates for the position; the chair remained unfilled and the money was returned to the donor.

A fellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Wisse is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the J.I. Segal Award for Literature in 1971 and 1989, the Torch of Learning Award from The Hebrew University in 1993, and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture in 2001.

[Dorothy Bauhoff (2nd ed.)]