Ruth Wisse. Credit: Matt Craig, Harvard University.
Ruth Wisse. Credit: Matt Craig, Harvard University.


Ruth Wisse

(61 of 70) JNS is proud to partner with the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., to celebrate 70 of the greatest American contributors to the U.S.-Israel relationship in the 70 days leading up to the State of Israel’s 70th anniversary.

Born in Czernowitz (then Romania, now Ukraine) and raised in Canada, Ruth Wisse was, until her recent retirement, the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard. She is widely considered the foremost living expert on Yiddish literature.

The daughter of an industrialist from Vilnius who built and ran a pre-war rubber factory in Romania, Wisse was tutored only in German until she was 4, when her family fled to Montreal. Sent to a Jewish school there, she soon picked up both English and French, simultaneously absorbing at home her mother’s passion for the Yiddish language and its culture.

Her career in Yiddish has led Wisse to translate, explicate and teach with matchless brilliance a literature that is now largely unread in the original. In addition to her numerous essays and book-length studies of Yiddish novelists, poets, playwrights and thinkers, she has edited or co-edited standard anthologies of Yiddish writings while also publishing prodigiously on Jewish literature. A revered mentor, she has trained many outstanding scholars, translators, critics, activists and writers.

Wisse, 81, notes acerbically: “Yiddish forces you to think about Jewish politics.”

And, for decades as a professor at McGill and then at Harvard universities, Wisse was herself a brave combatant in Jewish politics, fighting the regrettably frequent anti-Israel bias on university campuses. With matchless wit and passion, she has stood against the prevailing intellectual currents and defended the Jewish state from its detractors, serving as a mentor to students and other faculty members who engage in honest study of Israel and work on its behalf.

In addition to her activism, Wisse has pioneered the serious study of anti-Semitism as a political phenomenon, including its effects on Jews themselves.

In academic writing and in publications like Mosaic, Commentary and The Wall Street Journal, she has criticized the tendency among Jews and non-Jews alike to assume that Israel or Jews must be at least partly to blame for attacks against them. In reality, she argues, anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel are elements in a political strategy designed by others to deflect from their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. To respond to such assaults by apologizing for alleged Jewish wrongdoing is to justify and feed an aggression that has single-mindedly fixed the Jews in its sights.

Ruth Wisse is a profound scholar, a brilliant teacher and an unfailing fighter on behalf of justice, the Jewish people and the Jewish state.

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