Ruth Wisse on the miracle of modern Jewish history



The quarrel

In 1952, the New York Yiddish monthly Yidisher Kemfer (The Jewish Activist) published the first prose work by the famous Yiddish poet and Holocaust survivor Chaim Grade (pronounced Grahdeh) titled “My Quarrel” with Hersh Rasseyner.

It tells the short story of a former yeshiva bochur, Chaim Vilner, vaguely representing the author himself, who has a three-part argument with one of his yeshiva friends, Hersh Rasseyner, at three points in time: 1937, 1939 and 1948. Vilner has turned away from the halakhically engaged lifestyle and is more of a Yiddish poet, while his friend has remained Orthodox.

The story was immediately recognized as “quite astonishing,” said Professor Ruth Wisse, an iconic Yiddish scholar and professor. Jerusalem post before printing his new translation of the story, including a narrative introduction. Both were published online in Mosaic in December 2020 and will be printed by Koren’s Toby Press.

On September 12, Wisse met with Jewish history professor Dr. Asael Abelman at Beit Avi Chai, the Jerusalem-based center of thought and culture, to discuss the story ahead of print.

“The old translation took some liberties with the story,” prompting a new one from Wisse.

“It’s the power of literature,” she said. “A story is there inert – [mere] scribbles on a page. When it is studied and read, it becomes that medium through which we can study and analyze these ideas.

The debate that Vilner and Rasseyner have [and] intense [one]”Wisse explained.” Nonetheless, the way this story and this debate really work together.

“It’s a very fascinating story and very much linked to the questions that we must have asked ourselves after the Holocaust: it brings both sides of a great Jewish debate, especially in Israel.

Both sides? “To sum up: these boys were once together at the yeshiva. One left to become a Yiddish poet, then they met. It’s a very hard break between them. One of them remains halakhically [committed] while the other, who speaks as a narrator and relies on Grade himself “chooses the secular path.

After the greatest display of human cruelty – the Holocaust, “One asks,” How can you continue to believe in God and be a Halachic Jew? “


“’How the hell can you continue to believe in man, in western civilization?’ is the replica.

“’Quarrel,’ said Wisse, is a ‘tricky’ translation of the original title. “’Mayn krig mit hersh rasseyner (My war with Hersh Rasseyner)’” does not translate to “quarrel”, but to “war”.

Grade based this story on his own experience and is therefore the implicit narrator of the story, Wisse noted, “He puts his own struggle in the form of this dramatic dialectic.

“The way the story is constructed is [designed] to show us that this is a permanent argument, that the Shoah has done absolutely nothing to change it.

It is a very strong statement.

“This is my interpretation of the story. This intensifies the debate because [now] more is at stake. But they absolutely do not spend time talking about their losses or their experiences, about everything Holocaust remembrance. [typically] Is. They just come back to the same argument.

“This is what gives history so much power – this is the real hiddush (innovation) of history. “

Doesn’t that, in essence, push the argument even further for any sort of reconciliation – if you say that even after the worst exposure of God’s treatment of man and man’s treatment of man man, let the debate continue.

That is to say [exactly] why in the end, the only thing Vilner really says to Rasseyner is, “May we both have the credit to see each other again in the future and see where we are at.” And can I be as Jewish as I am today. Reb Hersh, let’s kiss … “

The impact

What do you think ?

     RUTH WISSE received the National Humanities Medal at the White House in Washington, DC, in 2007 (credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images)  RUTH WISSE received the National Humanities Medal at the White House in Washington, DC, in 2007 (credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

“What do you think of Israeli Judaism? Isn’t this the debate among the Jewish people? Israel as a country shows you that this debate can be sustained in a [society]. “

In his discussion with Abelman, Wisse said: “He [Grade] did not want to bring history in the direction of a politico-national resolution.

The question, she explained, is: will the Jews continue as a secular people or as a halachic people?

“He [Grade] really felt that he was presenting to us an argument that continues, that we do not dare lose sight of, that we must have the strength to take [it] seriously, and spread it, to understand what is at stake on both sides, ”she added. “I’m not sure the story has a resolution of any kind.”

Wisse’s growing awareness of the political realities around him, on a personal, community and nationalist level, has resulted in published works on politics, one of which is titled Jews and Power, but translated into Hebrew as ” The paradox of Jewish politics ”.

“The paradox is a huge success and a huge vulnerability,” she told the magazine.

“The question of Jews and power comes down to whether a God-inspired and morally constrained people can hold out until the surrounding nations accept the principle of peaceful coexistence,” Wisse wrote in the Sapir Journal in August.

“Israel – like the Jews – only wants to be accepted by the surrounding nations. But when that doesn’t happen, what do you do? Not just militarily, but psychologically, sociologically? What are you doing? How do you protect yourself against destroyers? ” she asked.

“What the Jewish people did in the 1940s was the most miraculous thing that has ever happened – both in Jewish history and in general history. I don’t think there is another example of [a] people who, in a decade, suffered what the Jews experienced in Europe – suffered [off the continent] in five years – these bright, beautiful, intelligent people – What is it? How the hell do we let this happen?

“In the same decade, the Jews regained their sovereignty over the Land of Israel, which had been under foreign rule for 2,000 years. Is there another case in history where you can imagine a people creating everything that the Jews created in Europe for millennia – being destroyed in this way – [while advancing to] create the infrastructure, strength, genius and resilience to rise up as a nation in our homeland; it is truly extraordinary.

“The Jewish people have succeeded in shaping as good a civilization as one could hope for. For me, it’s the politico-human miracle, [which is] much bigger than anything. It was religious civilization that made the political miracle possible.

The United States, Wisse added, is currently grappling with a similar problem. In particular – just on the anniversary of September 11 – the “extraordinary debacle” of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“The way the Taliban, Hezbollah – America’s enemies – see it [is like this:] This country cannot fight for its life.

Wisse’s suggestion? “You need to devote at least as much of everything to defending yourself against those who are going to attack you as you do to building whatever you want to profit from.”

The memory

Wisse’s next memoirs, Free as a Jew: a personal memory of national self-liberation condenses and conveys the strange and wonderful feeling of realizing that you have lived through history.

“I never thought that what I was going through mattered in history, because everything that mattered was happening everywhere else – in Europe, where I was born – or in Israel,” Wisse explained. .

“I realized later that what I was going through was important to record.”

Wisse had started writing personal essays years ago, serving as a precursor to memoirs.

In the book, published in September, she traces her life within the larger context of Jewish culture and politics. Wisse had started studying Jewish Studies in the United States, which was not very common for women at the time participating in this revolution.

And, of course, “the miracle of the decade of the 1940s. I want to convey how important it is – how important it remains, how much it needs to be understood and protected.

She is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature (Emeritus) at Harvard University – “it’s not something that happens every day”.

Wisse retired from Harvard in 2014 and has since been heavily involved with The Tikvah Fund, an educational institution focused on educating the next generation of Zionist leaders.

“For everything that has occurred to me, this book is really about gratitude – for having lived through this period of Jewish history. I was born in Europe in 1936 – how many children who were born then and live today to talk about it?

“My life turned out to be a more interesting story than I expected.”

The brief was released on September 21 and is available for purchase on major platforms.


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