- Jewish Literature between Future and Past
The Modern Jewish Canon is a lucidly written, stimulating, and polemical book. "I have written this book with the illusion that it will interest others," confesses the author, Ruth Wisse, and her illusion is justified. In this work, a leading American scholar and critic of Jewish literature has a twofold goal: to present the general reader with a clearly defined conception of Jewish literature, accompanied by a list of the most important texts; and to make this conception critically and scholarly sustainable. This is a courageous attempt to bridge the gap between theory and practice. The tension between the author's critical insight and her ideological agenda makes the book fascinating in some places but disquieting in others. [End Page 409]
Ruth Wisse sets out "to explain the phenomenon of a multilingual Jewish literature through a discussion of some of its greater works of the twentieth century." Multilingualism is, in the author's view, the "most complicating feature of modern Jewish literature" (5). The complex relation of the writer to the language makes Jewish literature a special case among other, monolingual national literatures. Rejecting both Harold Bloom's aesthetic approach to the canon and the "essentialist definition [of Jewish literature] based strictly on Jewish language" (10), Wisse describes modern Jewish literature rather vaguely as "the repository of modern Jewish experience" (4). Yet she adds an important qualification: "[W]hat I mean by Jewish experience will emerge from the books I have chosen rather than from any theoretical model that attempts to subsume the whole" (14). This helps her to draw the boundaries of the phenomenon in question and to separate the "universalism, which seeks to eliminate tribal categories" from the "universality, which is the global resonance of a tribal work" (19). The Modern Jewish Canon is concerned with the latter category. However, this definition raises at least one practical and one theoretical question. How can today's predominantly monolingual contemporary Jewish audience (or audiences) have access to this multilingual literature? And what are the links that hold all the monolingual branches of Jewish literature together? It is the author's way of dealing with these issues that makes the overall argument problematic.
At the end of the book, the reader finds a reference guide of more than fifty titles, and these include "only works that are available in English, translated from Ashkenazic-European and Jewish languages" (382). This suggests that access to "the repository of modern Jewish experience" is limited by the availability of English translations, whereby the first, technical question of accessibility is resolved automatically. Indeed, Wisse grants English a privileged status among "Ashkenazic-European" languages not only for practical but for ideological reasons. By virtue of being the "world's most powerful language" (266), English appears to occupy the intermediate position between the Jewish languages on top and other non-Jewish languages at the bottom in the author's peculiar linguistic hierarchy, based on each language's ability to convey the Jewish experience. English alone among non-Jewish languages is capable of telling the Jewish story in a positive way (265). Other non-Jewish languages are either alien (Russian, French, Polish, Dutch, Italian, Ukrainian) [End Page 410] or hostile (German) to Jews. German is not only antisemitic but also immoral; Jews had to forge their own Germanic language, Yiddish, as "a moral alternative to German civilization, to protect their self-disciplining way of life" (8).
In this hierarchical conception of multilingual Jewish literature, the writer's choice of language predetermines the direction and character of his or her writing: Yiddish confronts the decline of the traditional way of life, German reflects antisemitic discourse, Russian is the language of revolutionary illusion, and French and Polish convey the alienation of the Jews of Europe, whereas the powerful English tells the American success story as well as narrates "the return to the Land of Israel and the resumption of effective Jewish self-defense" (24). Israeli Hebrew, however, does not live up to its promise and brings us back to the old Jewish predicament...