Old Canon Gets New Look

"The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture" by Ruth R. Wisse (The Free Press, $28).

The Hebrew Bible is a canon of 24 books, written in the same language, collected by a people living in a single nation, compiled at a time of belief in an all-powerful Authority speaking through that canon.

Three millennia later the people survive, but they are dispersed in numerous countries throughout the world, speaking many diverse languages, and living at a time when authority (including religious authority) is more likely to be defied than followed.

In such a time, can there be such a thing as a "Modern Jewish Canon" — a set of commonly accepted books that authoritatively express the experiences and values of a modern Jewish people?

In this remarkable book, Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University, argues there is. In a series of essays written with extraordinary erudition, Wisse discusses books by authors who wrote in nine different languages, and concludes that in the 20th century, the Jewish people generated "a multilingual literature unlike that of any other modern nation."

It is a literature created under the most trying conditions. Jews in the 20th century wrote in a time of "decline of religious faith, the disintegration of cohesive communities, the weakening of ethnic ties" — reflected in the myriad languages Jews spoke — that made a communal literature unlikely at best.

Moreover, the mass extermination of European Jews took with it the language that an entire culture had created over hundreds of years. A century that began with approximately 10 million Jews speaking Yiddish — more Jews than had ever before simultaneously spoken a common language — ended with a large part of those people, the ones who spoke the language, gone.

The Holocaust was followed by the mass assimilation of American Jews. With their immigration to the United States, American Jews "dropped Yiddish so precipitously that they lost the whole record of their encounter with modernity that had been forged in that language."

But amid the forces of linguistic and cultural destruction that marked the 20th century, Jewish writers, living in diverse countries, writing in diverse languages, generated a series of books of exceptional merit with moral and cultural links to Jewish tradition.

The books Wisse has selected for her "Modern Jewish Canon" are those that "derive so powerfully from a particular cultural community that they make a special claim on the members of that community to be reabsorbed by them in a cycle of creative renewal." She devotes entire chapters to Yiddish literature, the literature of the Russian Revolution, Holocaust testimonials, American immigrant literature and Israeli literature (which she sees as the dominant branch of modern Jewish literature).

It is her demonstration of the connections between these diverse writings — the argument that they form a modern canon — that is perhaps the most stimulating part of the book. She demonstrates how Jewish tradition strove to survive social and political revolution in Sholom Aleichem’s "Tevye the Dairyman" — and then connects that book to Saul Bellow’s "Mr. Sammler’s Planet" (the "definitive novel about the 1960s"). She next connects Bellow’s book to Philip Roth’s "American Pastoral," and argues convincingly that Roth’s book, with its stunning portrayal of the collapse of Jewish parental authority, is his "masterpiece."

Her book is also interesting for the writers she leaves out. It is not enough to be Jewish and famous, or else Norman Mailer would be included. Nor is it enough to be Jewish and great, or else Proust would make the list.

What Wisse is after is something closer to what Cynthia Ozick, writing more than 30 years ago, referred to as a "liturgical" literature. Ozick wrote that the only Diaspora literature that would survive would be one that was "centrally Jewish" — by which she meant a literature not necessarily religious, but one that had "a choral voice, a communal voice, the echo of the voice of the Lord of History." She predicted that Mailer — then at the height of his fame — would one day "become a small gentile footnote, about the size of H.L. Mencken."

Wisse’s modern canon is a set of books that transcend the momentary attraction of most modern literature, with its over-emphasis on the individual to the exclusion of the community, and on values that are self-actualized rather than passed on through tradition. Her choices are not ones that necessarily portray Jews positively ("Of course," Wisse writes, "no book is ever going to portray the Jews in a worse light than the Bible"). But they are books that will not fade into footnotes, because they build on traditions centuries old, applied in new times.

In his monumental recovery of the history and traditions of the "Kaddish," Leon Wieseltier wrote that tradition "is not reproduced. It is thrown, and it is caught. It lives a long time in the air." The remarkable achievement of Wisse is that she has produced, in a single volume, an appreciation of the moral richness of 20th century Jewish literature, with its preservation of Jewish tradition in the midst of the extraordinary challenges of that century, and has thrown it into the air. It is now there for us to catch.

Ruth Wisse will be a scholar-in-residence at Sinai Temple from Nov. 16 to 18. For more information call (310) 474-1518.