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The Modern Jewish Canon

A Journey Through Language and Culture


Ruth R. Wisse (View Bio)
Hardcover: The Free Press, 2000; Paperback: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

The Modern Jewish Canon

Modern Jewish literature cannot be circumscribed by language alone, and in this book Ruth Wisse explores the phenomenon of a multi-language Jewish literature through a discussion of some of its greatest works of the twentieth century. She analyzes how the language in which Jewishness is conceived affects the nature of the literary work, ranging across works in Dutch, English (American, British, Canadian), French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Yiddish. "Modern literature," Wisse writes, "reflects the decline of religious faith, the disintegration of cohesive communities, the weakening of ethnic ties — a centrifugal process that is reflected most obviously in the many languages Jews came to speak. Yet just as there exists a modern Jewish people, so there exists a modern Jewish literature."

Winner of the Jewish Cultural Achievement Awards in Scholarship
Winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship/Criticism

"Wisse writes thoughtfully and insightfully....[She] has a gift for succinctly capturing a work's narrative and moral import....Wisse has provided a great service to those interested in modern Jewish imagination, world views, and sensibilities." — Publishers Weekly

"Wisse is just the right woman for this job....She is one of the heaviest hitters among conservative scholars and critics....When Wisse goes to work on a subject, you expect controversy, and in this book she doesn't let us down....Wisse has inside her the powers of a superb literary critic...[H]er passion for a writer you've never heard of...makes you want to discover him for yourself." — National Review

"THE MODERN JEWISH CANON will legitimize the debate [for a Jewish canon of literature] by bringing it to unforseen heights....Wisse displays genuine esteem for high-quality literary art. She trusts her instincts as a savvy reader...and for hewing to her own perspective, she ought to be commended....Her encyclopedism is commenable in that it surveys a vast intellectual landscape....[T]he achievement is impressive." — The Nation

"The chief virtue of the book lies in Wisse's broad, even astonishing, range. At her fingertips are works in English, German, French, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Italian and Polish; her ear picks up biblical resonances in most secular texts.... Wisse regards language as not only a sign but also an agent, of community, exile and dispersion; assimilation and return.... The larger dimensions of Wisse's book deliver a valuable, idiosyncratic and finally troubling canon. For Wisse is up to more than judicious canonizing. Beyond the intellectual sweep and erudition, there is passion here, the passion of one who tolls a warning bell: liberalism and socialism alike are dead ends, for Jews loose their grasp on their communal traditions at their peril." — The New York Times Book Review

"Ruth Wisse, a Harvard professor of Yiddish and comparitive literature...boldly claims an equal place among the major literatures of the world for the mulitlingual yet coherent body of 20th-century writing by the tiny minority called the Jews....Every chapter shows Ms. Wisse's extraordinary talent for discovering organic filaments linking distant and apparently disparate writers and for integrating literary criticism with historical background and political astuteness....Ms. Wisse makes a powerful case for recognizing as part of a coherent international Jewish literature writers previously thought to be essentially German, Russian or French. She also gives new and well-deserved prominence to...neglected figures." — The Wall Street Journal

"A MODERN JEWISH CANON: A Journey Through Language and Culture is Ruth Wisse's welcome and valuable overview of the best and brightest Jewish literary figures and their work. The author, professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University, has produced more than literary criticism here; she acts also as historian and social commentator, providing the context in which the great literary works appear...[A] stellar list....Hers is an excellent book, one that might have been a three-volume set. She has melded criticism and history, and in the process shown how much the written word was and continues to be one of the formative elements of the Jewish self-image, and by extension, the Jewish popular image." — The Washington Times

"A book of sharp ideas and beautiful worries." — Leon Wiseltier, author of KADDISH

"[I]mportant....Wisse's book is one formidable indication of an upsurge of interest over the last decade in the Jewishness of 20th-century writers...[H]er discussions of the writers on her far-ranging list are both delicate and wonderfully penetrating, and taken together they make a strong case for the multilingual Jewish literature whose existence she sets out to prove." — Hillel Halkin, Commentary

"[A] provocative new book....THE MODERN JEWISH CANON does an impressive job of presenting a historical and cultural context within which to understand Jewish writing of the last century." — The Gazette (Montreal)

"A truly magisterial work.... Ms. Wisse's book is devoted to mapping the contours of Jewish national literature in the modern period. The contention at the heart of her passionate and scholarly new book is her insistence not only that a definable modern Jewish literary canon exists, but that it embodies the history, politics and culture of modern Jewry. This is a very ambitious agenda for a single book, and there are few scholars who could have realized it as well as Ms. Wisse has. She has achieved this precisely by...presenting those books that, to her lights, best describe the experience of modern Jewry. Through finely runed summaries and trenchant analyses...she succeeds dazzlingly in interpreting the story of the Jewish people in the modern age.... She does nothing less than take the reader on a fascinating journey through the intellectual and political history of Jewry since the late 19th century.... One finishes each of these chapters hoping that Ms. Wisse might someday devote an entire book to their respective themes.... [T]here is no doubt that her fine book belongs firmly in the canon of modern Jewish scholarship." — Forward

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