The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture

Ruth R. Wisse, Author
Ruth R. Wisse, Author Free Press $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0-684-83075-9
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Wisse admits that making selections for a modern Jewish canon was far from easy: ""The modern list will probably never be as firmly redacted as the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible, because no contemporary community is as confident as its ancestors, and because moderns are generally warier of any process that smacks of authority."" In spite of difficulties, Wisse, who teaches Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, goes through what she believes are the greatest works reflecting the extraordinary varieties of 20th-century Jewish experience, from Sholom Aleichem's Tevye stories to the near-stream-of-consciousness, post-Zionist novel Past Continuous by Israeli Yaakov Shabtai. But whether dealing with well-known writers, such as Nobel laureates S.Y. Agnon, I.B. Singer and Saul Bellow, or introducing readers to such little-known but significant writers as the early Hebrew novelist Yosef Haim Brenner or the Canadian A.M. Klein, Wisse writes thoughtfully and insightfully. She places each work in a historical, cultural and linguistic context (Jewish literature is unusually polyglot), probes its worldview and the writings of other scholars and critics. Wisse has a gift for succinctly capturing a work's narrative and moral import, as in this statement about what she calls ""one of the finest political novels in the Western canon,"" Singer's Satan in Goray: ""Evil is never so powerful as when it claims to be redemptive, the promise of redemption is never so persuasive as when it follows great suffering, and no suffering will compare with `forcing the end' of history."" Some readers will quibble with her choices, but no matter; Wisse has provided a great service to those interested in modern Jewish imagination, world views and sensibilities. (Sept.)
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