National Humanities Medal awarded to Ruth Wisse
November 15, 2007
Ruth Wisse grew up speaking Yiddish with her family and would make a career of preserving the language’s legacy and literature. A pioneer in the development of Yiddish scholarship in the United States, Wisse received the prestigious National Humanities Medal in 2007 in a ceremony at the White House. Her writings on Jewish literature and culture include The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Literature and Culture, The Best of Sholem Aleichem, If I Am Not for Myself…: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews, and Jews in Power.
Born in Czernowitz, Romania, on May 13, 1936, four years later young Ruth and her family moved to Montreal where their home became a Yiddish literary salon that would influence all four of the Roskies children. Ruth received her B.A. from McGill University in 1957. After her marriage to Leonard Wisse, she went on to earn a Masters and Ph.D. from Columbia University, the only university to offer graduate studies in Yiddish at the time.
Yiddish, responsible for the entrée into American English of such commonly used words as shmuck, schlemiel and chotsky, is integral to the identity of largely English-speaking American Jews. Says Wisse:
Yiddish was an expression of the Jewish way of life, but also of the degree of separation from the rest of European society. Once Jews wanted to become more integrated into their surroundings, they sacrificed the language that kept them apart…The possibility of assimilation is the greatest gift that America gives to the Jews. One should say a blessing for this possibility at Thanksgiving. Once there was great suspicion of what the Jews brought. Now there is a tremendous level of comfort.
In 1968, Professor Wisse began teaching Yiddish and helped found the Jewish Studies Department at McGill. Her groundbreaking research earned her a stellar reputation and in 2003 an offer to become the first Professor of Yiddish at Harvard, a post she maintains to this day. In the award announcement, Wisse says of herself: “At an early age I saw the calling of literature and teaching as inseparable from civic responsibility."
To learn more about Ruth Wisse, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.