Adele Wiseman was one of Canada’s most highly regarded writers of the second half of the twentieth century. She is best known for her two groundbreaking novels that explore Jewish life in Canada. Both are set in Winnipeg’s insular North End, reveal her interest in characters who challenge normative behavior, and affirm Wiseman’s belief in community. The Sacrifice (1956), published when Wiseman was 28, is a tragic novel that centers on the murder of a woman by its devout protagonist Abraham who misinterprets her flirtation. Crackpot (1974) is the epic story of Hoda, an obese Jewish sex worker, who services the boys and men of her North End neighborhood.
Early Life and Family
Born in Winnipeg, Canada, on May 21, 1928, to Chaika (née Rosenberg, 1896-1980) and Pesach Waisman (later Wiseman, 1894-1978), novelist Adele Wiseman was one of Canada’s most highly regarded writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Wiseman’s father was a tailor and her mother a homemaker who had been trained as a dressmaker. The couple immigrated from Ukraine to Canada in 1923 and spent two years in Montreal before settling in Winnipeg’s North End, a vibrant enclave of Jewish, German, Ukrainian, and Slavic immigrants. Wiseman had four siblings: Miriam (Distler), who became a professor of chemistry at McGill University; Harry, who became a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Miami; and Morris. Greg Feher, a Hungarian war orphan, joined the family after the Second World War.
Wiseman’s childhood and youth in Winnipeg fed her imagination, nurtured her literary aspirations, and fostered the drive necessary to fulfill her ambition to become a writer. She once described the city’s North End as “the very incubator of conflicting absolutes. I relate my tendency to go for broke, to try to make an equation for the secret of the universe every time I sit down to the typewriter, to my continuing need to make some kind of total sense of the complex environment of the Winnipeg I knew, the Noah’s Ark of my childhood, the Tower of Babel of my adolescence” (“Brief Anatomy,” 105).
Although she was Canadian by birth, Wiseman felt differentiated from mainstream culture and perceived the world and the books she read through the dual, conflicted lens of a Jewish female. As an adolescent, she intuited that the “girls and women I read about in books were usually quite other than what I knew myself and the girls and women I knew to be” (Memoirs, 16). Wiseman grew up during the Second World War and was deeply affected by Hitler’s efforts to eradicate the Jewish population of Europe. As she matured, her identity as a Jew strengthened:
[T]here was very little of innocence about the world into which I emerged as a young adult. We were counting our dead. The Second World War had ended. We had, technically, been on the winning side. We felt a great relief, though there was little cause for euphoria. Whatever the relief that was felt by everyone else that the war was over and a way of life had been preserved, for me, as a Jew, I knew that not only a way of life but life itself had been preserved. And so it was even a kind of rebirth. But it was a rebirth that carried with it responsibility. In the counting of our dead I had more dead than I could ever count. ... I did not feel guilt because I survived; I felt the responsibility, rather, in some sense to make the dead survive through me (Memoirs, 49).
Writing in the shadow of the Holocaust, Wiseman envisaged herself as a moral witness to her time and, in practice, became a “responsible” writer. Throughout her career, she wrote as a Canadian, a woman, and a Jew, always seeking to explore the human condition. Attuned to historical pain as it translates into the pain of everyday life, Wiseman unveiled the dynamics of a cultural reality that most readers did not know and drew characters who invariably “demand[ed] their dignity from brute reality” (Memoirs, 27).
Wiseman’s first language was Yiddish and her upbringing was secular. She was educated first at the I.L. Peretz School, whose working-class and progressive character differed markedly from the traditional Jewish education offered at the Lit. "study of Torah," but also the name for organizations that established religious schools, and later the specific school systems themselves, including the network of afternoon Hebrew schools in early 20th c. U.S.Talmud Torah, and later in the public schools where children of immigrants frequently were made to feel unwelcome. She attended St. John’s Technical High School, which had a large number of Jewish students and where the atmosphere was open and stimulating. Wiseman entered the University of Manitoba in 1945, the same year it became the first university in Canada to remove admission quotas against Jews and other minority groups, and earned a B.A. in English Literature and Psychology in 1949. During this period, she formed lasting connections with professor Malcolm Ross, an early champion of Canadian literature who encouraged her to write, and writer Margaret Laurence, a friend and contemporary and another of Canada’s foremost novelists.
Wiseman married marine biologist Dmitry Stone in 1969. (The couple divorced in 1990.) She had one daughter, Tamara Reesa Esther Bliss Stone (b. 1969).
From 1950 to 1952, Wiseman lived abroad while writing her first novel. To make ends meet, she accepted employment as a group leader at the Stepney Jewish Girls’ (B’nai B’rith) Club and Settlement in London, England, and as a teacher and summer camp vice-superintendent at the Overseas School in Rome. She then returned to Canada, working at a number of jobs while completing her manuscript.
The Sacrifice (1956), which centers on the murder of a woman, Laiah, by the devout protagonist who misinterprets her flirtation, revealed Wiseman’s interest in characters who challenge normative behavior and affirmed her belief in community. The biblical story of Abraham and Isaac resonates throughout Wiseman’s narrative. Her novel’s Abraham—once proud and certain—is transplanted from the Old World, where he suffered the loss of two sons during a pogrom, to the New World, where he sheds his precarious hold on life after a synagogue fire claims the life of his youngest son.
For many readers, The Sacrifice seemed to endorse a set of patriarchal assumptions that ignores the murder of Laiah in favor of extolling Abraham. By extension, its biblical subtext affirms Abraham’s narrative vision and authority, which resonated with reviewers. The traditional worldview that sanctioned Laiah’s “sacrifice” drove Wiseman’s rise as a writer. Published in Toronto, New York, and London, the novel won international recognition and critical acclaim. On the basis of her success, Wiseman was admitted to Yaddo and MacDowell writers’ colonies and was granted Canadian Foundation (1957) and Guggenheim (1958) fellowships. A Canada Council Arts Scholarship (1959) took her to New York, where she lived for a number of years after publishing her debut novel.
The Sacrifice was one of the first Canadian novels to explore Jewish life in Canada, and Wiseman returned to this subject in Crackpot (1974). Unlike The Sacrifice, Crackpot turns toward comedy and focuses on female experience. It tells the epic story of an obese Jewish sex worker, the daughter of a hunchbacked mother and a blind father, who together flee Russia for Canada. After her mother’s death, Hoda supports herself and her father by servicing the boys and men of her North Winnipeg community. The plot hinges on the moral dilemma she faces when her teenaged son (whom she abandons at birth, leaving him in the care of the local Jewish orphanage) visits her for sexual initiation. The choice she faces, between incestuous relations or sexual rejection, leads finally to personal and communal reconciliation.
Crackpot’s discursive style and extensive length were intended to accommodate Hoda’s dynamic presence and girth. No doubt, that same spontaneity and looseness in the text were partially responsible for the novel’s delayed publication and mixed reception. In fact, Canadian reviewers and readers could not fully appreciate Crackpot—because it differed so strikingly from The Sacrifice, the novel that had launched Wiseman’s career. Today, in contrast, Crackpot is universally admired for its daring execution, and the character Hoda is hailed as a triumph.
For her next work, Wiseman turned away from fiction. Old Woman at Play (1978) is a memoir and a meditation on creativity, focusing on her mother’s folk art of doll-making. The text integrates color photographs of Chaika Wiseman’s dolls and was adapted for the stage as the Doll Show. Shaped by plot and the character of her mother, the work resembles a novel, a narrative form that Wiseman understood well. As a work of life writing that explores the creative process, it also incorporates elements of biography and autobiography.
As her literary reputation grew, Wiseman became an increasingly popular teacher. She taught at the University of Manitoba (1952-55), Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University (1963-64), Macdonald College of McGill University (1963-69), and the Institute of Jewish Studies at the Montreal YM-YWHA (1964). She also served as writer in residence at Massey College of the University of Toronto (1975-76); Trent University (January 1983); Sir George Williams University (1983-84); the University of Western Ontario (1986-87); the University of Prince Edward Island (fall 1987); and the University of Windsor (1988-91). From 1987 to 1991 she headed the Writing Program at the Banff Centre. Wiseman’s example of mentorship, radical in its unprepossessing design and natural delivery, shaped by intuition and common sense, offered authority and guidance and was appreciated by novice and practiced writers alike.
A belief in the transformative potential of the writer’s work lies at the heart of Wiseman’s enduring creative achievement and the many honors and awards she received for her writing: the Governor General’s Literary Award (1956); the Beta Sigma Phi Sorority Award (1957); the Brotherhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews (1957); the Leipzig Book Fair Bronze Medal (1964); the Canadian Booksellers Association Book Award (1974); the J.I. Segal Foundation Award (1974 and 1988); and the Three Guineas Charitable Foundation Agency Award (1984-85). In 1989, the University of Manitoba conferred upon her an honorary LL.D.
Wiseman died in Toronto on June 1, 1992, from complications related to sarcoma.
Selected Works by Adele Wiseman
The Lovebound: A Tragi-Comedy. Printed privately, c1960.
Testimonial Dinner. Toronto: Prototype Press, 1978.
Old Markets, New World. Illus. Joe Rosenthal. Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, 1964.
“A Brief Anatomy of an Honest Attempt at a Pithy Statement about the Impact of the Manitoba Environment on My Development as an Artist.” Mosaic, vol. 3, no. 3, Spring 1970, pp. 98-106.
Memoirs of a Book Molesting Childhood and Other Essays. Studies in Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Kenji and the Cricket. Illus. Shizuye Takashima. Erin, Ontario: Porcupine’s Quill, 1988.
Puccini and the Prowlers. Illus. Kim Lafave. Toronto: Nightwood Editions, 1992.
Selected Letters of Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman. Ed. John Lennox and Ruth Panofsky. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
The Dowager Empress: Poems. Ed. Elizabeth Greene. Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2019.
Adele Wiseman Collection. Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada, Winnipeg.
Adele Wiseman Fonds. F0447, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University, Toronto.
“Adele Wiseman Evening.” November 19, 1978, Jewish Public Library, Montreal.
Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library, Yiddish Book Center, Amherst.
Greene, Elizabeth, ed. We Who Can Fly: Poems, Essays and Memories in Honour of Adele Wiseman. Dunvegan, Ontario: Cormorant Books, 1997.
Greenstein, Michael. “From Origins to Margins: Adele Wiseman’s Immigrants.” In Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature. Montreal / Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1989, 103-195.
Hétu, Dominique. “‘But the Good Feelings Were There Too’: Care and Hospitality in Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot.” Studies in Canadian Literature, vol. 44, no. 2, 2019, pp. 178-96.
Lambert, Josh. “Otherfuckers and Motherfuckers: Reproduction and Allegory in Philip Roth and Adele Wiseman.” In Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews, and American Culture,. New York: New York University Press, 2014, 99-140.
Panofsky, Ruth. The Force of Vocation: The Literary Career of Adele Wiseman. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006.
Panofsky, Ruth, ed. Adele Wiseman: Essays on Her Works. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2001.
Panofsky, Ruth, guest ed. Room, vol. 16, no. 3, September 1993. Special issue on Adele Wiseman.