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The Modern Jewish Canon: A Journey Through Language and Culture 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 5 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226903187
ISBN-10: 0226903184
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The Modern Jewish Canon is Ruth R. Wisse's attempt to establish a set of criteria for a canon of Jewish literature (mainly prose fiction written by Ashkenazi Jews and their descendants in the 20th century). This is a fascinating, odd, and ambitious book, whose big ideas are ultimately less interesting than its small observations. Wisse, who is a firm believer in the moral power of fiction ("Even considering the dangers to the text that may accompany a moral education, I would argue that the importance it ascribes to words more than compensates for the occasional violence it does to them"), designates "Jewish literature" as work that "tells the stories of the Jewish people in the twentieth century ... best." The Modern Jewish Canon never provides a convincing, specific explanation of what exactly that means. As a result, some passages of the book (such as Wisse's ejection of Marcel Proust from her canon) seem irrationally parochial. Wisse's strongest readings concern "how the language in which Jewishness is conceived affects the nature of the literary work." She is highly sensitive to the different ways that Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Russian, and German languages give rise to distinct kinds of political, moral, religious, and literary sensibilities. --Michael Joseph Gross --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (April 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226903184
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226903187
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,818,182 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This humane and compassionate book is the kind of scholarship I thought had vanished in a morass of structuralism, deconstruction, hermaneutics, and the other polysyllables of Academic Mandarin.
Professor Wisse fulfills the subtitle of her book on Hebrew, Polish, English, Yiddish, Russian, and German literature dealing with Judaism and Jewish life: a journey through language and culture. It is a journey that describes life on the kibbutz, in the ghetto, in the Pale of Settlement, in the camps, and in the United States and sets all of these Jewish lives in their context of Western history and literature and politics.
I don't read or speak most of the languages in which these literatures are written. I'm not familiar with most of the texts, which is my loss. Professor Wisse manages, through quick descriptions and well-chosen quotations, to give a careful reader some notion of a field that is unfamiliar. I don't think I'll ever think of some of these writers again without thinking how they put their religion, their politics, and their lives on the line.
This is especially moving when she comes to the description of the Holocaust (Shoah in Hebrew; Khurbn in Yiddish). Most of us are familiar with the DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL (Anne Frank). What I didn't know was how many diarists whose names are unknown except to scholars and (like the Unknown Soldier) to God wrote as the means of combat available to people of the Book: keeping the record; literary resistance. Her summation of this section is memorable: "Like soldiers who die for their country, these Jews obeyed the imperative to document over the imperative to live.
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Format: Paperback
This is an absorbing and inspiring book. It moves though in a largely chronological sequence from the late 19thC to the late 20thC. Ruth Wisse has selcted particular authors and books to illustrate the changes in Jewish literature during this period. Her exploration of the changes in literature has also led to a wide map of Jewish life over the past centuary.

The Modern Jewish Canon has a book list as an appendix. Divided into time periods this is a wonderful guide to future reading of Jewish literature.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Anything Dr. Wisse writes is quite brilliant and she has not achieved her fame for anything but scholarly, thoughtful, original and elegant work. Her ideas are all original and factually based. She has been given a Chair at Harvard University, no small thing mind you, and her political pieces are all carefully thought through which include her Op Ed pieces for the Wall Street Journal. Also her book on Jews and Power is an outstanding piece.
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Format: Hardcover
Professor Wisse brings her tremendous learning to bear in this effort to define a modern Jewish canon. She is as would be expected especially strong on Yiddish Literature and her section on Singer is very illuminating. However whether or not she succeeds in truly defining a canon is very questionable. For a canon implies a certain community consensus , and this is really an effort of an individual scholar. I do not think here it is important to quarrel with individual selections, but rather simply to indicate that the exercise as a whole is an academic one, and not a down- to -earth practical realistic one.

Another point. The real feel of Kafka or Singer or Bellow or the Ishbitzer or the Kotzker or Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach or any other ' creator ' of modern Jewish literature is given in their writing, and their writing alone. The ' canon' is their work,and not a literary work written about the canon. And another point which my previous examples make. There are vast worlds of Jewish creative religious literature which certainly should be part of any modern Jewish literary canon. This suggests that the borders of the canon should be much wider than those drawn by Wisse.

Her effort thus is a valiant one but in my judgment one of only limited success.
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Format: Paperback
Too many writers (and genres!) are overlooked in this ideologically-blinkered study.She ignores both poetry and Sephardic literature, especially Jewish writers of the Islamic world, and generally discredits writers whose sympathy for deterritorialization or universal justice exceeds the parameters Wisse establishes for Jewish particularity. A very "tribalist" approach to identity overall, which inevitably overlooks the subversive vigor of modern Jewish literature in important contexts.
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