Ruth Wisse Discusses the Significance of Modern Jewish Holidays

On Wednesday, Ruth Wisse, Harvard professor and award-winning author, gave a lecture titled “Jews and Power: Between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day,” inspired by her book “Jews and Power.” Her presentation focused on Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day, two 20th century Jewish holidays celebrated within eight days of one another, and their connection to the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, which represents the time between the Jews’ passage out of Egypt and Moses’s receipt of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Wisse said that these seven weeks have taken on a new significance since modern Jews added Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day between the two holidays. “Six million Jews were killed in Europe in this period of several years…. So how come, in the same decade, this people reclaims its own independence and its sovereignty and homeland, after an interval of almost two thousand years?” said Wisse, discussing the Jewish people’s turnaround in the 1940s. “If the first period that we talked about [the seven weeks after Passover] really marks how long it took for the Jews to come out of Egypt and become a civilized, disciplined people, then these two [20th century holidays], this period of just eight days, marks exactly the opposite,” said Wisse. These opposites represent how the Jewish society has matured, according to Wisse. She noted that seven full weeks are needed to commemorate the Jews passage from Egypt to Palestine. “I think that this means that we are meant to understand how long it took for that rabble that left Egypt to become disciplined enough to receive the law from Moses.” In contrast, Jews separate Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day with only eight days to represent “the unparalleled experience of a nation that undergoes unspeakable disaster and almost simultaneously demonstrates its powers of resilience.” Wisse ended her presentation with the argument that the world’s focus on Jewish history should not be on the Holocaust itself, as it often is, because it represented the Jewish people at their lowest point. Instead, the focus should be on what Wisse described as “greater than any supernatural miracle I know… This people, in a few years can suffer this most brutal, humiliating mass-murder and at the same time, reclaim its sovereignty after really 2,000 years of living in other peoples lands.” Wisse also discussed the Holocaust in depth and addressed the issue of Jewish passivity. “Jews could not comprehend the process to which they were being subjected… Jews cannot kill a chicken without first saying the blessing. So how could they believe that a human life would be worth less than a chicken’s? Now what appears like passivity in Jews testifies to levels of ruthlessness in their murderers,” said Wisse. “One third of the Jewish people were murdered in a slaughter that was so unprecedented that [the lawyer] Rafael Lemkin had to invent the word ‘genocide’ in order to describe this slaughter,” said Wisse. Zoe Chazen ’14 and Sam Goldberg ’14, both board members of JSU, invited Wisse after hearing of her work. Wisse is the winner of The National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship and the Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in Scholarship for her writing. “She’s an acclaimed Jewish scholar,” said Chazen, who first heard of Wisse after reading an opinion piece of hers in “The Wall Street Journal.” Wisse, who was born in Romania but raised in Montreal, grew up speaking Yiddish. She decided to study Yiddish literature in the 1950s and attended Columbia University. At the time, Columbia was the only school that offered Yiddish in a graduate degree program. She is currently the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish and English Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Adam Brody ’14, noting the contrast between Holocaust Remembrance day and Israel Independence Day, said, “We wanted to sort of talk about that and bring that discussion to campus… And we really were interested in getting Ruth Wisse, and she happened to be available this week.” In addition to Wisse’s lecture, Culture, Politics and Religion Club held a joint meeting with JSU on April 9 to discuss the Holocaust and other examples of genocide. The lecture was sponsored by the Jewish Student Union.