Ruth Wisse only learned that novelist Franz Kafka was Jewish after she graduated from McGill University with a degree in literature, because, she says, the Jewish presence in any field of study was simply not talked about back then.
There was not a single course in any department devoted to a Jewish theme, even in the divinity school.
That was in the 1960s and McGill was not alone. Jewish studies, as an academic discipline, was, at best, nascent.
Wisse believed that omission had to be corrected and impressed upon McGill administrators to create a Jewish studies program within the faculty of arts. That was 50 years ago. Thirty years ago, the program became the full-fledged department of Jewish studies.
Wisse, who has been a professor of Yiddish literature and comparative literature at Harvard University since 1993, returned to McGill to celebrate the milestone anniversary on Oct. 18.
The “Jewish-free” McGill was not due to hostility, she believes, but rather to anti-Semitism being a subject that made people “nervous” after the Holocaust.
“Jews were welcome, but we were not to bring our Jewishness with us. It was too controversial. We just took it for granted that that’s the way thing were,” she said.
Nevertheless, she began to wonder why she could not study Jewish literature as she could English, French or even German literature at McGill. To pursue a PhD in comparative literature, she had to go to Columbia University.
She found a kindred spirit in the late Rabbi David Hartman, who was studying for a doctorate in philosophy at McGill and also wondered why Jewish philosophy was not taught.
Wisse’s pitch to the faculty for a Yiddish literature course was approved unanimously, “except by the one Jew, who came from the United States as a draft dodger,” she said. The only hitch was that she would have to find the money to pay her salary.
Similarly, Hartman was successful in introducing a Jewish philosophy course. They received seed money from the Jewish community for three years and the university said that if things went well, it would take over “in perpetuity.”
“McGill may be the only North American university where Jewish studies was built from the bottom up. Endowed chairs came here after the fact,” instead of the reverse, she noted.
Today, the department of Jewish studies is interdisciplinary, offering courses ranging from Yiddish and Hebrew, to Jewish history, to the Bible and rabbinics, as well as more recent additions such as Jewish music and film. It also encompasses the Jewish teacher training program.
The majority of students are undergraduates, but the graduate program, including the post-doctoral level, continues to grow.
Director Yael Halevi-Wise is one of 16 faculty members. The longest-serving is Lawrence Kaplan, who has been there since 1972. Among the recent hires is Christopher Silver, who came from the University of California and started teaching courses last year on the culture of Jews from Arab lands and modern Jewish-Muslim relations.
Next year, an introductory course on the Zohar is planned.
Three years ago, the department moved from a “quaint old house” on McTavish Street to the Leacock building in the heart of the campus.
Despite its longevity, Wisse cautioned that “the fate of Jewish studies should never be taken for granted, here or elsewhere.”
Jewish studies are more important than ever, she said. Knowledge is essential in combatting “the war against the Jewish state.… Anti-Zionism today is more toxic than anti-Semitism in the 1930s. The difference is we can defend ourselves now.”
It is a mistake to think that this hatred flourishes only among the uneducated, she continued. “That is false. Anti-Jewish and anti-Israel aggression begins at the universities, where freedom of speech is taken advantage of, and is spread from there.”
McGill principal Suzanne Fortier praised Wisse for her “great vision, determination and courage” in bringing Jewish studies to McGill and pledged the university’s continued support.
The celebration saw the awarding of some 25 scholarships and prizes to outstanding students, donated mainly by the Jewish community.
They come from diverse interests and backgrounds. For example, Bakinaz Abdalla, who’s from Egypt, won the Shloime Wiseman Prize for general excellence; Hanna Beaudoin of Boston, who is majoring in neuroscience, took the Betty Workman Yaffe Prize in Yiddish Studies; and Soroosh Shahriari, whose main focus is Islamic theology, was awarded the Gisia Kisilevsky Graduate Fellowship in Jewish Studies.
Anna Gonshor, who was in the program’s very first cohort and later taught Yiddish at McGill, recalled how groundbreaking the launch of the Jewish studies program was. From the beginning, the program attracted top international scholars. Only Brandeis University, which was under Jewish auspices, had a comparable program back then, she said.
Also at the event, Jack and Kay Wolofsky announced the creation of a new scholarship in memory of his grandfather, Hirsch Wolofsky, founder of the Yiddish newspaper the Kanader Adler, and his father, Philip Wolofsky, who was dedicated to education.