The Modern Jewish Canon

A Journey Through Language and Culture

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About The Book

What makes a great Jewish book? What makes a book "Jewish" in the first place? Ruth R. Wisse, one of the leading scholars in the field of Jewish literature, sets out to answer these questions in The Modern Jewish Canon. Wisse takes us on an exhilarating journey through language and culture, penetrating the complexities of Jewish life as they are expressed in the greatest Jewish novels of the twentieth century, from Isaac Babel to Isaac Bashevis Singer, from Elie Wiesel to Cynthia Ozick. The modern Jewish canon Wisse proposes comprises those books that convey an experience of Jewish actuality, those in which "the authors or characters know and let the reader know that they are Jews," for better or worse.
Wisse is not content merely to evaluate the great books of Jewish literature; she also links the works together to present a new kind of Jewish history, as it has been told through the literature of the past hundred years. She tells the story of a multilingual, multinational people, one that has experienced an often turbulent relationship with Hebrew (the liturgical and scriptural language) and Yiddish (the commonplace vernacular tongue), as well as with the numerous languages spoken by Jews around the world. Wisse insists that language informs the essential meaning of a Jewish work, creating and ratifying political and religious alliances, historical and cultural circumstance, and methods of interpretation.
Drawing from a broad sweep of twentieth-century Jewish fiction, Wisse reintroduces us to the deeper side of much-beloved books that remain touchstones of Jewish identity. Through her eyes we reencounter old friends, including:


  • Tevye the Dairyman from Sholem Aleichem's landmark Yiddish stories, the character on whom Fiddler on the Roof is based
  • Joseph K. of Kafka's The Trial, who "without having done anything wrong" was famously "arrested one fine morning"
  • Anne Frank, whose poignant diary has shaped the way we think about the Holocaust
  • Nathan Zuckerman, the enigmatic narrator of numerous Philip Roth novels

Destined to be a classic in its own right, one that reshapes the way we think about some of the classic works of the modern age, The Modern Jewish Canon is a book for every Jewish reader and for every reader of great fiction.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (January 19, 2001)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743205771

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Raves and Reviews

Norman Podhoretz As brilliant as it is magisterial, Ruth Wisse's The Modern Jewish Canon is also amazingly original. Indeed, I know of no other book that has even attempted what she accomplishes here in telling the story of the Jewish people in the twentieth century through an analysis of the major literary works produced by Jewish writers in a variety of languages, both Jewish (Yiddish and Hebrew) and non-Jewish (ranging from English to German to Russian). I cannot imagine any college course in Jewish Studies ever doing without this extraordinary work. But it will be equally indispensable to any person interested in one of the central historical adventures of the past hundred years. A book about the modern Jewish canon, it has itself secured an honored place of its own in that canon.

Steven J. Zipperstein, Daniel E. Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and History, Stanford University This is, undoubtedly, the most inventive and provocative of all of Ruth Wisse's books. It is a fiercely argued, beautifully constructed exploration of the complexity of modern Jewish culture and the interplay between writing, politics, and morality. It is haunting, fascinating, and important.

Roger Kimball Managing Editor, The New Criterion Ruth Wisse writes with authority and passion about a realm of literary endeavor that has been unfairly neglected. Readers owe her a great debt for opening these half-forgotten literary treasures.

Leon Wieseltier Literary Editor of The New Republic and author of Kaddish The quantities of tradition that are slipping through the fingers of American Jewry are unprecedented in Jewish history, and Ruth Wisse knows this. In this age of unvexed Jewish illiteracy, she is right to come forward with The Modern Jewish Canon. It should disrupt the complacence and fix a standard for competent disputation. This is a book of sharp ideas and beautiful worries. All that Wisse asks is that we read our books.