I had been delighted when Dean Jeremy Knowles asked me during our first interview whether I would be prepared to teach in Harvard’s version of ‘the Core’, a liberal arts curriculum from which undergraduates were obliged to select 10 courses over their four years. I planned a ‘great Jewish books’ course featuring writers from Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer to Primo Levi and Saul Bellow, thus including major international works to represent the multilingual quality of modern Jewish literature and to track the experience of Jews in the 20th century.
At the start of one semester, I noticed a girl wearing a hooded sweatshirt so low over her forehead one could scarcely see she was African American. She told me she was stymied by the first assigned text: Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman (the source of Fiddler on the Roof) in a translation generously sprinkled with transliterated Hebrew quotations. I assured her that almost everyone in the class would need to resort to the glossary provided at the back of the book, and then tried to show her that the game might prove worthwhile if she could just relax and enjoy it. From then on, she came to see me almost weekly and was soon doing most of the talking.
Thanking me for the course at the end of the semester, my student surprised me by singling out Saul Bellow’s Mr Sammler’s Planet, a demanding indictment of the counterculture and permissiveness of the 1960s. It was not a young person’s book, but it had had its effect. ‘When I arrived here,’ the student said, ‘I was the you-go girl! I was going to change everything. I was going to change the world. Well, this book showed me that I could also change it for the worse.’ She articulated better than I had done what a course on modern Jewish fiction could hope to transmit.
I had the opposite experience with a Muslim student from Pakistan who refused to deal with Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s Hebrew novella, In the Heart of the Seas, because he deemed it racist. A student could only find this ‘racist’ if he was raised to disbelieve in the Bible’s formation of the Jewish people and the natural right of the Jews to their homeland. The Arab and Soviet coalition had rammed through the villainous resolution equating Zionism with racism at the United Nations; this highly intelligent young man took that equation as much on faith as Agnon’s travelers believed in their return to Zion.
The student had until then been doing very well. It being too late to withdraw from the course, he demanded to complete it without having to deal with this book. This was technically possible since assignments and exams left him enough to choose from without it. I discussed it with a teaching assistant, and we decided to accede to his request. We had by then experienced enough of Harvard’s swelling bureaucracy to know what it would cost in time and energy if we were to refuse his petition.