It was a true thrill to reunite with a college friend I had not seen for fifty years at her lecture/book signing in Los Angeles the other night. The college friend was Dr. Ruth Wisse, now a distinguished Harvard professor whose opinions about the Jewish people and Israel are quoted not only in rarified journals but, as she was on the front page this past week, in such respected newspapers as the Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com). My goodness, I have just written a sentence so long it is worthy of the likes of Norman Mailer. I once counted 200 words in one of his sentences.
Dr. Wisse (whom I knew at school as Ruth Roskies, her maiden name) has written a book called "Jews and Power," in which, among other things, she traces both the Jewish people's political vulnerability throughout history (because of their adherence to moral values) and their unconquerability (because they believe their ultimate responsibility is to God, not to the princes of nations).
Throughout her lecture, I noticed that she seemed to look at me many times -- I was in the second row -- and I kept wondering, "Does she remember me? Does she remember me?" We were really acquaintances rather than friends at school, but we both took some literature and, I think, history classes in common at McGill University, where she later lectured, and often had vigorous discussions of the course content in the student lounge (which we called the "common room").
It was the 1950s, and McGill was a very formal place at that time. Professors wore not only black robes but mortar boards on their heads for all lectures, usually delivered from a podium in large lecture halls. It was electrifying when Professor Louis Dudek, then a major driving force of Canadian poetry, as well as a poet in his own right, established a literature course where students actually sat around a long oval table. Dr. Dudek sat at the head of the table, still in his black robe, but WITH HIS HAT OFF. Students were encouraged to be part of the lecture with their own presentations, and we had lots and lots of vibrant DISCUSSION. It doesn't sound very unusual in today's informal collegiate atmosphere, but it sure was then.
Our good professor was also instrumental in promoting the works of Canadian poets (whose poems were circulated on purple mimeographed multi-copies because there was no way for a Canadian poet to get published in Canada in those days, let alone in the U.S.), and he took Leonard Cohen (later to become a phenomenal, world-acclaimed poet/minstrel) under his wing as a special protoge. Finally, a London publisher agreed to publish Cohen's poems in a HARD COVER edition, provided that 500 copies were first sold by subscription to cover the cost of the book. It was well known in literary circles that publishing poetry guaranteed a loss, not a profit.
Which brings us back to Dr. Ruth Wisse. She and "Lenny" Cohen were great friends, and Ruth believed fervently in his poetry too. She showed her early organizational skills by pre-selling 500 copies of Cohen's first book, "Let Us Compare Mythologies," to McGill arts students for $2.00 each. It was a tough sell. Two dollars was a lot of money at a time when a street car ticket to get you to McGill's classes cost 7 1/8 cents. At least like twenty bucks out of a student pocket would be today.
But I proudly pre-bought one. After all, we sat at the long oval table together, Ruth, Lenny, and I.
So when I bought Dr. Wisse's book (twenty bucks!) fifty years later after her lecture at Stephen S. Wise Temple, not only did she remember me, but we had a good laugh about the two dollar pre-sale she had orchestrated of Cohen's slim volume. "I still have Lenny's book," I said, "a signed copy. And now I have yours. I'll put it on my shelf right beside "Jews and Power." She giggled, and I blew her a kiss. It was a sweet moment of reunion.