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On January 1, 1993, I arrived at Harvard to take up a newly endowed professorship in Yiddish literature. It seemed preposterous: me at Harvard, Yiddish at Harvard. The university had never figured in my aspirations. My impressions of the university had been formed mostly from what I knew of its program in Jewish studies, which was jokingly referred to as ‘the Yeshiva on the Charles’ because of its emphasis on Talmudic and medieval sources. Its almost exclusively male Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations felt obliged to appoint a female.
My gender played an even more prominent part in the deliberations of the Department of Comparative Literature where I was to hold a joint appointment. By 1993, no self-styled academic conservative like me — who taught literature old style, reading along the grain rather than against it, with appreciation for its texture and its historical, cultural and linguistic contexts — could have won the vote of some of the literature department’s trendsetters had I not been a woman. In yet another irony, these progressive members of the committee did not know that I had opposed affirmative action for women at my then-job at McGill University. In short, I was appointed on the basis of a policy I deplored. Still, I accepted the position and the following year I was made the Center’s director. Having been assured that my chair would be accompanied by a lectureship in Yiddish language, I set up language instruction, undergraduate courses, and a track for graduate students supported by generous stipends.
In coming to Harvard to teach Yiddish literature, I had not considered Jewishness a matter of concern. There had been little anti-Israel agitation or Jewish discomfort at McGill, and I expected even less of it at Harvard. But university culture was becoming less tolerant of Jewishness, not more, quite as though it had expected Jews to shed it in return for being admitted.