Larchmont Temple Chevra Torah

Questioning faith in the parsha

Chaim Grade

Chaim Grade was one of the leading Yiddish writers of the twentieth century and ranks among the most important Yiddish writers of the post-Holocaust period. He was born on April 4, 1910 in Vilna, Russian Empire [now Vilnius, Lithuania] and died on April 26, 1982. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery Saddle Brook, NJ.

Grade’s unsentimental depictions of rabbinic high culture and life on the Jewish streets of Vilna both describe memorable characters drawn from different strata of society, and dramatize the contest of ideas and moral impulses that defined his community in the interwar period. Though today Grade is best remembered for the richness of his prose, he is also the author of nine volumes of poetry.

Chaim Grade, the son of Shlomo Mordecai Grade, a Hebrew teacher and maskil (advocate of the European Enlightenment), received a secular as well as Jewish religious education. His father died when Chaim was a young boy. The writer’s mother, Vella, who is the heroine of many of his poems and stories, sold apples in the city’s alleys to eke out a living. She and Grade lived in poverty in a blacksmith’s cellar. Grade studied for several years with Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, the Chazon Ish (1878–1953), one of observant Judaism’s great Torah scholars. At age 22, he abandoned his studies to embark on a career as a secular poet.

In 1932, Grade began publishing stories and poems in Yiddish, and in the early 1930s was among the founding members of the “Young Vilna” experimental group of artists and writers. He developed a reputation as one of the city’s most articulate literary interpreters.

The Soviet occupation of Vilna was a particularly precarious time for Grade and his young wife, Frume-Libe, who was the daughter of Zionists. Local Jewish communists were eager to denounce the couple to punish Grade for his rejection of the radical cause in his lyrics and personal politics. However, when the Nazis marched on Vilna in June 1941, Grade fled to the Soviet interior, believing that the Germans would not harm women. Both his wife and mother were killed. When the war ended, he lived briefly in Poland and France

Grade married his second wife, Inna Hecker, and immigrated to the United States in 1948. His turn to prose after his arrival in America carved out the creative space he needed to portray the lost world of his youth and young adulthood in more expansive detail. His novels and stories capture the moral pitch and material condition of Lithuanian Jewry, dramatize ideas, probe spiritual struggles, and explore simple acts of piety and charity among ordinary Jews. While less famous than Isaac Bashevis Singer or Sholem Aleichem, Chaim Grade is considered among the foremost stylists in Yiddish. His work is now hard to find in English.

Grade’s postwar poetry is primarily concerned with Jewish survival in the wake of the Holocaust, Grade’s most highly acclaimed novels, The Agunah (1961, tr. 1974) and The Yeshiva (2 vol., 1967–68, tr. 1976-77), deal with the philosophical and ethical dilemmas of Jewish life in prewar Lithuania, particularly dwelling on the Novardok Mussar movement. Grade’s short story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” describes the chance meeting of a Holocaust survivor with an old friend from the mussar Yeshiva. The narrator has lost his faith, while the friend has continued to lead a pious and devoted religious life. The former friends debate the place of religion in the postmodern world. The story has been made into a film,The Quarrel , and a play.

Grade took up the theme of his break with Musar twice after the war as a way to continue his exploration of the tension between religious faith and skepticism. In the philosophical essay “Mayn krig mit Hersh Raseyner” (1951; translated as “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner”), an accidental meeting between two survivors provides the setting for one of the most pitched debates about the nature of identity in all of Jewish fiction. The Holocaust has only reinforced the humanism of the secular Yiddish writer, Khayim Vilner, and the strict religious observance of his former Musar teacher, Hersh Rasseyner. Hersh contends that in light of the destruction of European Jewry the question should not be how people of faith can continue to believe in God but rather how secularists can continue to believe in human beings. His attacks are countered by Khayim’s criticism of the Musar movement’s demand that its adherents withdraw from the world. The monumental,two-volume novel Tsemakh Atlas (1967–1968; translated as The Yeshiva) is Grade’s richest work about the Musar world and its attempt to shape the ethical personality.

The monumental, two-volume novel Tsemakh Atlas (1967–1968; translated as The Yeshiva) is Grade’s richest work about the Musar world and its attempt to shape the ethical personality. Through the memorable character of Tsemakh Atlas, a tortured teacher of Musar who is trapped between its self-abnegating demands, the enticements of the secular world, and his own elemental desires, readers enter a universe of high religious ideals, intellectual and moral debate, and intense spiritual struggle.

The memoir Der mames shabosim (1955; translated as My Mother’s Sabbath Days) uses personal experience as the basis for collective history and memorialization. Its three sections include vivid details about the material and political life of Vilna Jewry in the late 1930s as filtered through the life of his mother, the story of Grade’s own experiences as a war refugee in the Soviet Union, and a haunting description of his return to a landscape of destruction after the war. Though Grade’s other prose works also explore the traditional world of Lithuanian Jewry, they are more focused on capturing the day-to-day experience of ordinary Jews.

The three novellas of Der shulhoyf (The Synagogue Courtyard; 1958) contrast the dire material condition of Vilna’s working poor against the beauty of their simple piety. Di agune (1961; translated as The Agunah) and the stories of Di kloyz un di gas (The Study House and the Street; 1974; translated as Rabbis and Wives, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and Der shtumer minyen (The Mute Prayer Quorum; 1976) explore the coexistence of the sacred and the profane in everyday prewar Jewish life. Through depictions of religious scholars caught up in their own vanities and ambitions, folk superstition, earthy, practical women, eager merchants, and fiery revolutionaries, Grade emerged as the most important prose elegist of Vilna Jewry, one who reveled in mining its social complexities. At the time of his sudden death in 1982 he was at work on an unfinished novel about his hometown on the precipice of its destruction.

His wife Inna died in New York on May 2, 2010. She had translated a number of his books into English.

Additional readings:

May 24, 2010, 12:43 New York Times, New Twists in the Tale of Chaim Grade. By Joseph Berger

 Reminiscing About Chaim Grade’s Widow, a Caustic Woman Known as the ‘Black Witch.’
By Itzik Gottesman. Published in the issue of June 11, 2010 of the Forverts in Yiddish and in English in The Forward. .

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