Chaim Grade Essay - Critical Essays

Grade, Chaim


Grade, Chaim 1910–

Grade, a Lithuanian novelist, poet, short story writer, and essayist now living in the United States, is considered one of the greatest contemporary Yiddish writers. The setting for his work is the Eastern European Jewish ghetto prior to the ravages of the Second World War.

Elie Wiesel

[The] work of Chaim Grade, by its vision and scope, establishes him … as one of the great—if not the greatest—of living Yiddish novelists. Surely he is the most authentic.

If we take as premise that for the contemporary Jewish writer to write means to testify, then we may affirm that Chaim Grade fulfills his mission with much talent and devotion. His … poetry and prose depict a world that is no more. (p. 5)

Every literary creation aims to correct injustice. In this case to remind the killer of his crimes, to affect the memory of the onlooker, to rebuild communities murdered and burned to ashes. What other writers have done for Warsaw or Sighet, Grade does for the town of his childhood: Vilna. His tales, his obsessions, his experiences always lead back to it—for that is where his roots are. Vilna, this fabulous and dazzling city that was so Jewish that it was given the surname of Jerusalem of Lithuania. And that is where the action of "The Agunah" unfolds. The time: some 15 or 16 years after World War I, when, far away, the reign of the executioner is about the begin. (pp. 5-6)

Will the uninitiated non-Jewish reader understand this so profoundly Jewish novel? I hope so.

True, Grade's universe seems closed to external events; it offers no opening to the outside world. All his characters, even the least important, are Jewish: the house-painters, the grave-diggers, the beggars, the revellers, the ladies' men, Grade's gaze never leaves them. I hope the reader will follow him; Vilna transcends Vilna. As is the case for many artistic endeavors, this singularly Jewish novel becomes universal because of its very singularity.

Furthermore I believe that in this particular work the absence of external history is deliberate. One can almost feel the killers' ominous shadow loom on the horizon. As though the author wished to tell us that while Jewish scholars engaged in passionate discussions over the faithful interpretation of a divine law, 3,000 years old, on the other side of borders, entire peoples readied themselves to solve the question of Jewish solitude and waiting—and all other questions—in their own way: by erecting an altar of flames, the darkest in history. (p. 6)

Elie Wiesel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1974.

Ruth R. Wisse

Yiddish literature, which flowered a century ago in Eastern Europe as an impulse of modernization, has now become largely commemorative, bearing favorable testimony to the world of traditional feeling and practice which Yiddish writers once rejected and sought to reform. This change is not simply a matter of nostalgia for the irretrievable past, but the result of a distinct inversion of values. Western modernity once held out to the Yiddish writer perspectives of individual freedom and a richness of spirit not to be found within the constraints of the Pale of Settlement or the code of Jewish law; yet that same constrained past, seen from this side of the Holocaust, now appears to offer a compelling image of a relatively hopeful, morally robust, and genuinely better world. To write of East European Jewry is thus today a means not of expressing but of repudiating a tragic vision of mankind.

The work of Chaim Grade, one of the finest contemporary Yiddish writers, is a powerful instance of this altered view…. His single most ambitious work, The Yeshiva,… returns to the obsessive subject of Grade's best poetry and prose—his years in the yeshivas of Vilna, Valkenik, Bielsk, and Bialystok. But the atmosphere that was once represented in Grade's work as harshly oppressive now appears almost luminous and bracingly fresh….

Among the many outstanding Yiddish writers who came to adolescence in Vilna before World War II, Grade was the only one thoroughly trained in talmudic and rabbinic sources…. [In] his teens Grade attended one yeshiva after another, where he came under the decisive influence of the mussarists, followers of Rabbi Israel Salanter.

The mussar movement developed in response to two perceived dangers: on the one hand, the threat of the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, that was weaning Jews from religious observance; on the other hand, the stultification of Jewish religious experience, which was hardening into ritualism. (p. 70)

The title of his first book of poems, Yo ("Yes"), confirmed the affirmative dedication of his verse, which was now channelled to national themes. The poet, said Grade, "must learn from the prophets who in times of brazen impudence warned of impending danger, and in time of ruin, when all lay waste, foretold the resurrection of the dead."

Nevertheless, Grade's single most powerful work of the 1930's was neither prophetic nor an affirmation. Mussarniks, a long narrative poem of thinly-disguised autobiography, was Grade's first attempt to dramatize the conflicts that drove him from mussar but continued to claim the deepest regions of his mind and soul. In the poem Chaim Vilner, the author's fictional self, looks back from a distance of seven years to the autumn of 1930 when he felt himself torn between the punishing moral rectitude of Reb Aba, his fiery headmaster, and the attractions of secular books and ideas. (p. 71)

A book of poems dedicated to his dead wife, With Your Body Upon My Hands, [written after the destruction of Grade's family, friends, and neighborhood] inflicts as cruel a self-punishment on its author as one would wish the murderers to have suffered. Memories of his mother and of their teeming Vilna neighborhood stirred up yet wilder despair. Perhaps in the hope of finding a new artistic equilibrium, Grade turned to prose, for him an untried medium and one that appeared to offer both a lower level of intensity and a more relaxed pace.

From the perspective of Paris, where he began to reconstruct his postwar life, Grade returned to his struggle with mussar. "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner" is a singular story, the first to make Grade's reputation in English; it dramatizes the fortuitous reunion in the Paris metro of Chaim Vilner and his fellow mussarist, the...

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Moshe Moskowitz

From its inception, the theology of Rabbinic Judaism has been that of a beleaguered community whose classic institutions were under constant attack. In reshaping and restating the principles of a normative Judaism at the critical moment when the political and judicial responsibility for the community first passed into their hands, the Rabbis' main effort was directed at keeping the Torah supreme. They reasoned that adherence to the highest discernible meaning of the Torah would keep the community together and, at the same time, promote the higher life of the Jewish people. Nevertheless, the early teachers of the Torah were superlatively practical and what they enjoined was not blind and automatic obedience, but, rather, a reasonable adherence to the Law in keeping with Hillel's principle of "practical benevolence."

It is this traditional principle, in conflict with the self-damning dogma of ascetic Musarism, which forms the background of Chaim Grade's sweeping and masterful Yiddish novel, Tsemakh Atlas, the first volume of which is [an English translation entitled] The Yeshiva.

Grade's novel begins at that point in Jewish history when the Musar movement had begun to fail as a constructive religious reaction to the Haskalah. Founded by Rabbi Israel Salanter in 1840, it sought to counter the centrifugal effects of the Haskalah by stressing Torah study, good deeds, compassion, and critical self-examination, all within the fraternal bounds of a cohesive Jewish community. Some of Salanter's later disciples, however, contributed to the eventual inefficacy of the movement by accenting a harsh and masochistic asceticism, thus forgetting the practical view of the founders of normative Rabbinic Judaism who, many centuries earlier, had recognized both human weakness and potentiality and had decreed that "no ordinance is to be laid on the people unless the majority of the people are able to bear it."

Placing the action of his novel in the environs of Vilna, Poland, after the first World War, Grade spins an alternately moody and volcanic tale which is not only breathtaking in its polychromatic effect, but which also gives visible evidence of the profound and compassionate understanding of man's vulnerability to his own instincts.

It is the milieu of the Musarist yeshiva—its students, supporters, enemies, and its particular flavor—which is the focal point of the novel. For those to whom the word yeshiva conjures up arcadian visions of pale and sensitive young Jews forever preoccupied with matters of Torah and other heavenly thoughts, Grade's portrayal comes as a rude shock. The paleness is there, but the sensitivity is frequently replaced by lust, greed, and a vicious concern for self-glorification. These yeshiva students often evince a pettiness which is at the furthest remove from the intent and spirit of the Torah. (pp. 115-16)

The novel bristles with characterizations, and there are fascinating portraits of some of the parents of the yeshiva students as well. These portraits and vignettes are never flat, or black and white. Each of the characters, negative though he may be, seems caught up in the turmoil of his feelings, and in the feelings of those about him. The ultimate effect is that of an East European Jewry rocking on its emotional heels, clawing its way to some inscrutable goal….

In addition, Grade's profiles of pious and love-hungry Jewish women, as well as of scheming adolescent girls bent on snaring a husband, are drawn with skill and sympathy. The most memorable feminine portrait is that of Slava, the protagonist's wife....

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Morton A. Reichek

Chaim Grade is a major author in what has tragically become a minor language, Yiddish….

"Masters and Disciples" is the second part of Grade's two-volume epic novel, "The Yeshiva."…

"The Yeshiva" is a saga about Talmudic students and their teachers, and is laced with plots and subplots involving brooding moralists consumed by guilt and doubts and religious scholars grappling with secular temptations. It presents a panorama of life in Eastern Europe's yeshivas, or Talmudic academies, that has never been depicted before in fiction.

Like all of Grade's novels, "The Yeshiva" eulogizes the pre-Nazi world of Jewish religious scholars and functionaries in the ghetto...

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