Rabbis and Wives
Like the phoenix rising from its ashes, the world of Eastern European Jewry between the wars rises from the ashes of the Holocaust in the writings of the Lithuanian-born Yiddish novelist Chaim Grade. This rebirth has been given greater vitality and a wider audience by the sensitive, resonant translation of Di Kloyz un di Gas: Dertseylungn (1974; Rabbis and Wives, 1982) by Harold Rabinowitz and Inna Hecker Grade, the author’s widow, a translation which reminds the reader that Grade was a well-known Yiddish poet before he turned his talents to fiction.
In his youth in Vilna, Lithuania, Grade was an avid Talmudic scholar and a member of the Mussar movement, an ascetic sect of Judaism which stressed ethical concerns. At the age of twenty-two, abandoning his religious studies, Grade began to write poetry. In his long narrative poem Mussarniks, written in the 1930’s, Grade describes his flight from the punitive zealousness of his religious teacher, Reb Aba, but Grade reveals his continued involvement in the moral and religious concerns which were central to the Mussar movement.
Although Grade managed to escape from Vilna in 1941, his first wife, his mother, and many of his friends perished in the Holocaust. Haunted by their memories, his despair unallayed by the poetry he continued to write, Grade turned to prose in the hope that a new artistic medium would help him to rebuild his life. After settling in America in 1948, Grade published the novels Der Brunem (1958; The Well, 1967), Di Agune (1962; The Agunah, 1974) Tsemakh Atlas (1967-1968; The Yeshivah, 1976-1977), and a memoir of the Holocaust, Di mames tsuve (1949; The Seven Little Lanes, 1972). Rabbis and Wives, a collection of three novellas, was published after his death in 1982.
Like Grade’s earlier fiction, Rabbis and Wives focuses on the everyday concerns, the moral conflicts, and the religious yearnings of Jews in Lithuania between the two world wars. As the title suggests, these stories center on the conflicts between the secular life of practical concerns—money, marriage, neighborhood disputes—presided over by wives, and the spiritual life of Talmudic study—prayer, moral questioning, and the search for God—pursued by the men of the community, especially by the rabbis, who were its religious leaders. These separate domains of men and women fostered a harmonious, secure life in which, despite poverty and threats from the outside world, family life was nurturing; the relationships between husbands and wives, tender and respectful; the traditions of the past maintained; the concern for Jewish law and learning preeminent. Predictably, however, looking at the world from different perspectives, husbands and wives disagreed. In these stories, the men leave their shops to study at the beth midrash (synagogue) while the wives complain that the men cannot make a living that way; the husbands seek to retreat from the world while their wives urge them to advance. At the same time, their sons and daughters chafe under religious and family restraints, seeking to choose their own mates and pursue ambitious careers, yearning for the larger world and a life less secure and less confining.
The first story, “The Rebbetzin,” recounts the machinations of Perele, a rabbi’s ambitious wife, who urges her easygoing husband, who is content with his position as the spiritual leader of a small-town congregation, to seek a post in a larger city. Secretly, throughout the many years of her marriage, the rebbetzin has made invidious comparisons between her husband and another more brilliant rabbi, her first betrothed, who broke his engagement to her because he feared her shrewish disposition. She has continued to nurture her rancor at him for jilting her, and she seeks revenge.
First, she convinces her husband to move to the town where Rabbi Eisenstadt, her former fiancé, is the spiritual leader and an acclaimed scholar. Then she nags him into becoming the Maggid (preacher) of a rival congregation and also leader of the Mizrahi (the orthodox religious branch of the Zionist movement) in opposition to the Agudah (the orthodox Jews opposed to Zionism) headed by Eisenstadt. Overwhelmed by the intense disputes and divisions that follow, Eisenstadt, whose strength has already been undermined by the recent death of his only child, suffers two heart attacks in quick succession. After the second, Perele, in the guise of a ministering angel, takes over Eisenstadt’s household, displaces his own wife, and finally, after Eisenstadt’s death, establishes her own husband as Eisenstadt’s successor.
In the course of this story, Perele destroys the happiness of all around her—her husband, who prefers a quiet life; her former betrothed, whom she...
(The entire section is 1999 words.)