Morton A. Reichek

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

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

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"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 towns of Poland and Lithuania, and resurrects in literature a society that was destroyed in World War II. Written in a quaintly old-fashioned style and brimming with an extraordinary gallery of shtetl personalities, it is concerned with the ethical considerations of Judaism and the confrontation between religious faith and secular values….

"The Yeshiva" is a powerful and complex novel that demonstrates why Grade ranks as a literary heavyweight among Yiddishists, and it helps explain why the translation of his writing has been so long delayed.

Comparison of his work with Singer's is inevitable. Singer is a highly gifted storyteller who disclaims any concern with social or philosophical messages. His mystical and often erotic tales appeal to modern tastes and his exotic color is relatively easy for an outsider to absorb. Grade's work is markedly different. The Jewish particularism is much stronger in his writing. In focusing so clinically on Jewish ethics, Grade is immersed in more formidable themes and makes considerably greater demands on the reader. He is less immediately accessible to the non-Jew, and to Jews who are unfamiliar with Orthodox religious ritual and Talmudic dialectic….

Though Volume II is self-contained, familiarity with Volume I enriches it. It continues the story of Tsemakh Atlas, a man of fierce piety and terrible secret doubts….

A supreme moralist, Atlas is tormented because neither he nor the people around him can live up to his own extremist code of behavior…. His is the tragedy of a man who cannot do the good he wants to do and who performs the evil that violates his own conscience….

This remarkable book will make rewarding reading for anyone willing to cope with an unfamiliar cultural and religious terrain, for he will encounter an exceptional literary talent and a provocative treatment of the universal theme of man in conflict with his own religious beliefs.

Morton A. Reichek, "Talmudic Temptations," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 8, 1978, p. 10.

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