Ruth R. Wisse

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1598

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.

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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 antagonist of the story's title. Utterly free of the then-prevalent tendency toward romanticization, the story takes up the old argument with surprising acerbity as the two survivors, one now a well-known Yiddish writer, the other a mussarist teacher, oppose one another in unrelenting debate.

The brilliant confrontation between Jewish believer and Jewish secularist is heightened by the play of a third participating presence: time. The Holocaust, recognizing no distinction, has with crushing irony ravaged Vilner and Rasseyner alike. They, however, resist its undiscriminating reductivism…. There is in this story a remarkable exhilaration, deriving not only from the tension of the debate—which remains a draw—but from the combined victory of the debaters over time and circumstance….

It is this same argument that Grade takes up again in The Yeshiva, the grandest of several novels he wrote after settling in America….

The Yeshiva, set in Poland in the 1920's, is a superabundant work, charged with a moral obsessiveness like Dostoevsky's and the bereaved lover's passion to record every remembered moment of the past. Grade goes straight to the heart of the matter, choosing for his protagonist the rigid mussarist headmaster, Reb Aba, here in the somewhat suppler form of Tsemakh Atlas…. (p. 72)

From [the time that the author's familiar projection, Chaim Vilner, is introduced], the book goes off into many byways, with every minor figure introducing a subplot of his own, all with a similar tension: the harsh competition between passion and continence in the forging of human identity…. Tsemakh's determination to uproot evil by force creates a web of hardship and resentment, and his attempt to will away temptation, humbling himself and others into submissiveness, ends only in misery, in ever deepening depression, Chaim Vilner turns from the punishing joylessness of mussar to a milder master, Reb Avraham-Shaye Kosover. (pp. 72-3)

One might have expected Grade, working in the greater amplitude and leisure offered by the novel as a form, to develop his old subject in any number of new ways…. Yet Grade … [restricts] his canvas once again to the internal Jewish world, and within that to the ethical and moral dimensions of its religious culture. There is greater psychological depth in this work than in any of Grade's earlier prose, but even here he stays within his single context, probing underlying motives and subconscious desires—just as mussar does—not in the interests of an integrated personality but as part of the search for true moral perfection. Despite the more ambitious genre, the concentration is as exclusive as ever, and two familiar types still occupy center stage: Tsemakh Atlas, the mussar activist, and Chaim Vilner, in many ways his younger counterpart, equally lustful and stubborn by nature, at first unable and later unwilling to subjugate his feelings to his will.

Grade's major thematic innovation in The Yeshiva is Reb Avraham-Shaye, the man of seemingly effortless goodness and wisdom, who steps into the lives of the two main characters, and into the breach between them, bringing the same harmony he has achieved in himself. Unfortunately, though the modest sage is a particularly memorable figure, in his capacity of spiritual cornerstone he blunts some of the novel's force. Where Mussarniks and "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner" bring conflict to a pitch and leave it suspended there, The Yeshiva attempts a wistful resolution that is dramatically unconvincing and historically dubious.

This becomes clearer, and correspondingly, more problematic, in Volume II…. It is as if Grade were suggesting that a truly wise man could not only resolve the perplexities of yeshiva students, but even find a way to pacify a process of personal, interpersonal, and communal upheaval that was beginning to reach, in the period the novel describes, the proportions of a cultural earthquake. The influence of Reb Avraham-Shaye over the more compelling fictional personalities of Tsemakh Atlas and Chaim Vilner is not psychologically convincing. More importantly, the quickened pulse of one of the most fractious periods in Jewish history, which Grade brilliantly evokes, is artificially slowed by the presentation of the "good Jew" as an effective principle of conciliation.

It is clear from a comparison of Grade's several treatments of his subject over the years that he has grown more protective of the past with each successive work….

Grade's greatness lies in confrontation. When the voices of husband and wife, father and son, teacher and pupil, Zionist and anti-Zionist, are raised in a flush of disputation, The Yeshiva grows charged with narrative energy that regenerates the past and brings it a rare immediacy. Grade's imagination—honed in talmudic dialectic, nurtured by the contradictions of his youthful environment and by the warring impulses within himself—finds its most satisfying expression in debate, the defiant clash of opposing convictions.

It is only when an understandable deference to the culture that produced him prompts Grade to wrap his characters in kindly resolution or proclaim their greatness as fact that his work loses its fire, becomes elegaic, and, rather than keeping the past alive, helps lay it softly to rest. At such moments Grade seems almost to have entered into a silent complicity with today's reader, for whom all of the East European experience—religious and secular, radical and Zionist, Yiddishist and Hebraist, and each of the contending factions in between—is likely to be bathed in the same historical glow, and to whom both those who accepted God and those who rejected Him now seem equally "pious." As a definitive corrective to just such leveling notions stands the work of Chaim Grade at its corrosive best. Indeed, there is probably nothing in literature that more vividly confirms the vanished culture of East European Jewry than the rhetorical splendor of Grade's intellectuals and market-women when they remain triumphantly unreconciled, fixed in attitudes of animated opinion. (p. 73)

Ruth R. Wisse, "In Praise of Chaim Grade" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1977 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, April, 1977, pp. 70-3.

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