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...
(The entire section is 1598 words.)