Commentary Magazine

In Praise of Chaim Grade

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. Grade’s literary career, begun in the early 1930’s in a painful struggle against the generation of his parents and teachers, became in the postwar years a growing monument to that generation, and even to some of the personalities that once aroused his bitter opposition. His single most ambitious work, The Yeshiva,1 the first part of which has now been published in English translation, 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. One is moved to wonder, given the literary parallels, what James Joyce might have done with the Jesuits at Clongowes had they been reduced to crematorium ash, and he left to haunt the fervent halls of his youth.

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. His mother, a widow who supported her family by peddling fruit in the marketplace, entrusted him for a time to a progressive children’s home, but 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. In the Lithuanian academies, mussar challenged what it felt to be the exclusive emphasis on erudition, striving instead for the development of a moral religious personality. To train students in right feeling as well as right practice, the schools of mussar supplemented the regular yeshiva curriculum with studies of ethical literature, group counseling and analysis, and close personal supervision. Grade was trained in mussar’s most extreme ascetic form: the years he spent trying to uproot the yetser hara, his “evil inclination,” left their mark on his personality, setting him apart from his contemporaries even in later years when he appeared to have firmly joined the secular world. “Whoever has learned mussar can have no enjoyment in life,” says more than one character in Grade’s fiction.



As a still forward-looking young man of twenty-two, Grade broke off his religious studies, started writing poetry, and soon became part of the literary coterie known as Yung Vilna, a lively, talented group of writers and painters who lived within a radius of a few city streets and shared ambitions of artistic greatness. The same cultural energy that had once made Vilna the center of rabbinic learning and won for it the title “Jerusalem of Lithuania” was manifest in the 1930’s in an extended network of Yiddish and Hebrew schools, libraries, cultural institutions, publications, and political organizations—all the more extraordinary in a Jewish population of only 65,000. A natural outgrowth of this bustling culture, Yung Vilna was determined to “march into Yiddish literature” as its newest, most promising unit, with a special blend of modernism and rich Jewish distinctiveness.

The group was fortunate in the encouragement it received from local Yiddish dailies, publishers, and audiences, to whom it offered in return a wide variety of talent. Shmerke Kaczerginski, organizer of the group’s public evenings, was a skilled reporter and publicist. Abraham Sutzkever (now living in Israel), possibly the most talented poet of the generation, invoked his Siberian childhood and the miracle of poetic creation in a lyricism of unfolding beauty and joy. The unpredictable Leyzer Wolf, alternately grotesque and tender, delighted in zany combinations of subjects and images. When he ran out of poems—he tried to break the world’s record with 1,000 in a single month—he amused his colleagues with topical aphorisms: “Should all nations unite? Naturally. But it should happen naturally.” But on the whole the group was serious about its social responsibilities, and soberly exacting in its artistic standards. Peretz Miransky experimented in poetic fables on the theme of social injustice; the poet Elkhonon Vogler wrote long pantheistic narratives; Shimshon Kahan, who was also an editor of the daily Vilner Tog, composed Yiddish versions of Gypsy songs which he studied and admired.

Small wonder that this circle, existing alongside the Vilna houses of prayer and study, should have proved fatally attractive to a young man with literary inclinations. Even the clear preference within the group for poetry over prose had its influence on the young Grade, who started out as a poet and did not turn to fiction until after the war.

Soon after his literary debut, Grade was caught up in the enthusiasms of the time. Though the Communist party was outlawed in Poland, Grade, like most of his literary colleagues, responded to what he saw as its social promise. His lyric with the rousing refrain, “Hey, Comrade Grade, Come on, enlist in the Red Brigade” (in Yiddish, grah-de and bri-gah-de are a perfect rhyme), and poems of a similar resonance were responsible for the impounding of the group’s little magazine in 1936, and for the arrest of Kaczerginski, the editor. The group’s ardor for Soviet socialism gradually cooled after the Moscow Trials of 1937. Grade, in those years of mounting unease, began to express his concern for the Jews in the face of swelling local and pan-European anti-Semitism. 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.

Reb Aba mocks, badgers, mortifies, and threatens his students to keep them away from worldliness and out of love with themselves. On the competing side are Chaim Vilner’s youthful curiosity and the cynicism of a failed mussarist, Moyshe Liber. Liber—the loving name suggests the affectionate treatment he receives in the poem—would like to expel the poisonous spear of mussar from his heart, but it is too late; he can no longer enjoy the carefree pleasures of young lovers, the social idealism of the young workers, or the proud ambition of a young writer. He is caught “in a battle on narrow bridges,” feverish in his contempt for the self-satisfied secularists who ignore the underbelly of evil, but sickened by the mussarists who have made him hate his body, his passions, any hopes he may have had for enjoyment or advancement.

Chaim Vilner argues against Liber’s bitter indictment, yet in the final, symbolic section of the poem, when the Ark of the Torah in the mussarist synagogue threatens to topple, and Vilner would like to spring with his colleagues to its rescue, he finds himself riveted to his spot at the door, “a wounded man in a trench, blinded in a nocturnal forest beside an extinguished fire.” Seven years after his departure, the mussar environment still evokes in the poet a mixture of sorrow, anger, and guilt.



Grade lived through the war in Russia, having made his escape from Vilna with the retreating Soviet forces in 1941. His mother, his wife, most of his literary and yeshiva friends were murdered; Jewish Vilna was utterly destroyed. Grade was left shouldering a mountainous guilt, as unyielding as it was irrational. A book of poems dedicated to his dead wife, With Your Body Upon My Hands, 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”2 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. In their postwar meeting there is a softening of mutual antagonism, but no yielding on the basic issues of the relation of the Jew to his Law, to Western civilization, and to God; if anything, Rasseyner’s years in the concentration camps and Vilner’s years in refugee flight have sharpened and refined their original positions. 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. Paris falls away, even the massive destruction of European Jewry is pushed into the background, as the ongoing internal argument over the Jewish way of life resumes.



It is this same argument that Grade takes up again in The Yeshiva, the grandest of several novels he wrote after settling in America. While Grade has made his home in New York since 1948, his fiction remains firmly fixed in pre-war Poland, or that part of it that Jews continue to refer to as Lithuania. The novel in the Yiddish original, reworked from installments that had been appearing in Yiddish periodicals and newspapers since 1953, was published in two parts, Tsemakh Atlas (1967) and Di Yeshiva (1968), to great acclaim. A Hebrew translation proved equally popular in Israel. Grade is probably the only secular Yiddish writer read and appreciated by the Orthodox. The internal world of Jewish scholarship has not often been the subject of fiction, and Grade’s skillful animation of certain classical arguments and issues both here and in such works as the dramatic novel, The Agunah, and in the final chapters of The Well, are appreciated even by those who do not always share his bias.

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. Observed over a long span of time and at close novelistic range, Tsemakh Atlas turns out to be an anxious brooder, oppressed by his lack of faith, the most serious affliction that can befall the traditional Jew. As long as he was risking his life under the Bolsheviks or smuggling young boys across the border to the transplanted mussar yeshivas of Poland, Tsemakh Atlas burned with active devotion. In the quieter atmosphere of daily study and worship, however, he turns restive, impatient with his own and others’ imperfections, and prey to doubt.

His life is not made easier when he goes out to find a wife. He is lured into an engagement under false pretenses, and though he feels justified at the time in abandoning his fiancee, she compels his conscience years later. Tall, robust, with a forcible virility that sets him apart from other “bench-warmers,” Tsemakh is attractive even to emancipated women. On a visit to his uncle and aunt, his closest living relatives, he captures the roving eye of Slava Stupel, a local heiress, who believes she can transfer Tsemakh’s intense emotion to herself and modernize her mussarist husband by taking him into the family business. Their marriage of course is doomed. The mussarist rebels against every sign of false piety, every familial or local injustice. He can no sooner make his peace with a shopkeeper’s fate than he can restrain his angry tongue. Tsemakh returns to mussar in penance. Leaving behind the wife who will neither join him nor accept a divorce, he sets up his own yeshiva in Valkenik, recruiting students from Vilna and the surrounding region. One new recruit is the author’s familiar projection, Chaim Vilner.

From this point, 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. There is a Vilna tobacco merchant, crazed by the memory of his second wife who has run off to Argentina; there are the warring factions of religious Zionists and religious anti-Zionists, whose politics are but a disguise for personal jealousy. Against the weakness of these, Tsemakh Atlas stands as the toughest soldier of the civilizing army—too tough, in the judgment of this book. 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.

In the figure of the kindly, clever Reb Avraham-Shaye, Grade attempts to locate a healing synthesis between mussar repressiveness and self-indulgence, the man whom wholehearted faith protects from lust and inspires to fulfill his obligations. Like Tsemakh Atlas and so many of Grade’s characters, Reb Avraham-Shaye is the fictional recreation of an actual personality, the “Khazon Ish,” Avraham-Shaye Karelitz, with whom the author studied for a number of years. Though he held no official rabbinic post, the “Khazon Ish” was widely consulted in religious, communal, and personal matters, withstanding the intense factionalism of the times by his remarkable example of meticulous scholarship in the service of ordinary men and women. In the book, Grade puts into the mouth of this saintly man an indictment of extremism that he is no longer apparently willing to entrust to Chaim Vilner, the budding artist, or to any other secular critic of tradition. If mussar is to be repudiated, only the traditional Jew is worthy of pronouncing the judgment.



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: against the reality of political events in interwar Poland; in relation to contemporary socioeconomic problems, specifically the drastic poverty that was making a special assault on the Jews; by exploration of the childhood and psychological background of some of the characters. Yet Grade undertakes none of these, instead restricting 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, now being translated for English publication, which concludes with the joint tribute of Tsemakh Atlas and Chaim Vilner to the lasting spiritual legacy of their mentor. 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 begining 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. A recently published narrative poem, “Talmidey-khakhomim in der lite” (“Jewish Scholars of Lithuania”), is well on the way to hagiography. In it, the author—as Chaim Vilner—recalls once more the summer he spent with his teacher in Valkenik, prefacing his description with lines of testimonial praise: “I am not flaunting my humility when I say . . . I was privileged to see his back.” Here piety has quite replaced artistic independence as the moving impulse of narration.

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 marketwomen when they remain triumphantly unreconciled, fixed in attitudes of animated opinion.


1 Translated by Curt Leviant, Bobbs-Merrill, 387 pp., $ 12.50.

2 Translated by Milton Himmelfarb, COMMENTARY, November 1953. The story also appears in Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories.

About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard. She is the author most recently of Jews and Power (Nextbook/Schocken).

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