Jewish World

Chaim Grade’s Centenary

In his writings, Chaim Grade conveys a picture of Eastern European Jewry that he knew so well. While he was, by his own admission, far from observant, his artistic achievements are widely recognized. Many Jewish Action readers have read Grade’s works in translation, if not in the original, and will gain from learning more about his life and writings.
In 2010, Jews who love books marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chaim Grade, one of the major figures in modern Yiddish literature. He was born in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, in 1910, into a poor family whose father was a Hebrew teacher and a maskil, and his mother, after she was widowed, sold apples in the marketplace to support her son. From his childhood on, Chaim was inspired to follow the paths of Jewish and general learning. He was educated in various yeshivot, but as he himself states and describes in thinly disguised autobiographical fiction—he was not a keen Talmudic scholar.

In 1941, he fled the oncoming Germans and made his way to the Soviet Union, where he stayed until after the end of WWII. Then, after returning briefly to his destroyed Vilna, he spent two years in Paris, active in reconstituting the cultural life of the vast colony of Yiddish-speaking refugees. Grade came to the United States in 1948 and lived in the Bronx until his premature death at age seventy-two, in 1982.

Grade differed from most other Yiddish writers in that he had been a yeshiva bocher for most of his youth. There may have been others like him who wrote in Yiddish, but he was the only one who depicted rabbis and yeshivah life not as hagiography—but spoke honestly and was a faithful and objective pointillist about all its bumps and warts. It should be said that he was immediately expelled from yeshivah when a teacher caught him writing secular poetry.

His first book of poems, Yo (Yes), was published in 1932, and from that time on, the young Grade became a major voice in Yiddish belles lettres.

Although he was a private student of the revered Rabbi Avrohom Karelitz—the Chazon Ish—Grade considered himself a secular Jew, not a shomer mitzvot; yet, some tradition adhered to him, witness the Seders he organized in his home, his attendance at High Holiday services, and his warm relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

During the last decade of his life, I had the good fortune to translate three of his novels and a Holocaust memoir and, by so doing, developed a close friendship with him. I remember visiting him once before Pesach in the Bronx and he showed me a box of shemurah matzah.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent his personal shaliach [messenger] to bring me these matzos,” Grade said proudly, and added that this was an annual tradition.

Another time he told me he could study a blatt Gemara bareheaded. “But when I look into Rashi,” he said, “and I’m not wearing a yarmulke, hebyt mir on der kop tzu brenen—I feel my head burning.”

It was through one of his books that I got to know Chaim Grade.

When his novel The Well, Grade’s first book to appear in English translation, was published, the New York Times Book Review asked me to write an essay about it. A couple of weeks after it appeared, I got a letter from Grade asking me if I’d like to translate his novel The Agunah. Of course Grade realized that I knew Yiddish, for the Book Review credit line stated that I had translated two collections of Sholom Aleichem stories.

But it wasn’t only my knowledge of Yiddish that prompted Grade to contact me. He was confident I knew another language crucial for an accurate translation, especially of a Grade work. That language is Yiddish plus the suffix—keit; i.e., Yiddishkeit, a language I also call Jewish, which a translator must also be expert in, besides knowing Hebrew and Yiddish.

Alas, quite a number of Yiddish translators are missing that keit. They know the outer contours of the language, but because of their flimsy Jewish education, they’re shaky on Yiddishkeit. It is that type of translator who tells us—and I’m quoting from the glossary of a translated Yiddish novel—that an esrog is used on Shavuos and that there are several Seders on Passover. Another sage, who knows Yiddish sans keit and heads Jewish studies in a major American university, rolls Passover into Rosh Hashanah by telling us that for tashlich Jews scatter unleavened bread crumbs into a body of water.

But when Grade read my review of The Well, he saw that I quoted from the Midrash and knew Jewish folklore and Jewish symbols. He felt secure I wouldn’t stumble when I encountered the rabbinic laden, mostly Hebrew, dialogue of the rabbis in his novels.

After The Agunah—it was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Elie Wiesel, who called Grade “the greatest living Yiddish writer”—he asked me to translate his two-volume The Yeshiva, one of the crowning glories of twentieth-century Yiddish fiction.

Grade told me he loved Tolstoy, which is evident in the grand sweep of The Yeshiva. As Sholom Aleichem recreated the life of East European Jewry in all its nuances, in a broad geographic spectrum, so Grade took the entire spectrum of Jewish Vilna and preserved it for posterity. In his ten volumes of poetry and six of prose, Grade the literary archivist has brought back to life what the Germans and their enthusiastic Lithuanian helpers physically destroyed.

The Yiddish writer’s lot is rooted not in space, but in time. Not for a Yiddish writer the luxury of conjoining language, literature, and locale, like a French writer who needs no more than Paris. There is a unified culture of Yiddishkeit—especially post-Holocaust—all over the world. In addition to language, this culture possesses the same set of values, the same collective memory, the same sacred texts and literary treasures, the same aspirations. With Yiddish literature and Yiddish-speaking people active in many continents while Grade was alive, with Jewish communities yearning for a Yiddish word and for contact with Yiddish writers, Grade became the modern maggid of that culture, traveling to many continents on lecture tours.

No wonder Grade confided to me one day, “Coort, you know what? I’m a better speaker than a writer.” In his wanderings through the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Israel, Australia and South Africa, he established a reputation as a dynamic speaker, and became a one-man ambassador at large for Yiddish.

Alas, quite a number of translators from Yiddish are missing that keit. They know the outer contours of the language, but because of their flimsy Jewish education, they’re shaky on Yiddishkeit.

During his lifetime, Grade won all the awards that the Yiddish literary world had to offer, as well as honorary doctorates—which he laughingly pooh-poohed. In Israel he won the Itsik Manger Prize, and the Yiddish Department at the Hebrew University devoted a full-year course to his works.

The all-encompassing Jewishness of Grade’s writings also spills over into his use of language. Sholom Aleichem’s Yiddish covered all known levels of the Yiddish-speaking world, including various dialects and localisms. But one level he did not touch was the Yiddish of the yeshivot, because for Sholom Aleichem it was unfamiliar terrain. Grade’s Yiddish covers all levels of Vilna’s society. His rabbinic Yiddish, a fascinating linguistic medium, has a preponderance of Torah-weighted Hebrew. Quite often the Yiddish of scholars is 60 to 70 percent Hebrew, rather than the 15 to 18 percent it usually is. In Grade’s hands, the Yiddish of the street, of the working classes, is poetic in choice and precise in usage.

Grade’s Jews think spontaneously in Jewish images. In one scene a rabbi is considering whether it is better to be the only rabbi in a small town or one of two rabbis in a larger town. The rabbi says to himself, “It’s better to make a blessing over a small whole loaf than over a huge bread that has already been sliced.” Or, in another instance, a man about to rip a poster off a synagogue courtyard bulletin board looks around like “Moses did before he killed the Egyptian.” And then the man “shoves his nose into the poster as though into a High Holiday prayer book.”

In poetically conceived works of varying genres and moods, Grade has created a full gallery of human beings—young and old, rich and poor, kindly and mean, pious and freethinking. Some rabbis are humble and compassionate, like the Chazon Ish; some, like the fictitious Tsemakh Atlas, a head of a yeshivah, are tempted by married women and even doubt God’s existence. With his ability to enter the psyches of his characters, Grade joins that rare company of writers whose art is all-encompassing in that it touches every fiber—religious, national, societal, linguistic and folkloristic—of a complex civilization.

In his prose, Grade has explored the tensions of religiosity in the face of both secular seductions and personal and national adversity, displaying his concern for Jews in their individual human struggles, and also probing his own personal world as an extension of Vilna. Although steeped in the twentieth century—in both outlook and literary technique—Grade holds all of Jewish traditional values and lore in his pen.

Sometimes writers are called upon singlehandedly to counterpoint, indeed counteract, the events of history. The writer’s creative imagination has to undo, metaphorically speaking, what history has done. If history assumes the guise of a murderer, the writer must revivify the dead. Especially for the Jewish writer, it is the pen against the sword. Occasionally, a writer even begins the process in tranquility, and then is driven by thrust of history to become such a foil.

That was Chaim Grade’s mission—and his grand achievement.

Curt Leviant, a Yiddish translator, has written twenty-five books.



This article was featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Jewish Action.