Normally book reflections go on the Netivot Monday Morning Reading email. This one, however, is only on my blog. The reflection is both too long, and the book too different from what I normally write about, that keeping it here seemed the more natural place for it to reside. Onward.
Reading Chaim Grade is a bit like looking at the world through an opaque glass – familiar, and yet at some distant remove. Grade, who spent years in the famed Novardok mussar yeshiva, only to turn to the world of secular Vilna Yiddishists, survived the Holocaust by escaping to Siberia. With his wife and mother murdered, he made his way to New York after the war where he wrote novels about Jewish pre-war life, creating, in words, the resurrection of a lost world.
While I’d heard Grade’s name mentioned in the background of my life for some time, I was pulled to read him by an article in the Jewish Review of Books about a recent translation of one of his earlier works, a novella of sorts, My Quarrel with Hershel Rasseyner (henceforth, ‘My Quarrel’), recently translated by Professor Ruth Wisse (for a helpful introduction to Grade and his work, here’s an article she wrote in the New York Times shortly after his death). What I found in the book was far more than I expected, even after having read the review and Wisse’s outstanding introduction to the book.
My Quarrel is structured similarly to Plato’s dialogues, as a conversation between two sides of a philosophical debate – but with one key difference. In the dialogues it’s quite clear which ‘side’ Plato is taking, which set of ideas are ‘right’ and which play the foil. My Quarrel, by contrast, is a conversation between two equal adversaries, each of which are taken as seriously as the other. One is the secular Yiddishist narrator, who is quite transparently Grade himself. The other is an old Yeshiva-mate from Novardok, who represents the continuity of traditional religious life, and the deep honesty of Novardok mussar in particular. The story, told in six parts, takes place over many years, starting before, and ending after the war. The dialogue is sharp, the interactions sometimes brief and often painful, and the honesty between the two, as is befitting any Novaredok graduate, piercing.
All this is by way of introduction to why I found this book so powerful and worth writing, and thinking about. More than any Jewish author I’ve read, Grade, through these two characters, writes the internal dialogue and tensions familiar to any Orthodox Jew who also lives with a serious relationship to modern intellectual life and thought. I’ve intentionally not framed this in terms of ‘Modern Orthodoxy’, both because this is not about an ideology, and because what I mean is quite distant from Modern Orthodoxy’s (over-) exposure to contemporary normative (popular) culture. It’s about the vacillating stories, thoughts, and challenges that occur when someone takes Torah life and faith seriously, while also living open to the intellectual Western tradition. And only someone like Grade, who lived in both worlds and, despite leaving one and choosing the other, could not live at peace with his decision. Only such a person would be able to write such a book. And that’s why, in my opinion, it’s a book worth reading. Grade doesn’t write as a voyeur of the Orthodox world, but as someone within it, respectful of it even as he is without.
Perhaps as an indicator of where Grade positions himself, I want to share an amazing quote from him referenced in the Jewish Review of Books article. Grade considered the Chazon Ish, the great post-war leader of Haredi Jewry, as his Rebbe – even after he’d stopped being frum. When Grade was asked why he never visited Israel, where the Chazon Ish lived, here’s what he said:
I would have had to visit him (the Chazon Ish) in Bnei Brak, and I know that seeing me as a secular person would have caused him great pain. I didn’t want to do that. And if I had visited him, he would have asked me to do teshuvah. I loved him so much that perhaps I would have done teshuvah, and stayed with him in Bnei Brak. But I didn’t want to become that person.
I loved this story, but more, it helps explain why he was so good at writing the dialogue in My Quarrel.
What this deep understanding of ‘both sides’ also means is that Grade wrote for an audience that no longer exists, or at least, the audience he thought he was writing for. There are no longer Yiddishist who understand both of these worlds, who emerged from a strong yeshiva background and deeply Torah culture. Such people are exclusively amongst the Orthodox. As Wisse points out, many of Grade’s readers today are Yiddish speaking Hasidim! Hershel Rasseyner speaks as an insider to the yeshiva world, a world his counterpart knows, but is something distant and unknowable to anyone who has not spent time in its walls, or at least the broader Orthodox culture, let alone the Haredi community. This is not just about the language and cultural references, to be sure, but even ideas that arise in their conversations. Take as an example the last interaction of chapter 2, which takes place in 1939, when Vilna had just been taken into Russian communist hands.
“Well, Chaim,” Hersh said to me quietly, “are you satisfied now? Isn’t this (the communist takeover) what you wanted?”
I tried to smile and answered just as quietly. “Hersh, just because you consider me treyf doesn’t mean that they consider me kosher.”
But from the cold hard expression on his face I felt the flimsiness of my joke, so I moved a little closer to him and said, “Hersh, I bear no more responsibility for all of this than you do for me.”
He shook himself and dealt out a few sharp, cutting words, seeming to forget his fear. “You’re wrong, Chaim. I do bear responsibility for you.”
It’s these last words that ring so loudly to anyone who’s sat through a mussar shmooze in yeshiva. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, and we are responsible (arevim) for one another. Rayssener has to remind Chaim that this is the case – a fact Chaim has forgotten through his foray into secular culture.
While on its own this is obviously a powerful interaction, the background idea where this perspective comes from is not elucidated, but rather assumed. And who today on the secular side of the ledger could see this? It’s not that Rayssener’s perspective can’t be understood without this background. Rather that its depth cannot be fully appreciated. Grade, like so many secular Jewish writers of the last century, could bring a vast cultural knowledge to their writing, but at the same time there are few if any left, like Grade, who can read these words with the background they deserve, and within which he wrote.
In Wisse’s introduction I was stopped when she wrote that, “Grade’s brand of Jewishness owes everything to the centuries that went into its making, while contributing nothing sustainable to the Jewish future.” Yiddish culture and creativity was built upon centuries of engaged Jewish practice. It means writing like Grade’s is from a moment in history now passed because the people who came from that world needed the ‘centuries that went into its making’, and there are no longer such people around, either to write, or appreciate it. I found this as insightful as I did painful. Her second comment, about its lack of contribution, I’m still undecided about.
Wisse points out in her introduction that one of the changes she made in her translation was to try to be a more accurate translator of the religious/Jewish phraseology, like the kosher and treyf used above. I wish I could have read the book in its original Yiddish, since it’s quite clear that, despite whatever increase in the number of such translations she made over the previous translation, many were still absent. One can see them behind some of the English phrases used, where it’s clear the power of the language, especially religious language, is lost in direct translation. I don’t know if this is because of a shortcoming of Wisse’s Jewish knowledge or simply her discretion as a translator. Either way, I hope future translations of Grade’s work, which are planned, take this part of his writing more seriously.
My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner is a unique novella, as a reflection of a particular time, and yet timeliness in the tensions it reveals. I look forward to reading more Grade, and seeing the world he paints – a world past, and still, in some ways, very much present.