Grade, Chaim

views updated

GRADE, Chaim

Nationality: Russian. Born: Vilna, Lithuania, 1910 (immigrated to the United States, 1948, naturalized citizen, 1960). Family: Married (wife died in the Holocaust). Career: Writer and journalist. Member, Young Vilna writers' group, 1930s. Awards: William and Janice Epstein Fiction award, Jewish Book Council of the National Jewish Welfare Board, 1968, for The Well; Remembrance award, World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Associations, 1969, for The Seven Little Lanes; American Academy for Jewish Research award; B'nai B'rith award for excellence; Jewish Heritage award for excellence in literature, 1976; Jewish Book award for fiction, Jewish Book Council, 1978, for The Yeshiva. D.H.L.: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1961, and Union College, 1972. Died: 26 June 1982.



Ha-Anuga. 1962; as The Agunah, 1974.

The Well (translation of Der brunem ). 1967.

Tsemah Atlas (2 vols.). 1968; as The Yeshiva, 1976 (vol. 1),1977 (vol. 2).

Milhemet ha yetser [The Moralists]. 1970.

Rabbis and Wives (English translation). 1982.

The Sacred and the Profane (English translation). 1997.

Short Stories

The Seven Little Lanes (English translation). 1972.

Di kloyz un di gas [Synagogue and Street]. 1974.


Yo [Yes]. 1936.

Mussernikes. 1939.

Farwaksene vegn [Dangerous Paths]. 1947.

Oyf di khurves [On the Ruins]. 1947.

Der mamme's tsavue [The Mother's Will]. 1949.

Shain fun farlorene shtern [The Light of Extinguished Stars].1950.


Der mames shabosim. 1958; as My Mother's Sabbath Days, 1986.


Dereth [Generations]. 1945.

Peletim [The Refugees]. 1947.

Der shulhoyf [The Synagogue Courtyard]. 1958.

Der mentsh fun fayer [The Man of Fire]. 1962.

Oyf mayn veg tsu dir [On My Way to You]. 1969.

Der shtumer minzen [The Silent Minzen]. 1976.


Film Adaptation:

The Quarrel, 1991, from the short story "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner."

Critical Study:

Havayah ve-shivrah 'al-pi yetsirato ba-prozah shel Hayim Gradeh (dissertation) by Chana Stohrer, Bar-llan University, 1999.

* * *

The Holocaust looms large in the work of Yiddish writer Chaim Grade. Although only some of Grade's poetry and fiction directly address it, much of his work exists in reaction to the events of that period. His early work, particularly his poetry, mourns the loss of his family and friends to the Nazi death machine. In pieces such as The Yeshiva and Der mames shabosim (My Mother's Sabbath Days), on the other hand, Grade turns to his experiences in pre-war Lithuania. Rather than focus on the tragedy that befell Lithuanian Jewry, works such as these recall the intense intellectual and moral debates that defined that community in its prime. Although he has often been compared to the popular Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer , Grade never wrote for a mainstream audience. His work is dense and philosophical, often difficult for non-Jews to grasp. At its core Grade's work struggles with the question of what it means to be Jewish—both before and after the cataclysm of the Holocaust.

Grade was born in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1910. After his father, a Hebrew teacher, died when Grade was a young boy, his mother worked at a fruit stand to provide her son with a traditional education. Grade attended several yeshivot and studied under Rabbi Avraham-Shaye Karelitz, a proponent of the mussar movement. The mussarists, an ascetic, ethical-religious sect of Judaism, sought to breathe new life into what they viewed as stultified religious practice. They aimed to develop in their students a moral religious personality, often through close observation and ascetic self-abnegation. When he was twenty-two, however, Grade abandoned his religious studies in favor of writing poetry. He was drawn to the Young Vilna, a group of artists who strove to forge a vital and modern Yiddish literature. In 1936 Grade published Yo , his first book of poetry. Three years later he completed the long narrative poem Mussarniks , which introduced the themes to which he would return in much of his later work. Through the autobiographical protagonist, Chaim Vilner, Grade dramatized the events that had pushed him away from the yeshiva. Vilner is caught between the rigid mussar traditions and the allure of the modern world.

Grade survived the Holocaust by escaping to the Soviet Union in 1941, but his wife, mother, and most of his yeshiva and literary friends were murdered. Grade's first work published after the war, a series of poems entitled Mit Dayn Guf oyn Mayne Hent (With Your Body in My Hands ), was dedicated to his wife. In these poems Grade cast his personal love and loss in terms of a national identity, mourning those who perished and describing the survivors in an effort to confront the tragedy that had befallen the Jewish people.

For the most part Grade turned away from poetry and toward fiction after Mit Dayn Guf oyn Mayne Hent. After moving from the Soviet Union to Paris in 1946 and then to the United States in 1948, Grade published the short story "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner." The story portrays two Holocaust survivors—Chaim Vilner, the same character who appeared in Mussarniks , and another yeshiva student—who are accidentally reunited in a Paris metro station in 1948. The old acquaintances pick up an intellectual debate that the Holocaust had interrupted. Vilner is a secular Jewish writer who had lost his religious faith in God long ago; Hersh Rasseyner is a mussarist teacher who runs a yeshiva for orphans. As the men spend the day together, alternating between mourning their common losses and debating their diametrically opposed views of God and the world, it becomes clear that the Holocaust did not stifle either man's appetite for life. The experience of the Holocaust only reinforced the teacher's faith in God and the writer's faith in himself. In "My Quarrel" Grade also made it clear that, even in the wake of the mass destruction of European Jewry, the dialogue over Jewish identity—and particularly the question about what can be considered a Jewish way of life—needed to be resumed.

"My Quarrel" also indicated that Grade's feelings toward pre-war Lithuania had changed radically since the Holocaust. This shift was again on display in The Yeshiva , Grade's masterful two-volume novel set in pre-war Poland. In this work Grade again recreated the yeshivas of his youth. Rather than simply rebel against the mussars as he did in Mussarniks , though, the character Chaim Vilner (making another appearance in Grade's work) finds a path between secularism and the repressive mussarist worldview. Vilner becomes a follower of Reb Avraham-Shaye (a fictional recreation of Grade's own childhood teacher), who brings harmony to the two main characters. Similarly in Der mames shabosim , Grade recalled—and mourned—the world of his childhood. The intensity with which Grade addressed religious debates marks most of his works.

Grade's literary method and views on human existence were unique. He was one of very few novelists who chose the internal world of Jewish scholarship as their subject. But to say that Grade is an intellectual writer is not to imply that his work is not personal—or profound. The intense ethical debates that frame much of his fiction mirrored Grade's own intellectual and spiritual struggle; the pre-war eastern European milieu that leaps off the pages of his novels was also Grade's own. By focusing on Jewish scholarship Grade did not turn his back on the events of the Holocaust or seek to retire to a Lithuania of sepia-tinted memory. Instead, he emphasized that Jewish intellectual discourse could continue in the wake of the Holocaust—and, indeed, that it must.

—Rebecca Stanfel

See the essays on My Mother's Sabbath Days and "MyQuarrel with Hersh Rasseyner."