A biographical note and an unpublished interview with Chaim Grade.
In 1941, he fled the oncoming Germans and made his way to the Soviet Union where he stayed until after the end of World War II. 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 death at 72, in 1982.
Grade differed from most other Yiddish writers in that he had been a yeshiva bokher 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 yeshiva 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 the yeshiva when a teacher caught him writing secular poetry.
His first book of poems, Yo! (Yes), was published in 1936, 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 Avraham Karelitz--the Chazon Ish---Grade considered himself a secular Jew, not a shomer mitzvo; (keeper of the commandments), 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 shmura mama.
"The Lubavitcher Rebbe sent his personal sh'liakh (messenger) to bring me these matzas," 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 him 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 a Grade work. That language is Yiddish plus the suffix--keyt;, i.e. Yiddishkeyt, a language I also call Jewish, which a translator must also be expert in, besides knowing Hebrew and Yiddish.
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 rabbinics-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"--Chaim asked me to translate his two-volume The Yeshiva, one of the crowning glories of twentieth-century Yiddish fiction.
Grade told me he loved the 19th century Russian novelists, which is evident in the grand sweep of The Yeshiva. As Sholom Aleichem re-created the life of East European Jewry in all its nuances, in a broad geographic spectrum, so Chaim 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.
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.
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 V'flna. 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 single-handedly 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 the thrust of history to become such a foil.
That was Chaim Grade's mission--and his grand achievement.
In looking through my Grade folder recently, I discovered the following interview which was conducted in Chaim Grade's apartment in the Bronx. I had never submitted it for publication and so this is the first time it is being published.
CURT LEVIANT: It is well known that you were a poet before you became a prose writer. Why did you turn to writing prose in 1950?
CHAIM GRADE: You know, of course, that I still write and publish poetry...
CURT LEVIANT: Yes, I do...
CHAIM GRADE: And in any case, if one is truly a poet, he can't ever stop being a poet. Just as one remains a Musarnik even after one marls to the secular way of rife---because once you've been exposed to Musar it invades the marrow of your bones and stays there forever---so one does not stop being a poet even after one ceases to write poetry, which I've never stopped doing... I'd say there are three reasons why I began writing prose in 1950. First, I was prepared psychologically and artistically, because in addition to short, lyric verse, I had written long narrative poems. My second book, in fact, was an eighty-page narrative poem entitled Musarnikes which came out in Vilna in 1938. Secondly, I felt that if the lyric was the proper form for me as an elegist of our Holocaust--and I have five volumes of poetry on that subject--then the narrative poem was too archaic and narrow a form for me to describe the downfall of the Jewish world of Eastern Europe. Thirdly, I wanted to reach a wider circle of Yiddish readers in America, and I knew that the way to do this was via fiction published in weekly episodes in a Yiddish paper. I began with the Morning Journal, then continued with the Day-Morning Journal, and since that paper ceased publication, I've been working for the Forward.
CURT LEVIANT: Did you ever write prose during your Vilna poetry period?
CHAIM GRADE: In Vilna I wrote only one piece of prose--a speech.
CURT LEVIANT: Did you write poetry or prose during your war years in Russia?
CHAIM GRADE: The war years in Russia were among the most creative in my life. I fled Vilna in June 1941 when the Germans were approaching the city. At first, I made my way on foot, and then continued with troop trains which were bombed by German planes. Overburdened with all these experiences and war scenes along the way, and missing my family who had remained behind by the Germans to the point of despair, I began writing as soon as I settled in a kolkhoz in the Saratov region, where I worked a couple of months. I continued writing during my anguished wanderings in Central Asia from 1941 to 1943, when I rived in Tashkent, Ashkhabad, and Stalinabad. These are the main cities of the three Soviet republics on the border of Iran and Mghanistan, at the feet of the Pamirs Mountains and surrounded by the Karkum desert. In rags and tatters, hungry and barefoot, but in a state of mighty spiritual tension, I wrote short lyric poems and longer narrative poems without a stop. I did the same later in Moscow where I rived in much better circumstances. I only stopped writing when I returned to the ruins of my native Vilna at the end of 1945. It was as though I had become paralyzed. But during my later peregrinations, and during my short stay in Poland, and for the nearly two years that I lived in Paris (1946-1948), I again continued writing without interruption. These collections of poetry were published in Poland, Buenos Aires, Paris, and New York. Even after coming to America in 1948, I still rived for a long time with that feverish tension of a refugee on the road.
CURT LEVIANT: Very few Yiddish writers in America, no matter how long they live here, write about their American experience. Is this true about your own writing? Why?
CHAIM GRADE: Ever since I came here I wrote poems about the magnificent American landscapes: Yellowstone Park, the Adirondacks, Colorado, and the Pacific. I wrote more about the American landscape than any other Yiddish poet who spent fifty years here. But I haven't yet written one story about life in America. In this respect, I'm not up to other Yiddish novelists who indeed have written about America, even though these works are sparse and weak in comparison to their writing about life back home.
CURT LEVIANT: For example?
CHAIM GRADE: Sholem Asch comes to mind. But there were exceptions. There were writers like Opotashu, Raboy, and others who were able to write about America. But even they couldn't penetrate a thoroughly American environment and write about younger people with a native-born American psychology.
CURT LEVIANT: But why should this be so?
CHAIM GRADE: Why? Well, first of all, because a writer can only write authentically and deeply about an atmosphere and milieu with which he was saturated during his childhood and before he even knew he would grow up to become a writer. But besides coming to America as adults, the Yiddish writers lived of their own free will in an insulated Jewish ghetto and, what's more, among a circle of Yiddish writers. Perhaps the Jewish-American world beyond their writer's circle wasn't sufficiently sophisticated from a spiritual and intellectual point of view; perhaps it wasn't interesting enough for these young, talented immigrant prose writers who had a Yiddish-European culture. The Yiddish-American poets, however, were more successful with American motifs because they spoke only about themselves in the American environment and didn't have to know America itself. There was a poet who actually got to know America: I.J. Schwartz, when he moved out to the country and wrote his famous lengthy narrative poem, "Kentucky," which was about a Jew living on a farm.
CURT LEVIANT: But what about you?
CHAIM GRADE: As far as I'm concerned, I was too old when I came to America, and I'm too saturated with Jewish life and its destruction in the old country for me to begin anew.
CURT LEVIANT: Do you think you'll ever write about life in the USA?
CHAIM GRADE: I don't know if I'll be able to tear myself away from the Vilna synagogue courtyard and write about America. And I don't know, Coort, if you'd find one of my American stories sufficiently interesting to translate.
CURT LEVIANT: Do you see your writing about Vilna and its surrounding towns and villages as a kind of memorial light to the destroyed past?
CHAIM GRADE: I don't want to appear melodramatic, but I've always had the feeling that I remained alive in order to be able to describe our destroyed Jewish world in Eastern Europe. My readers feel this. They often say that my stories and novels immortalize I wish it would be so!--our annihilated world, especially Lithuania and the Jewish town of Vilna. You use the term, yizker likht. "memorial light," which has an aura of holiness--but I wouldn't want to use it because I make an effort to describe the darker and mundane aspects, not only the radiant and holy sides of Jewish life in our towns and villages. This reminds me of a comment of Dov Sadan, professor emeritus of Yiddish at the Hebrew University. At a literary gathering in my honor in Jerusalem, he said: "Chaim Grande should really live in Israel, while according to their outlook, certain Israeli writers could very well live in America. But if Grade lived in Israel he wouldn't long so strongly for Vilna and wouldn't write about it that much. Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, deserved to have its writer. So let him be a recluse in New York and celebrate Vilna."
CURT LEVIANT: Is there subject matter about East European Jewish life that you don't wish to depict?
CHAIM GRADE: I would want to write about Jewish life in Eastern Europe in all its aspects. But I feel more capable writing about traditional Jewish life and the struggle of the younger generation to change this prevalent and traditional way of life.
CURT LEVIANT: Is there any difference between your attitudes to subject matter, the past, Vilna, etc., in your poetry and prose? Or is the distinction only linguistic and structural? To put it another way, is there more nostalgia, for instance, in your poetry?
CHAIM GRADE: This is a very complicated question. Naturally, in my writing too there is a difference between poetry and prose, especially in the music of the words, in the imagery, rhythm and rhymes, in the way one uses language. The second and more profound difference is in the approach. Whether the lyric poet says 'T' or avoids saying this, he nevertheless always talks about himself. The prose writer has to write about other people and be aware of the background of the times, and the social, political, and cultural conditions. True, the prose writer sees the world from his particular angle of vision and perhaps describes himself in some of his characters. But he has to disguise himself in other characters and force us to believe that they live their own life. This very difference between poetry and prose is applicable to me. I would just like to add one trait which is remarkable as far as I'm concerned. While in prose I am continually absorbed with describing traditional Jewish life, in my poetry there is not one universal experience I haven't treated. But I've also written about traditional Jewish life, the main theme of my prose, in shorter and longer poems.
CURT LEVIANT: For instance, your poem "Musarnikes."
CHAIM GRADE: Yes. I began that poem even before the war. Many years later, I began writing prose here with a piece that was half essay and half story, "My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner," and finally, I wrote my novel, The Yeshiva. In other words, the same theme in three different forms. My first poem in 1932 was called "My Mother." I kept describing my mother in all my books of poetry and then devoted a whole volume to her, My Mother's Will, published in New York in 1949. I also began writing stories about my mother in my first book of prose, My Mother's Sabbaths, which came out in New York in 1955.
CURT LEVIANT: Does the fact that you are a Yiddish writer, working within a Jewish tradition that has an ethical stance, put any constraints on you as an artist?
CHAIM GRADE: The sense of ethics which, along with the concept of the oneness of God, is the most important aspect of the Jewish spirit, is also the most important in my writing. On the other hand, one might think that Jewish ethics could be a hindrance to the artist. It is said that only when the Greeks stopped believing in the gods could the Greek mythology become a subject for Greek tragedy. My theory is that because the Bible has so penetrated the life and soul of the Jews and has become so sanctified for us, Hebrew literature, which was full of Biblical themes, still couldn't achieve a great dramatic work on a Biblical theme. Also, in my own little words, I was brought up to hold certain people in such awe that I don't dare to depict them as human beings in a work of art.
CURT LEVIANT: For instance?
CHAIM GRADE: The Vilna Gaon. I would have wanted to write about his battle with Hasidism, but I can't see him as a human being devoid of his halo.
CURT LEVIANT: Whom do you like to read, and whom in Yiddish prose do you consider to have had the greatest influence upon your novels and stories? Who is your master in poetry? CHAIM GRADE: You know what sort of library I have...
CURT LEVIANT: Yes, I see. It's overflowing. There must be thousands and thousands of books here...
CHAIM GRADE: If I could have my way, I would read day and night and write only very rarely. Nevertheless, I'm not too original in my choice of favorite writers. I consider the greatest master of Yiddish prose to be David Bergelson. In my eyes, he is as great an artist in prose as was Cezanne in painting. You know, of course, that he was among that group of Soviet Yiddish writers whom Stalin murdered. Bergelson was also a prose master during the Soviet period of his creativity, but his novels lacked the human and artistic sincerity of his pre-revolutionary works.
CURT LEVIANT: And what about European writers?
CHAIM GRADE: From my youth I've always considered Dostoevsky the nineteenth century reincarnation of Shakespeare. For me, Dostoevsky has never become out of date. And as far as poetry is concerned, the one who had the greatest influence on me was the Hebrew-Yiddish poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik. Even during my first years as a poet, when I became a member of the group of writers called "Young Vilna," people used to call me in jest "Chaim Nachman... Grade." When my first book of poetry, Yo (Yes) appeared in Vilna in 1936, the Tel Aviv newspaper Davar had an article entitled "Chaim Nachman Bialik and Chaim Grade."
CURT LEVIANT: I heard it said that you even resembled him.
CHAIM GRADE: Yes, that's right, and besides having a similar temperament, we share the same major themes: mother, the yeshiva, Jewish martyrdom, and nature poetry.
CURT LEVIANT: Let's turn now to your novel, The Yeshiva, in which the Musar movement plays an important role. Would you give us your view of Musar? How did it shape your life?
CHAIM GRADE: I've expressed my view of Musar in the books I've written, but to put it briefly, simply, and concretely, I would say: The students of Musar believe that man is born evil but that lifelong self-education can make him good. But I've maintained ever since I've been a young man that whether a person is born bad or good, he cannot change himself. This attitude not only didn't permit me to remain in a Musarnik, but it also estranged me completely from the religious outlook that man possesses free will in the choice between good and evil. However, on the other hand, the ethical impulse in me was always as strong as my erotic impulse, and as was my life instinct in general. I was imbued with this ethical consciousness in a three-pronged fashion: I studied for years with the Musarniks; I inherited it from my mother; and it is the foundation of Yiddishkeit. But this ethical consciousness, with its guilt complex on the one hand, and my lack of belief that man can change himself on the other, split my life in half from head to toe.
CURT LEVIANT: A branch of Musar is the Navaredok school. This branch seems to me to be a particularly harsh one on a man's psyche. It is possible for a movement to teach someone to be so good as to cripple him psychologically?
CHAIM GRADE: The Navardekers, as they were called, were indeed the most extreme of the Musarniks. Their ascetic self-denials of all the pleasures of this world, their sloppy way of dressing, and their wild behavior in order to cause astonishment and bring down scorn upon themselves from the non-religious community and from beautiful women in order that secular Jews should not want to be in the company of Musarniks, their running away from every temptation, their studying Musar books all night long, and their continual probing of their psyches--as if to say: "When I study Torah, isn't there some self-interest in it? To marry well and then get a rabbinic position? Don't I help a friend only to be considered good and have people honor me?"; their searching for the bad intention, both in one's own good deeds and in others, in contrast to Hasidism, which looks for the holy sparks even in the low, earthy, and sinful man; their monotonous, gloomy Musar melodies during periods of self-scrutiny; their midnight Musar melody which rent one's heart into little pieces, and their manner of going about always gloomy; their strenuous efforts to drive themselves into a pious sadness in contradistinction to Hasidism, one of those whose principal points was to serve God with joy; their perpetual sharpening and polishing of one's own character traits; their constant self-criticism and sensitivity to the criticism of other Musarniks--all of this was bound to cripple, and quite often psychologically crippled, many Navardeker students.
CURT LEVIANT: In a Yiddish essay on The Yeshiva, I noticed a phrase which struck me as particularly apt: musar vunden. (Musar wounds) The writer said that writing about your experiences was for you a healing after your musar vunden. Would you comment on these "Musar wounds"?
CHAIM GRADE: The man who wrote about these "Musar wounds" was the last Yiddish philologist and editor of the Great Yiddish Dictionary, Yudel Mark. He knew the Musarniks not only from my novel The Yeshiva but also from his native Lithuania. But his statement that my writing about these "Musar wounds" was a healing for me is more metaphoric than true. Writing about a certain complex doesn't free one from it.
CURT LEVIANT: Since The Yeshiva describes a world that most English readers are unfamifiar with, it might be worthwhile to tell something about the novel's leading characters.
CHAIM GRADE: Tsemakh Atlas, the protagonist of the novel, is a man of deeply in-rooted moral principles and is absolutely certain that man has free will in choosing between good and bad. But, although he believes in the Torah, he is not certain that there is a God who gave the Torah. His doubting in God causes him much anguish. Moreover, he is a passionate man with a domineering character. His fiery Musarnik impulse to always tell himself and others the entire truth constantly stirs up conflicts with himself and others, including his wife and her family. Naturally, in such a novel there had to be a person with a character diametrically opposite to Tsemakh Atlas. If not, this would have been a false picture of Jewish life and also incorrect artistically. Nevertheless, I wasn't drawn to do this because of the tendency in modern literature to focus especially on the impure, the demonic, the negative. Nowadays, the sort of writer who shocks is very popular. And I didn't want people to tell me that I was idealizing. But here my wife, Inna Hecker-Grade, came to my aid. Although she comes from a Russian milieu entirely estranged from the Jewish environment, she argued: 'Tou're always telling me about your great teacher, Reb Avraham-Shaye Karelitz. You said you studied seven years with him and that he was the greatest person you ever met. Introduce him into your novel. Don't be afraid to portray a saint." And so I brought him into the novel with a slight change of name, calling him Reb Avraham-Shaye Kosover. He is a man of stature, a great believer in God, a man full of inner enthusiasm for the Creator, for his Torah and his Jews. Although he lived a life of poverty and had a weak heart since his youth, Reb Avraham-Shaye is full of the joy of life. The rabbi creates an air of tranquility around him; the sanctity of Sabbath during weekdays. Although he is a world-famous rabbinic authority, he has an almost physical fear of people. During the winter, he lives in a Vilna suburb, and summertime, he hides in the woods not far from town. But when he has to battle for the principles of Yiddishkeit, the perpetual smile on his face vanishes, and he displays courage, strength of character, strategic cleverness, and firmness. His feeling of compassion is stronger than all the laws of the Torah, but he has no compassion when the matter concerns public desecration of God's name. And Reb Avraham-Shaye Kosover maintains that Tsemakh Atlas, the Navardeker Musarnik, who is the principal of the local yeshiva, is causing a desecration of God's name with his unrestrained, overzealous ways.
CURT LEVIANT: Perhaps the women in Tsemakh's life and the youngsters in the novel should be mentioned, too.
CHAIM GRADE:: Yes, they should. In fact, among the many women depicted in The Yeshiva, three share the spotlight with the hero, Tsemakh Atlas. His encounters with them further confounds his passionate and complex character. One is his first fiance, a modest, honest, and sincere girl, but who owing to the circumstances of her life, is too quiet, a crestfallen and gray little dove. For a variety of reasons, Tsemakh marries another woman--a beautiful blonde who comes from a wealthy family. She is clever, independent, experienced in love, and not religious. Nevertheless, she is attracted to Tsemakh's strong personality. But because she and Tsemakh come from two alien and irreconcilable worlds, it turns out that Tsemakh is eventually tempted by a third woman. She is a mother of two children, married to a man who travels about constantly and who humiliates her with his neglect_ She is tender, feminine, and hungry for love, but she has a weak character and a tendency to melancholia. These, then, are the three women in Tsemakh's life. And as for the youngsters, besides a group of older yeshiva students who range in age from twenty to thirty, the book also focuses on a few adolescent students, and one eleven-year-old lad who is a leading character in one section of the novel. There are also dozens of other characters in The Yeshiva, and the reader will have to take the trouble to read the novel and get to know them. I hope The Yeshiva will bring readers closer to the world from which I come and which I portray in my books.
CURT LEVIANT Among the Chaim Grade works that Curt Leviant has translated is his two-volume The Yeshiva, which won a National Jewish Book Award. Leviant's most recent fiction is A Novel of Klass, about a Yiddish painter from Vilna, an ex- yeshiva student who flees to Russian during WW2 and later tries to make it in the New York art world.