This morning’s featured article at Jewish Ideas Daily is on Chaim Grade, the great Yiddish novelist whose centennial is celebrated this year. He is back in the news because his widow Inna died three weeks ago, and now Grade’s many followers hope the unpublished manuscripts that she fiercely guarded may yield a previously unknown masterpiece.
Even if that hope is disapppointed, Grade’s readers will always have The Yeshiva, the unequaled eight-hundred-page saga of religious education and religious doubt in Eastern Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. The first Yiddish volume was published (in Los Angeles!) in 1967, but the second volume appeared only in Curt Leviant’s English translation of the whole novel published by Bobbs-Merrill a decade later. Apologizing for not discussing it in The Modern Jewish Canon, Ruth R. Wisse says that The Yeshiva “delivers not only the social history of a lost community but the substance and emotional force of its ethical-intellectual debates.”
Grade declares his theme on the first page:
What torments Tsemakh Atlas is the evil impulse, the yetser hara, which in his case displays itself as sexual temptation. Grade powerfully captures both sides of Tsemakh’s inner struggle, the sexual and the religious. And in fact, Tsemakh installs his own self-division at the heart of his religious instruction, teaching that a “great man can have only great flaws, not small ones, and that his greatness is apparent even in his flaws.” Like Jeroboam, who refused to repent when God told him that David and not he would lead a procession through the Garden of Eden (b. Sanhedrin 102a), Tsemakh “preferred damnation in hell to being second in the world to come. . . .”
The first volume traces Tsemakh’s progress toward this goal. Near the end of it, though, Grade introduces the character of Avraham-Shaye Kosover, who was based on the author’s own teacher Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, better known as the Hazon Ish (“vision of man”), after his first and most famous book. When Grade himself left the yeshiva and broke with Lithuanian Judaism, the Hazon Ish is said to have pronounced a curse upon him:
Joseph Epstein recently offered I. J. Singer’s Brothers Ashkenazi as the greatest Yiddish novel ever written. I think the title might go by rights to Grade’s Yeshiva. It is, at least, the greatest novel written in America that no one knows about. That it is out of print is a travesty.