Friday, June 04, 2010

The Yeshiva

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 He is back in the news because his widow Inna died three weeks ago, and now Grade’s many followers hope the unpublished manuscripts that she fiercely guarded may yield a previously unknown masterpiece.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:

During the First World War the yeshiva [originally located in Navaredok] moved from Lithuania into the depths of Russia. Tsemakh Atlas went through the towns and villages of the Ukraine and White Russia establishing new yeshivas. Not even the post-Revolutionary persecutions by the atheists frightened him away from persuading students at secular high schools to become Torah scholars. Yet at the same time he himself was racked with doubts about the existence of God.Atlas is the central figure (and central consciousness) in The Yeshiva; indeed, the novel’s Yiddish title is Tsemakh Atlas. His first name means “growth, sprout, offshoot,” and when used figuratively, its most famous usage is Jeremiah’s phrase for Judah’s future rulers, who will be (in the words of the KJV) a “righteous Branch” of David (David tsemakh tsadeykh [23.5]), a phrase which was incorporated into the central prayer of the Jewish worship service. Grade’s hero is not a righteous Branch of David, however, but a tormented Branch of the Titan who “upholds the wide heaven with unwearying head and arms.”

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:Chaim! You will go to Vilna and become a celebrated poet, a free man; beautiful women will be falling all over you; you will be wined and dined in Europe’s finest restaurants; the world will be yours. But remember what I decree upon you: May you never be able to enjoy any of it.The Yeshiva is Grade’s answer to his teacher, whom he continued to revere even after he had become thoroughly acquainted with women and wine. In the novel, Avraham-Shaye Kosover gradually wins Tsemakh over the his side. His teaching can be neatly summarized:The proper path for perfecting one’s character isn’t to tear the innate desires out of oneself, but to make them better and more beautiful. A rational man doesn’t have to undergo torments to uproot his passion for honor; he just doesn’t seek honor from the masses. Instead of the noisy seekers of honor and dispensers of honor, he wants to be recognized by men of culture, even by those who are no longer alive. He wants them—from the other world—to approve of his thoughts and decisions here in this world.While his fiction represents Grade’s own personal effort to make the yetser of heresy “better and more beautiful,” Tsemakh Atlas’s efforts occur within the bounds of Lithuanian Judaism. Not that he abandons the flesh. He just puts it to a use that would be recognized by a man of culture. On the last pages of the novel, he decides to become a father.

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.


R/T said...

Perhaps JPS ought to include THE YESHIVA in its publications; JPS has published other classics of literature, so perhaps you ought to nudge JPS (if you have any contacts there). What do you think?

Unknown said...

Thank you for this review of The Yeshiva. I love this book. Chaim Grade is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. That his books have long been out of print and he unknown outside of a few speaks to the barren state of literature in the United States. Moral struggle isn't a popular or politically correct subject for people who believe their sexual activities should be subsidized by taxpayers. I also believe anti-Semitism is part of it. Dead white European Jewish males who write about dead European Jewish religion and culture are not only politically incorrect, they are much too challenging for people who no longer know how to think for themselves and are too lazy to care. Anyway your blog makes me think and for that I am grateful.