Both the Yiddish poet and novelist Chaim Grade and the Jewish Theological Seminary’s leading talmudist, Saul Lieberman, were products of the great yeshivas of pre-World War II Lithuania. The former depicted this milieu in his literary works, the latter sought to marry its intellectual activities to modern critical scholarship. In 1967, Lieberman wrote an encomium to Grade in Yiddish, translated into English for the first time here:
[Grade’s fiction is] filled with all kinds of personalities and characters, with never a single one even remotely resembling any of the others! Such weird types, such as Vova Barbitoler in Tsemakh Atlas [translated into English as The Yeshiva], or the blind beggar Muraviev in Der Shulhoyf [The Synagogue Courtyard, untranslated]: original characters that never once, even by coincidence, are reproduced. . . . So too, the depictions of women. . . .
By the time I got around to reading Tsemakh Atlas, I had already been stunned by the accuracy of Grade’s depictions. But in this work—aside from the central figure of the title, who is a literary creation forged by melding a variety of personalities, each consisting of numerous dispositions—I personally felt as if I knew almost every one of the major “participants” in Grade’s novel, [including] Khaykl Vilner [a stand-in for the author] and his rebbe, the Makhze-Avrohom, [who is transparently modeled on Lieberman’s cousin Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz]. The same is equally true of each and every one of the rabbis in The Agunah, who were all just like cousins of mine.
Many volumes have already appeared about the musar movement [a 19th-century movement focused on the cultivation of individual piety and ethics] and its proponents. You can choose to believe, or not accept, these works. But once having reads Grade’s depictions of yeshivas [that adopted musar teachings], you will know everything as if you had been there.
Read more at Jewish Review of Books
More about: Arts & Culture, Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, Chaim Weizmann, Musar, Saul Lieberman, Yeshiva, Yiddish literature