How a Pulpit Rabbi Became the Translator of One of the 20th Century’s Great Yiddish Writers

June 27, 2019 | Barbara Finkelstein
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Speaking on a public phone about synagogue business in 1979, Rabbi Harold Rabinowitz threw a Yiddish sentence into the conversation. As a result, he was approached by an old man who needed a speech translated from Yiddish to English in a hurry. Rabinowitz complied. The next day he received a call from the same man, who turned out to be Chaim Grade—one of the greatest Yiddish novelists of the post-World War II era. Thus began Rabinowitz’s career as Grade’s English translator. Barbara Finkelstein recounts his experiences with both the writer and his notoriously difficult wife, Inna Hecker Grade:

Rabinowitz’s most challenging interaction with the Grades came when Hecker put up a Christmas tree to honor her Christian father’s heritage. One day after the tree was up and trimmed, Hecker complimented Rabinowitz, attired in his habitual shirt, tie, and jacket, for dressing nicely on the day a reporter from the Yiddish Daily Forward was coming to interview her husband.

As if on cue, the front-door buzzer rang. Rabinowitz shot out of the Grades’ second-floor apartment and ran down the stairs. He got to street level in time to intercept the reporter. “I’m sorry,” he said he told her, “but Mr. Grade is not feeling well.” Rabinowitz maintains that Hecker intentionally scheduled the interview at Christmastime. “The wife of one of the world’s greatest Yiddish writers had an outright hostility to the Yiddish-speaking world,” he said. . . .

“Chaim Grade’s career would have been finished if the reporter wrote that Chaim, a former student of Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz—a prominent talmudic authority—had a Christmas tree in his apartment,” Rabinowitz said. “All well and good that Inna insisted on a tree, but it was career suicide for Chaim if his core readership knew about it.” Rabinowitz argues that Hecker had a perverse desire to undermine her husband’s reputation in the Yiddish-speaking world. “There’s no question about it,” he said. “She knew what she was doing.”

Yet Rabinowitz has only one word for the bond between Grade and Hecker. “Love,” he said. “It sounds crazy, but they were very loving to each other. I’ve often admired them.”

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