Chaim Grade’s Tale of a Chained Woman Illuminates Pious Jews as Real People

Sept. 30 2021

In Jewish law, an agunah—literally, a chained woman—is one whose husband has disappeared or deserted her, or simply refuses to make a de-facto divorce official, leaving her unable to remarry. Such a woman, named Merl, is the subject of the great Yiddish novelist Chaim Grade’s The Agunah. Like many Jewish women after World War I, Merl’s husband was conscripted into the army and never returned; the plot revolves around her quest to find a rabbi who will declare him dead so she can begin a new life with the man she loves—and the impact the case has on the Jews of Vilna. Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt writes:

Grade’s story takes place in synagogues and homes but also beer taverns and marketplaces, the whole map of Jewish Vilna, a network of dining tables and scholars’ desks, a landscape dotted with kerchiefs and teakettles and Torah arks. . . . And contrary to expectations, Reb David Zelver, [who wants to break with his colleagues and free Merl], is not the only sympathetic rabbinic character. Grade offers deft, fully human portraits of all of the rabbis, each privately dealing with the mess of his own life, his own human ambitions and sorrows.

In Grade, I recognize this world, my world; it is one brimming with the stories of my daily life as an Orthodox writer but also as a rabbi’s wife. The dramas of Polotsk Street in the 1920s are not so far removed from the dramas of Lexington Avenue I see playing out in the 2020s. It is a thoroughly human story—one of power struggles, comedies, tragedies, ulterior motives, and ambitions. The housewives of Grade’s marketplace and the drunkards in his inns could be transplanted into the aisles of our gourmet supermarkets and onto the barstools of our glatt kosher restaurants.

Reading Grade, I find the literature I yearn for, for it is in many ways the closest rendering of traditional life as I know it. In modern American Jewish literature, stories of [Orthodox Jewish] life emerge either in the defensive and sanitized literature of internal pious publications or in the prosecutorial literature of those who “go off the derekh,” telling now-familiar exodus stories in which secularism alone offers redemption.

In contrast, Grade offers us a rich portrayal of religious life, a life governed by halakhah and strict social mores but also riddled by the challenges of balancing rabbinic interpretations of divine law and messy real life in the Diaspora. Jewish religious life like this exists here in America, but one wouldn’t know it from contemporary American Jewish literature.

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Agunot, Chaim Grade, Orthodoxy, Vilna, Yiddish literature


Israel’s Covert War on Iran’s Nuclear Program Is Impressive. But Is It Successful?

Sept. 26 2023

The Mossad’s heist of a vast Iranian nuclear archive in 2018 provided abundant evidence that Tehran was not adhering to its commitments; it also provided an enormous amount of actionable intelligence. Two years later, Israel responded to international inspectors’ condemnation of the Islamic Republic’s violations by using this intelligence to launch a spectacular campaign of sabotage—a campaign that is the subject of Target Tehran, by Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar. David Adesnik writes:

The question that remains open at the conclusion of Target Tehran is whether the Mossad’s tactical wizardry adds up to strategic success in the shadow war with Iran. The authors give a very respectful hearing to skeptics—such as the former Mossad director Tamir Pardo—who believe the country should have embraced the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Bob and Evyatar reject that position, arguing that covert action has proven itself the best way to slow down the nuclear program. They acknowledge, however, that the clerical regime remains fully determined to reach the nuclear threshold. “The Mossad’s secret war, in other words, is not over. Indeed, it may never end,” they write.

Which brings us back to Joe Biden. The clerical regime was headed over a financial cliff when Biden took office, thanks to the reimposition of sanctions after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal. The billions flowing into Iran on Biden’s watch have made it that much easier for the regime to rebuild whatever Mossad destroys in addition to weathering nationwide protests on behalf of women, life, and freedom. Until Washington and Jerusalem get on the same page—and stay there—Tehran’s nuclear ambitions will remain an affordable luxury for a dictatorship at war with its citizens.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, Mossad, U.S. Foreign policy