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

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

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict