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.