Born in Vilna in 1910, in what was then the Russian empire, Chaim Grade eventually forsook the yeshivas where he spent most of his youth to pursue a career as a secular Yiddish poet. He turned to prose after World War II with My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner, a fictionalized version of a real-life debate between the author and a devout friend over the possibility of faith after the Shoah. Reviewing Ruth R. Wisse’s new translation of the book (first published in Mosaic), David Fishman explains what motivated this work, as well as Grade’s subsequent novels:
In his major works of prose, Grade set out to reconstruct the world of prewar Jewish Vilna: street by street, one house of prayer after another, character type by character type—rabbis, businessmen and street peddlers, pious congregants and underworld criminals. His plots unfold against the backdrop of an ethnographically rich picture of prewar life, depicting the home furnishings, foods, clothing worn by men and women of different social classes, medical remedies, and local lore.
Grade attempted to perform the impossible: to undo in literature what had occurred in history. His literary mission was to revive the dead of Jewish Vilna, or, more precisely, to write as if they were still alive. The novels that effect this tekhiyas ha-meysim (revival of the dead) never refer to or hint at the subsequent destruction of Vilna’s Jews. There are no flash-forwards to the ghetto, no retrospectives by a survivor, no ominous shadows. The narrator always seems to be speaking as if it is August 1939, and he doesn’t know what will happen to his characters during the next few years. The Holocaust was the driving force behind Grade’s prose, but it was not an overt theme. Except for My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner.
But in a different sense My Quarrel was just as foundational for his later work as My Mother’s Sabbath Days. It was Grade’s first attempt to explore the inner spiritual and personal struggles of a rabbi. Rabbis had figured previously in Yiddish literature, but they were usually secondary characters who were lampooned (as in the work of Mendele Mokher Seforim), portrayed as wise father figures (Sholem Aleichem), or used to represent abstract values and ideas (I.L. Peretz, S. An-sky). Grade portrayed rabbis as human beings. He populated his works with a whole class of men with beards and caftans (and some women in wigs), each with a differing temperament, personal fate, professional career, and religious outlook. While a few of these rabbis were cynical political operatives or cowardly conformists, most were men of conviction, learning, and insight who had confronted temptation and suffering.