“My Dear Abe”
In the fall of 2016, I was nearing the end of translating a Yiddish novel by Chaim Grade.
Each translator has their own methodology. Many will not begin translating a work before reading it in its entirety. But I read and translate simultaneously, especially if I’m translating a longer work. My curiosity about what comes next is my incentive, driving my translation forward. The manuscript of Beys Harav was about 450 pages long. I was nearly finished and had already put in a year’s work on the translation. Yet the novel was still ambling along seven different roads, with no sign of a convergence. Was it possible I was translating the only failed novel by Chaim Grade? For the first time, I regretted my translation approach.
And then, in a twist that could have been taken from the story line of a Yiddish novel, I received an email from a stranger. Yehudah DovBer Zirkind, a graduate student of Yiddish literature at Tel Aviv University, had heard I was translating Beys Harav, and since he intended to write his thesis on Chaim Grade, he had collected lots of archival material on him. “I’m referring to stuff that might astonish you,” Zirkind wrote. “See the attached sample. I have a lot more . . . including material on Beys Harav.”
It was a handwritten letter by Chaim Grade, dated January 14, 1982. “Mayn tayere Avrohom,” it began. I had no idea who this Avrohom was, but it didn’t matter. Because somewhere in the middle of the letter, I came to a certain passage, and suddenly it was like a shade had been lifted and sunlight had entered:
After much contemplation and struggle, I decided to do what I told you by phone. I will first publish the first part of Beys Harav; then I will, with the help of God, finish writing and publish the second half of the novel.
And just like that, I understood everything. The novel I was translating was evidently only one of two volumes that made up Beys Harav. No wonder I’d been feeling I was still smack in the middle of a story. Quite literally, I was. With Zirkind’s help, I learned that this letter was one of about 330 written by Chaim Grade to his close friend and patron Abraham Bornstein. The incredible collection is housed in the National Library of Israel and spans the years between 1949 and 1982. The topics covered in these letters are diverse and, as one would imagine from a writer like Grade, fascinating, informative, and moving. A translation of this entire correspondence for an English-reading audience will, I hope, become available in the future.
The eight letters I chose to translate for Pakn Treger satisfy these two criteria: they demonstrate the uniquely close relationship between Grade and Bornstein, and they reference Grade’s wife, Inna, in some way.
One reason for the latter is admittedly voyeuristic. It’s hard to deny that eavesdropping on spouses talking (read: complaining) about each other is fun. But a more important reason was because the letters had made me see Inna in a more human light. Even before I’d started working on the Beys Harav translation, I had heard about Inna. Who in the world of Yiddish literature hasn’t? But I had seen Inna as not quite a person. She was an adjective, or rather a series of adjectives: crazy, zealous, intense, insane, hateful—a compilation of all the descriptors I’d seen assigned to her in print. Reading about her in these letters, though they don’t present her in a necessarily flattering light, brought her to life in my mind. She became a presence, a person, a fully fleshed noun, with all the complexities and frailties of any human creature.
In Marissa Brostoff’s Tablet article “Keeper of the Flame,” she writes that Inna “was apparently more afraid of poor translations and bad adaptations (which she thought had already diminished her husband’s reputation) than she was of no translations or adaptations at all.” Inna believed that to translate Chaim Grade, you had to be at his level. I hope that my translation has done justice to these wonderful letters.
I wish to express my gratitude to Yehudah DovBer Zirkind for introducing me to the Bornstein collection. His forthcoming thesis, “The Sacred, the Secular, and the Sacrilegious in the Life and Literary Works of Chaim Grade,” will provide scholarship on Chaim Grade in general and on these extraordinary letters in particular.
New York, December 20, 1961
My Dear Abe,
When I am very tired, it is easier for me to write by typewriter than by hand. I have just finished my chapter for the newspaper, and Inna took it upon herself to deliver it, because I must rest a bit. Still, I decided to write you a letter before I lie down for a bit.
It’s no good, Abraham, it’s no good. Not long ago I was exchanging passionate letters with an entirely different kind of person than you. Should you take the place of a woman for me? But of one thing I’m certain. Our friendship, which did not start with Chinese praises, with fake, dishonest, melodramatic, glorified declarations of love, will also not end in such an abrupt, prosaic, and cruel manner. This is my mistake; no one else is to blame. I have had quite a lot of success with pretty, kind-hearted, good women, loyal girlfriends who were in love with art as well as with the artist. But I didn’t seek out pretty, intelligent, or honest women, only devilish, shallow ones. Not every devil is a Mephisto. All the people I’ve portrayed in my novels, besides the Chazon Ish, all the heroes are I myself, including the women, the cats, and even the trees. But I never portrayed a deep, serious person who sets out on a life’s pursuit of a shallow, lewd woman. I did not portray such a man because I don’t know the motivation of such inexplicable feelings. . . . I don’t know myself. You are the first man I am telling this to, and to you, too, I will never talk of this again.
I only want to add that perhaps my punishment is earned, because I looked for love outside of home. My wife is childish and a bit of a stranger in my world. Also, not a very good housewife. But she loves me very much and has a religious nature, so I shouldn’t have searched where I once already got burned—
I reread your letter again about boyhood and Don Quixotism. This time, your writing has errors because you either didn’t have patience or time to rewrite the letter. But the errors in the writing don’t do any harm, since you write that even in life you like to get lost and make mistakes. You see, it’s worse for me. I am a Litvak, a misnaged; I don’t forgive myself if I make a mistake. I also don’t forgive—never ever—someone who betrays my trust. Spinoza can’t teach me to be different. But I have never yet in my life become offended if I’m told “no,” so I’m entitled to this shortcoming. I’ll tell you a fact. When my rich elder brother died, the entire family marveled that I cried over him and didn’t carry the slightest grudge. They all knew he’d left me nothing. But I had no complaints, because he told me about this in his lifetime.
I like the Jewish ethos, because it is a humane one. Fundamentally, it doesn’t prohibit egoism in one’s relationship with a friend. When you are smacked on one cheek, you don’t have to offer them your other one. When someone makes up a false accusation about you, you don’t have to forgive them; and betrayed trust is regarded as the worst sort of thievery. I know them, those people, who are fine people when it comes to other people’s issues. They themselves don’t forget a single unkind word that’s been said to them, but they instruct you to be magnanimous. Never mind the goyim who demand of us to forgive our murderers.
If you haven’t yet sent them out, I’m reminding you: the two books about the shoes and furniture, the collection of modern English poetry, and your home-book, which I’m borrowing until it will be available for me to buy, or till you’ll ask for it back.
Bareville, October 17, 1966
My Dear Abraham,
Finally, today, the 17th of October, we’re leaving. Why did we stay here so long? It’s cold here already, and that’s not good for me. The answer? My wife likes two things: when lots of leaves are falling, and when no people are around. I believe that such a disposition belongs to a certain category, but I can’t change this fact.
Nevertheless, I do have to add that this place has an advantage for me too, though objectively, it’s the biggest disadvantage: there is no telephone here. Everything you wrote about people in your last letter (and as always, it is very interesting when it’s spontaneous) is true, and they are even worse.
Each one of my friends considers himself an “only son,” and each one is sure that no one but he has the right to keep me on the phone for two hours. Therefore, I got a lot of work done here this week, so much that once, late at night, the doctor had to be called up to me . . .
The danger to my life is the tyranny of the weak, starting from how I choke myself to exhibit patience to other people, because they are the ignored ones, up to my wife who has made a grandfather of me, her husband, and she herself calls me “Bubbe, Chaim.” But if I dare to make the slightest demand of her, it’s—heavens open up! At the same time, she’s very devoted to me, but in the manner she so hates in her mother . . .
These are problems to which I will never have a solution, and you, too, have these problems. I know that you also can’t make your wife healthy. And yet, you’re stoic. But I have to tell you openly that I’m shocked by your hangup, the suffering you bring upon yourself. You yourself have told me more than once that it would be easier for you if you were to take in another person or two. So why don’t you do it? These are technical questions, not psychological ones. Heavens, what’s the matter with you?
Show me one other Yiddish writer in the world who prevailed upon himself to turn down 25,000 readers and their “demand” in the newspaper in order to produce a book of 1,000 copies. None of my friends still believes that I’m “normal.” The American life enslaves a person to such a degree that he doesn’t dare the tiniest “rebellion” to improve his own life, even in the physical respect. He struggles to make things easier for himself, but he makes them harder. Abe, throw off some of the burden!
I’m sending you my poem “To Reb Yehuda Even-Shemuel,” which was published on Khol Hamoed Pesakh in Davar for Dr. Kaufman’s eightieth birthday. Maybe I’ll publish the Yiddish original in New York. You can find the poem in the Goldene keyt. Since you probably won’t find it, I will send you a copy. Send heartfelt regards to Rikel. Now, tough days are awaiting me. For the publishing of my book, besides doing the writing, I still have to be my own manager, binder, shipper, publisher, seller . . .
Thank you for your two checks of $50.
Bareville, August 1, 1968
My Dear Abraham,
Last evening, when we were talking on the phone and I heard your voice breaking with tears, it wasn’t the first time I was left with a sad, heavy feeling. Some sort of image occurs to me, as though your voice is coming from very far, from a cellar, from a cave, where you are welded to a grindstone with a chain, practically like in the times of the Tanakh. To this grindstone you have welded yourself. But when someone tells you that you should free yourself a bit, you become offended. Maybe you’re right! In the same way, you can tell me that I should free myself from my lusts and weaknesses that disturb me from living a free life and creating.
One of the saddest, most wondrous legends in the Talmud is about a man whose wife died, and he stayed with a nursing baby on his hands. In his despair, he cried and prayed for so long until he grew two breasts, like a woman, so that he would be able to nurse the child. But—the Gemara concludes—in heaven they were very angry at him for forcing God to change the fixed order of the world.
I think about this very often in relation to the role that I took upon myself, to be for my wife not only her father but also her grandmother. Why I do it is another question. Not everything a person does can he explain. But I always think that the role I took upon myself, despite looking very humanistic, is not what God and nature demands.
You too, my dear Abraham, do a lot of things that aren’t in accordance with the role that God had determined for you, creating you with your characteristic talents. I reproach myself quite often for writing you less lately. Since my letters are appreciated by you and console you in your loneliness, I should have done it more often. But since my illness, my strengths are very limited, and I quickly become very tired. Already more than half a year since I’ve written a word to “our old one.” And from his letters I know that he’s longing, he’s waiting. Still, I’m going to try hard every so often to throw in a letter to you, and of an intimate nature, not an ordinary one, just the way you like it. When I am done with part of my poem, which I’ll send you for your opinion, I’ll write you separately.
A few days later, I’ll write you again.
New York, November 16, 1968
My dear Abraham! Day before yesterday, I was occupied the entire day with “courting” my wife. By “courting” I mean satisfying her semi-childish demands. Yesterday I did the work that in a publishing house is done by a bookkeeper, shipping clerk, errand boy . . . Today I must revise my story for next Friday. Tomorrow I must review and put together the lecture that I have to present day after tomorrow in Cleveland. Well, when should I be a poet then? But I could have done it, had I not had such a passion for collecting books and also for reading them.
As I’ve already told and written you many times, I toiled for years on the chapters about Vilna, which I published at various times in Kemfer. Now, two decades later, when I want to publish these poems in a book, I’m having doubts about whether time hasn’t surpassed them, whether I myself haven’t surpassed these narrative poems. In English, it is already an outdated form. But in Russia they’re still sticking to the longer poem, because Stalin sent to death anyone who attempted to modernize art, poetry, or the novel in any way. In Hebrew they’re still chasing the latest literary fashion from Paris. In Israel they write poems whose innovation lies in not. They are not musical, not picturesque, not rhymed, not with feeling, not with thought, only “modern.” My melodramatic admirers catch their hands at their hearts when they talk about my book The Man of Fire. That’s why they’re afraid that my book of poems will be a relapse, a level lower. True, you really liked the chapters. I have a friend who claims that these are unforgettable portraits of the ruined Vilna. But I don’t want to be a historian in verse. The President of Israel and his wife wrote me a four-sided letter about the chapter “Library” in Tsukunft. Yesterday I got a letter with praises for a chapter that will be published in the journal South Africa. You have the chapter “The Streets at Night.” You once told me that this might be my most beautiful poem. Though I consider you a great connoisseur, you can sometimes, out of emotion, be a great exaggerator. Especially because you’ve seen so many great masters, you sometimes think: “Not art determines the tragedy and greatness of a person.” Suddenly, the torn covers of Khumesh become dear to you. You also start looking at my stanzas on the Vilna synagogue’s courtyard with this sort of eye, filled with emotion. That’s no good. That is a danger. I thought of a way out, but about that, another time.
I’m sending you an article about Tzemakh atlas in Hebrew, just because. Let it sit.
New York, March 2, 1970
My Dear Abraham,
Yesterday, I finally gave my lecture on An-ski at the Tsukunft symposium, and it was unusually successful. But I’m dead tired from overexertion and am behind in all my duties, which are, after all, much more important to me than holding another lecture. The poet Mani Leib once told me: Grade, you’re lacking the “talent” to manage your talent! This is true! How am I allowed to bury a month’s time in a lecture that I will never be able to publish in written form anywhere? New York requires one thing, and the province requires another. I know the kind of failure I was in Miami with my lecture on Reb Yehudah Even-Shemuel Kaufman.
From a letter written by his friend Shragey, I know how much he and others are waiting there for me.
I have something to ask of you of an entirely different character. My wife is arriving in Boston on Wednesday for a visit to her mother. Inna will reside at a hotel on Beacon Street, not far from you and her mother. Inna wants you to go with her to her mother. As outlandish as this may seem, do it for her and for me.
When she’ll arrive, five or six in the evening (she wants to go by bus), she will call you in the store or at home, and you’ll decide when and where to meet her.
Please, give her Brandeis’s sixth volume and something else that might make me happy. From the world of books, I mean. Learn from me! I’m sending three packages of books now—from those that you sent back to me—to another Abe in Windsor. And as far as the letter I promised you goes, be assured that you’ll get it.
In order to finish with a dvar Torah, and in general with a word on the value of human promises, listen to what the Gemara says: When God informed Moshe that He would punish the Egyptians with the Death of the Firstborn plague and pull the Jews out of Egypt, he said, bakhtsos haleyle, exactly in the middle of the night. But Moshe gave the message to the Jews as kakhtsos haleyle, an approximate, approximately in the middle of the night, because a person cannot say anything with certainty.
New York, August 29, 1970
My Dear Abraham,
I already told you on the phone that both when I packed up the books and now, when unpacking them in the new apartment, I thought about you very much and very tenderly, because I remembered the books you’d wanted to give me—and you were very generous with me!—remembered those that I had tricked you out of, and the books for which you had to restrain your temper because I wrested them from you. All of this I remembered as I held your books, like a woman when she holds a bundle of letters from an old lover, and I thought as I held them, also like a woman who’s grown old and regrets her missed opportunities in life—“If only I would have squeezed more out of him!” But I, too, show more patience to you, dear friend, than to anyone else: for many years I’ve written you long letters at your request, regardless of how dead tired I was. In Jerusalem I didn’t forget your friends, no matter how busy I was; and now too I’m writing you even if I’m very tired and my nerves are strained to their bursting point. All summer, I didn’t have a single day of rest. Only on the Tuesday after Shabbos are we traveling to another cabin, when it will already be cold there. I’m reminding you, dear Abraham, that when you happen to meet my mother-in-law, you don’t have to tell her anything. Your telling her that which you told her caused her to keep kicking up a storm with my wife on the phone, and Inna racked up a bill of $165, besides nerves and heartache . . .
I will have to go back and write the last part of my novel Sons and Daughters. I must go back to an atmosphere from which I have long stepped out; I will have to write about a world that is already erased from my memory. Dov Sadan said about me in a speech that if I had lived in Israel, I would have gotten carried away by timely themes and would probably not write about my vanished world. But Vilna is worth that for its sake; a Yiddish poet like Grade should toil in the exile of America and write about Vilna, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”—is what Sadan concluded at the lunch that the Jewish Agency had organized in my honor. In the evening he again introduced me when I gave my Bialik lecture at the university, and your friends sat in the front row together with President Shazar. Well then, it is destined for me to be the gravestone carver of my vanished world, my homeland and your homeland, though I don’t know when I so longed for vacation as much as for Jerusalem. When the sun sets on the walls of the Rechavia quarter and everything becomes shabesdik, quiet, and spiritual. My God! What spirituality hovers over every brick and wall.
On Monday I will hopefully send you a package of books: five volumes by Bal-Makhshoves. Two volumes by A. Karalnik. Number 68 of Goldene Keyt! (Numbers 69 and 70 I want to look over myself first), and very important English journals, published by Columbia University, about literature and politics. Apropos: I also like essays, criticism. But literary criticism is the first to fade away. A generation later, it is no longer read. What endures is poetry and essays about life’s wisdom, in the style of Montaigne. Another time I’ll write you more about this.
We’re figuring to leave for the village on Tuesday after Shabbos. The telephone number there is 914-555-5555. I’ll write the address on the envelope. Here I’ll write our new home address again. Send heartfelt regards to your wife. Have a good vacation!
Your Devoted Chaim
555 Gale Place
Bronx, NY 10463
Miami Beach, February 4, 1972
Abraham, Abraham, my dear, my heart, and in a certain sense—my one and only!
Your letter arrived greatly delayed, as I wrote you in my telegram. I had figured that if you return on the 5th of February, as Inna had told me, you wouldn’t get my letter in Israel. That’s why I’m writing you from here, where, last evening, I had my first public stage appearance since I became sick. But this time I spoke “shorter” than usual, only an hour and ten minutes. But I still haven’t mastered the art of oration. Meaning, to speak with less heart and soul. Now the main:
I don’t know how much of an eternal legacy I’ve earned and how much I’ll be getting of the little I earned. But my small share of a legacy, I am prepared to divide with you—for perpetuity! If there will exist a little corner for me in the Jerusalem University Archives, I will point at you with my finger: “This is my life’s friend, who showed me more love and kindness than all my other best friends who helped me in the desert of America!”
The way you presented the matter of my traveling to Israel in your letter, it seems very grand. And your readiness to share that amount you mention is something that no one expected or could have expected! But you wrote very little about the foremost questions, which we will have to discuss personally. I, too, have problems of utmost significance, which can’t be written in a letter, especially from a Miami hotel, where someone rings every minute.
As you requested, I didn’t say a word to anyone about the entire matter. I hope that your show was a very successful one and that you, along with Rikel, greatly enjoyed spending time in Israel.
I’ve recently had a very tough cold and fever, and I still have the cough, even in Miami. Be well. Give Rikel heartfelt regards.
Your devoted Chaim
New York, October 31, 1972
My Dear Abraham,
I have at times seen from you such extraordinary refinement that I can in no way understand it. I have told myself more than once that the greatest bal-muser could not have shown more refinement in being careful of another’s dignity, in respecting another’s feelings. Added to that, you’re an exceptional man of your word. Finally, you’re a very, very loyal friend. About each of these abovementioned qualities, I could have still spoken at length. But it can also happen that you complain about things that make no sense and ask for things that cannot be achieved. In such cases, I think that you would not have asked for them had you taken into account how many difficulties are involved in carrying out your request.
Now I will illustrate this simply with my Sunday’s visit to Boston. You have more than 20 years of experience with me, where I always seek out your company in Boston. In New York, too, I used to ride for hours downtown and then back to the Bronx, to spend an hour with you. I also always call you by telephone, even when you don’t call back. But when you told me that I should stop in Boston on my way back from Martha’s Vineyard; my wife will spend time with her mother, and I with you, I answered you the exact same thing a few times: Sure, if it is possible!
Now, firstly, I didn’t promise you for certain, and you weren’t waiting for me on the street, or in a store; you sat in your house. Secondly, I received a message from Dr. Sachs’ secretary that on the morning of the 30th of October, I must go for a blood test to their laboratory, Montefiore Hospital, “Coronary Drug Project.”—But I could have said that I didn’t get the message.—Thirdly—and this is the most important—the weather was dreadful! Inna, and I even more, have lately begun to fear robberies. I had in the car my most important manuscripts and most important books, as well as documents. You told me that you’d already spoken to the man from your garage, so that we could park our car there. But that’s when the problems would really start. We would have had to put together two suitcases of our most essential things, like every person would. Then we’d have to go out and find a cab that would take Inna to her mother and then to the hotel. Since I would be staying with you, I would then have to undergo the same route. When I was in Boston recently for my lecture, I stood outside with you and waited for “a cab” for maybe three quarters of an hour. And that was on a dry sunny day. Well, how long would I have had to wait now in the rain and the cold with my sick heart? After all, our loaded car would have been sitting in your garage! And all of this for a conversation between us for an hour or two. Such conversations with you are very pleasant, as you know from experience, especially when you’re not daydreaming, but express your spontaneous statements about art. But under the conditions I just mentioned, any possible conversation would not have been of the sort we’d both wish for ourselves.
As far as your announcement that you don’t want my wife to disgrace you in Israel, it is too painful for me to comment on this at all. I just want to make two observations. Firstly: Tolero still said, “A silly wife cannot disgrace her smart husband.” Especially because she’s my wife, not yours. Secondly, my dear Abraham, I want to ask you: You have known my wife for more than 20 years and know so much—more than anyone does—about our relations and complications. So if you thought this could be an impediment in Israel, and that it could disgrace even you, why didn’t you think of this earlier?
Fortunately, you’re making a mistake in this regard.
I have hundreds of unanswered letters. I haven’t even replied to the President of Israel and to Rabbi Yehuda Even-Shemuel. Which is why it is, indeed, a shame that I have to spend so much time on such explanations. Give Rikel heartfelt regards.
ROSE WALDMAN holds an M.F.A. from Columbia University. Her translations have appeared as a chapbook, "Married" (an I. L. Peretz story), in Have I Got a Story for You (Norton), and in various literary journals. She was an NEA Translation Fellowship recipient in 2018, and a Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellow in 2014 and 2016. In 2017, Rose Waldman's translation of S. An-sky’s Pioneers: The First Breach was published by Syracuse University Press in collaboration with the Yiddish Book Center.