Focus on Chaim Grade

An Introductory Essay by Ezra Glinter, Newly Digitized Yiddish Books, and a Guide to Works in Our Collections

Chaim Grade’s life and work spanned poetry and prose, Europe and America, pre- and post-Holocaust life, both the religious and secular worlds. As the product of intense Talmudic training who eventually turned to secular life and literature, Grade frequently turned his view to the rabbinical culture of his native Lithuania, while paying close attention to the lives of the ordinary men and women who populated pre-war Europe.

Born in 1910 in Vilna—sometimes called the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”—Grade was orphaned at a young age and was raised in poverty by his mother, an apple seller who made their home in a blacksmith’s cellar. At age 13, after becoming bar mitzvah, Grade was sent to study at the Novaredok yeshiva, a rabbinical training institution that specialized in musar, or ethical instruction, and maintained a network of branches throughout Eastern Europe. Grade also became a student of Avraham Yesha’yahu Karelits, better known as the Hazon Ish, one of the pre-eminent rabbinical authorities of the twentieth century. In his later fiction Grade portrayed his former teacher with love, while also expressing his conflicted attitudes towards the intensely religious environment of his youth.

Even as a yeshiva student, Grade displayed an inclination toward secular literature, and at age 22 left the religious world to become a poet. In Vilna he joined Yung-Vilne (Young Vilna), a group of like-minded peers who sought to merge world literature, Jewish culture, and leftist politics. It was within that milieu that Grade began publishing his poetry. In 1936 he produced Yo (Yes), his first major work, which included a loving homage to his mother—a subject he would return to in later prose. Musarnikes (Musarniks), an epic poem published in 1939, was his first substantive attempt to portray his years in Novaredok, and it displays his tortured ambivalence toward his religious upbringing. The volume, which remains a cornerstone of modern Yiddish poetry, received a prestigious award from the Yidisher Kultur Farband (Yiddish Culture Association) in New York, and immediately cemented Grade’s reputation as one of the major new Yiddish voices.

Upon the outbreak of World War II Grade remained in Vilna, which had been occupied by the Soviets. When the Germans invaded in 1941, however, Grade fled to the Soviet interior, leaving behind his mother and wife, Frume-Libe, believing that the Germans would not harm women. That belief was unfounded, and both women were murdered during the war. Grade survived in the Soviet Union and, after the war, made his way to Paris, where he continued to write and published several volumes of poetry. In Paris he also married his second wife, Inna Hecker, before immigrating to the United States in 1948.

While Grade continued writing poetry after his arrival in America, he also began writing prose, and his novels would become his most important medium in the postwar years. Most of them were also translated into English, giving him a wider readership than he had previously enjoyed. The most important of these included My Mothers Sabbath Days (1955), a memoiristic account of his life until after the war; The Yeshiva (1967-68), a two-volume semi-autobiographical novel about his yeshiva years in Novaredok; and Rabbis and Wives (1974), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Perhaps his best-known work was “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner” (1951), a philosophical short story that dealt with the question of faith after the Holocaust, and which was turned into a 1991 film titled The Quarrel. Like his poetry, Grade’s novels used rich, evocative language to portray his religious upbringing and yeshiva years, the rabbinical culture of Lithuania, and the ordinary men and women who populated the streets and alleys of his native Vilna. Unlike his earlier writing, however Grade’s later novels were written in the shadow of the Holocaust, and often took on an elegiac tone to record a world that was now lost. Grade died in 1982, one of the most-read and best-loved Yiddish writers of the twentieth century.

—Ezra Glinter

Grade (back row, second from left) with fellow Yiddish writers, courtesy of YIVO

Additional Items from Our Collections

Lecture Series

"Sabbath Days and Extinguished Stars: The Life and Work of Chaim Grade" with Justin Cammy, David Fishman, and Joseph Berger (includes 4 lectures)

From the Yiddish Book Center's podcast, The Shmooze

Yiddish Writer Chaim Grade: The Backstory, with Aaron Lansky and Justin Cammy

Chaim Grade's Elegy for the Soviet Yiddish Writers

Translating Chaim Grade, with Mel Rosenthal

Select Translations

"My Dear Abe," letters written by Chaim Grade to his close friend and patron Abraham Bornstein, translated by Rose Waldman

"The Abandoned Sanctuary," an excerpt from Grade's work The Silent Minyan about life in the "shul hoyf" in prewar Vilna, translated by Ezra Glinter

Select Oral Histories, from the Wexler Oral History Project

"A Book Is Not an Object, It's a Living Thing": Chaim Grade's Relationship to His Library—David (Dovid) Fishman, scholar of Eastern European Jewish history, describes Yiddish writer and personal friend Chaim Grade's special relationship to his books and library.

Chaim Grade: A Bombastic Character—Betty Sorkowitz, daughter of Yiddish activists and founders of the Sholem Aleichem Institute in Detroit, remembers her relationship with Chaim Grade and what a fascinating person he was.

Chaim Grade and His (Remembered) City Vilna—David (Dovid) Fishman, scholar of Eastern European Jewish history, reflects on how Yiddish writer and personal friend Chaim Grade spent most of his writing career writing about Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania), a city he never visited after fleeing it during World War Two.

The Yiddish Book Center is grateful to YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the National Library of Israel for giving us permission to digitize these titles.