For a genre long considered beyond the pale, the Yiddish novel has recently shown a surprising amount of kick. The continued interest in Issac B. Singer's work has led to a hardback reissuing of the novels of his late brother, I.J. Singer, and now Chain Grade, another transplanted Eastern European, has had his second novel in two years, The Yeshiva , translated into English.
Set in Post-World War I Lithuania, The Yeshiva is very big on internal conflict, on despairing personalities raging with God and with each other about the very meaning of life.
Chief rager is one Tsemakh Atlas, a member of the fanatical Musar sect, dedicted beyond reason to moral and ethical perfection. The only trouble is, Tsemakh is secretly bedeviled both by his seductive but all-too-worldly wife as as his never-ending doubts about the existence of God. He goes off and starts a yeshiva , or school, where youngsters can be taught about the evils of the flesh, but it seems like the evils have gotten there before him. (You were looking maybe for a simple solutions?)
Like everyone else who writes in Yiddish, Grade, his translator's fulsome praise notwithstanding, is very much in I.B. Singer's shadow. His characterizations tend to be simplistic, he doesn't quite have Singer's elegance of phrase, his breadth of vision, but then again, who does?
On the positive side, Grade has the charm of a natural storyteller, and The Yeshiva is yeasty with the reality of experience. The more you read, the less stylistic complaints clutter the mind. The story itself becomes paramount, which of course is as it should be. (Bobbs Merrill, $12.50)