CHAIM GRADE was born in 1910 in the religious, intellectual, and literary heart of East European Jewry--Vilna, known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." His father, a Hebrew teacher who followed the Enlightenment movement, died when Grade was a boy. His mother worked as a fruit peddler in order to send him to the various yeshivas (religious academies) he attended until the age of 22.
In 1932, Grade began writing poetry and was soon published in Yiddish periodicals in Europe and America. Although this step into the secular world meant a complete break with the religious establishment, Grade never lost his emotional ties to the yeshiva world. In 1941, he fled from the German onslaught to the Soviet Union. His mother and wife remained behind, and died in the Vilna ghetto. After the war he returned to a desolate Vilna, devoid of all Jews and Jewish institutions. He described those Holocaust years and their aftermath in his memoir The Seven Little Lanes (1955). After two years in Paris working with other survivors to revive the Yiddish literary tradition, Grade came to the United States, where he lived in New York with his second wife until his death last year.
At the age of 40, Grade began writing prose for the first time. In volume after volume he turned his eye back to Vilna and the small towns of Lithuania as they had been between the two world wars. It was as though it became his mission to recreate the once teaming society which no longer existed. Grade is said to be the only modern Yiddish writer with intimate knowledge and experience of the yeshiva. His realistic, unsentimental descriptions of that world of spiritual giants and zealots, as well as of the daily life and problems of ordinary folk from the wealthy to the poor, are so authentically comprehensive and detailed that the result is a rich visual panorama which jumps from the printed page to the mind's eye.
Rabbis and Wives, which has an excellent glossary to help the general reader understand its many Yiddish and Hebrew terms, is composed of three unconnected novellas--"The Rebbetzin," "Laybe-Layzar's Courtyard," and "The Oath." Each vividly describes different aspects of Eastern European Jewish marital relationships, and then broadens out to encompass social, religious, and religious-political forces which alternately held the people together and tore them apart.
Perele, "The Rebbetzin" (the rabbi's wife), is the high-strung, haughty daughter of the great sage of Staropol. Though a mother of three grown children and the wife of the well- regarded scholarly rav of Graipewo, she has never been able to erase from her mind the brilliant rabbi from Horadna to whom she had first been betrothed. Reports of his great scholarship, of his prestigious appointment as head of the rabbinical court of Horadna filter back to Perele and spark memories of their short betrothal--of his unprepossessing figure, nasal voice, and the laughing, flashing genius of his eyes. This is the guilty secret that draws her to Horadna: to move within his orbit, to prove to him how much he had missed by his rejection of her. Perele nags and manipulates until all their children have married Horadna spouses and her husband resigns his pulpit to move to Horadna as well. There, he is invited to become the maggid (preacher) at a small pro-Zionist synagogue. Interwoven with Perele's scheming to push her unassuming husband into a position of prominence and power is the conflict between the pro- and anti-Zionist orthodox factions in the city and the tragedy which befalls the great Horadna rabbi. Unlike the clear, neat endings of the two stories which follow, Grade simply implies Perele's final triumph--perhaps because no possible victory could ever be as sweet for Perele as the one which was always impossible.
"Laybe-Layzar's Courtyard" paints the interrelationships within a small apartment complex built around a Vilna courtyard. Rabbi Weintraub's wife, Hindele (Little Hen), is the complete opposite of Perele. She is sweetly content to sell eggs to the rich ladies of the town so he can spend his days praying and studying in the courtyard's beth midrash (house of study or synagogue). He had left his Zaskowicz pulpit because, "A Rav . . . must be able to stand up and say that what may not be done simply may not be done! If it's not kosher, it's not kosher! But I just don't have the heart to forbid so many things." But now, although all he wants is to be a simple porush (a scholar-recluse), his new neighbors, like his former constituents, constantly appeal to him to adjudicate their quarrels.
There is the hostile gardener who blames the porush for not settling his family inheritance battle; the unfaithful upholsterer, and his vindictive wife whose "demons" throw the whole courtyard into a wild tumult; and the unyielding, pleasure-hating locksmith who uses his religion to tyrannize his wife and daughters. Although everywhere the porush turns, he seems to find the same unbending zealotry which he has abhorred ever since he caused his mother's death by his own youthful excesses, there are both funny and ironic elements and a happy ending to this story.
In "The Oath," a dying husband and father demands deathbed assurances that his family will adhere to his last shocking instructions. In trying to carry out her husband's wishes, Bathsheva Rappaport's life is profoundly changed --a result her husband had foreseen and planned. In the course of Grade's tale we catch a glimpse of Vilna's Hasidic sect, a young Bolshevik agitator, a Jewish farmer, and a divorced rabbi-tutor-storekeeper. Lest there be any doubts, these are no idealized Fiddler on the Roof characters, but rather real city people --rich, poor, educated, ignorant, irrational; artisans, merchants, yeshiva students, rabbis and their wives, all realistically drawn in their brilliance and stupidity, their goodness and ugliness; all bound together by their traditions and religion, their degrees of observance ranging from free-thinker to the most devout.
Although Rabbis and Wives does not have the impact of Grade's full-length novels, it is nevertheless an absorbing, fascinating and poignant picture of a society that no longer exists; a fine introduction to a writer whose sharp sly humor, photographic memory, compelling storytelling virtues, poetic imagery, and dark brooding intensity have prompted some to judge him as one of the great modern Yiddish writers. Certainly, he deserves to be more widely known and read by the American public.