Email this review


To many readers of Yiddish literature, the late Chaim Grade--not I. B. Singer--is the great authentic storyteller/poet of Eastern European Jewish life: Singer may be more the fabulist, the psychological adventurer, the haunter--but Grade is the weaver of whole cloth who gives over an entire society and finds psychology in an entire people. And, as in his previously translated prose (The Agunah, The Yeshiva), Grade's world here is pre-WW II Lithuania--where the Jews are Orthodox and the aristocrats are the rabbis and rebbetzins whose moral behavior influences shtetl life from the synagogues straight down to the chicken coops. In all three of these novellas, in fact, Grade focuses on a rabbi's reluctance to be a star, the natural focal point of religious and social life (often tangential to the demands of piety and ethics). In The Rebbetzin, an ambitious wife, Perele Koenigsberg, pushes her humble rabbi-husband into a position from which he's able to displace, albeit unwillingly, a more powerful and saintly rabbi (who was once Perele's fiancÉ but knew she was unsuitable for rebbetzin-hood). And this tale--fascinating as a study in both power politics and sexual sublimation--is suffused with Grade's hard, un-giving wisdom . . . while the other two novellas (the cacophonous Laybe-Layzar's Courtyard, the illustration-of-fate The Oaf) are somewhat less involving. Still, if this is lesser Grade, the writing throughout is crammed with vividness. (A rabbinic sage's funeral: "" 'Torah, torah what will become of you?' the old rabbis and rosh yeshivas sobbed, and the people packed into the synagogue sobbed along with them. The reddish glow of the lamps blinded the tear-swollen eyes of the crowd. The gloomy faces and beards glittered like wet stones in a damp cave until the very walls broke into a steamy sweat and the light of the lamps was shrouded in a yellowish fog."") And, also throughout, there's Grade's Balzacian reconstruction of Jewish Orthodox life before the Holocaust--without sentimentality and with absolute moral and scholastic pitch. Not Grade at his best, then, but a welcome addition indeed to Yiddish-literature-in-translation.

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 1982
Publisher: Knopf