This past year marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of Vilna’s greatest sons, the Yiddish poet and novelist, Chaim Grade. Born in Vilna in 1910, Grade died in New York as an old man, at the relatively young age of 72.
I translated three of Grade’s most important books. In doing so, I came to understand that this actually required knowledge of four languages: not only Yiddish and English, but also Hebrew and Jewish. By Jewish I mean knowledge of the cycle of Jewish life from birth and bris through bar mitzvah, wedding, and end of life; the Shabbes and the calendar of Jewish holidays; a familiarity with Jewish liturgy, ritual, and customs; and a working knowledge of some of the basic texts of Yiddishkeyt.
Let me make an analogy. In addition to knowing English, a translator of Hamlet into Greek has to know Englishkeyt in order to understand what Hamlet means when he tells Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery.” Otherwise he’ll translate it as if it said: “Get thee to a Catholic convent,” which would just show that Shakespearean English is Greek to him. Those who know Englishkeyt know that “nunnery” here means just the opposite—a brothel.
A translator must know the hidden corners of a culture, and this is especially true for Chaim Grade’s works. Yiddish has a Hebrew component of roughly 15-18 percent. In Grade’s magnum opus, The Yeshiva, the rabbis speak a Yiddish that can be almost completely Hebrew—supersaturated with Jewish—all set within a Yiddish syntactical structure:
Aderahbeh, raboysy, vegn di shayle paskent der Rosh tomid le-tzad kooleh, oon di halokkhe iz khol
oleynu mi-sheyses yemay brayshis lo-netsakh ad biyas ha-goyel moshiach tzidkeynu im yirtze
ha-shem bimhayra u-veyomaynu, Omen!
On the contrary, gentlemen, pertaining to this question the Rosh always decides leniently and this law
is applicable to us from the six days of Creation forever until the coming of the redeemer, our righteous
Messiah, God-willing, speedily and in our days, Amen!
If you don’t know Jewish, then the above sentence may as well be Sanskrit. It’s almost entirely in Hebrew, including the acronym of a leading medieval rabbinic authority, “the Rosh” (which might easily be mistranslated as “head”), with a couple of Aramaic terms for good measure. Moreover, it presupposes a basic understanding of halakhic discourse and the traditional Jewish way of life it governed.
Alas, there have been a number of Yiddish translators who, because of their education, were lacking in their knowledge of Jewish. In fact, even after I had successfully translated his remarkable novel about a “grass widow,” The Agunah, where knowledge of all three languages was needed, when it came to his great novel, The Yeshiva, Grade still wanted to test me. But, in truth, I have a feeling it wasn’t him. It was his yetzer horeh (evil inclination) who came in the shape of—I hesitate to say this but it’s true—Chaim’s late wife, Inna, who departed for yenne velt last year, leaving a still uncatalogued mass of manuscripts, which she had jealously guarded for the past twenty-eight years. Anyway, the wife didn’t like my translations. She didn’t like me. She didn’t like the fact that Chaim liked me (or anyone else). So I suspect she nudged her husband to test me. But with all her faults I must say that Inna had the wisdom of Tsar Nicholas and the knowledge of Moshe Rabbeinu—she knew Hebrew like the Tsar and read Yiddish like Moshe Rabbeinu.
So Chaim says to me, sort of apologetically, “I’m going to give you the first three pages of The Yeshiva to translate. You see, some years ago I gave them to a translator and when I read it, Iz mir gevorn finster in di eygen (I blanked out).” I remembered the story. The translator had rendered emuneh shleyme, ‘perfect faith,’ as the ‘faith of Solomon.’ Emuneh means faith. As for the second word, he apparently remembered that there was a king named Shleyme, or Solomon.
I translated the first few pages. Then I made a Xerox copy of the first page that had the correct translation of emuneh shleyme and I folded it into a little envelope marked, “Do not open this envelope till you finish reading all the typed pages.” On the other copy I whited out “perfect faith” and typed in “faith of Solomon,” and sent the packet out to Chaim. He called me from the Bronx on the day it arrived. “Coort,” he said in his gravelly voice, “a very nice translation but, heh heh, you made a slight error with emuneh shleyme. You translated it as ‘faith of Solomon.'”
“Chaim, did you open the little envelope?”
“Because you told me not to open it until I finished reading all the pages. I didn’t finish them because
soon as I saw what you wrote on page one about emuneh shleyme, I called you right away.”
“Do me a favor and open the envelope now.
I heard him opening the envelope and chuckling as he returned to the phone.
“Du bandit, du ganev, du host mir opgeton a shpizl!” (You rascal, you scamp, you put one over on me!)
It was fun working with a living writer. With Sholom Aleichem I only had a one-way conversation. But with Grade it was a real conversation. I had a living writer and he had a living translator. (Unfortunately, some dead writers have a dead translator too, but better a living translator for a dead writer than a dead translator for a living writer.)
It wasn’t all business. Sometimes I would drive up to the Bronx to visit him; sometimes he took the two-and-a-half hour subway and bus journey to New Jersey. He especially liked coming when my Yiddish-speaking parents were visiting. In retrospect, I guess we had a father-son bond, though one uncomplicated by the usual parent-child stresses. I was particularly proud and touched when Chaim told me, “You’re one of the few people I address as du“—the more intimate form of you, rather than the formal ihr.
Others who knew him would tell me that Chaim was a difficult man, one who angered quickly, but I never experienced this personally. His author photos on dust jackets show a man thoughtfully, even morosely, looking out into the distance, the world’s burdens on his shoulders. He followed the old European tradition of confronting the camera with a serious mien. Although he smiled and laughed a lot when we were together, he did confide once, “I am not a happy man”—he said it in English; Yiddish doesn’t have that concept. Grade never had any children. His first wife, Frume Libtche, and his mother, Velle, were killed by the Germans and their Lithuanian accomplices in the Vilna Ghetto. He never had any children with Inna, and their life together was stormy. It is no wonder that in my Roget’s Thesaurus I got to know one reference number by heart, 950. There one could find all the synonyms for rage, anger, wrath, indignation, etc. Many of Grade’s characters, some of them clearly alter egos for the author, were angry men.
Grade’s attitude toward his fiction fascinated me. After I had finished translating The Agunah and bemoaned the tragic fate of the heroine, Chaim laughed and waved his hand disparagingly. “Don’t fret,” he said. “She’s actually alive and well and living in Chicago. I just had to kill her off for the sake of the drama.” When my own first novel, The Yemenite Girl, was published, along with a blurb from Saul Bellow, Grade was truly pleased for me. The Hebrew/Yiddish phrase kin’as sofrim—the envy that one writer has for another—did not apply to Chaim. Long after The Yemenite Girl was published I still felt a kinship with the characters I had created, especially the hero, the Israeli writer Yehiel Bar-Nun, who in the novel had won the Nobel Prize (as, arguably, Grade ought to have). I asked Chaim if he continued to think about his characters. Again Grade surprised me. “No. I forget about them as soon as the book is done. I’m too busy thinking of new characters.” At first I couldn’t accept that. But by the time my fourth novel was published, I understood that it’s easier to possess and treasure characters that other writers have created than to dwell on your own.
Grade had a more extensive Jewish education than any other Yiddish writer. He was ignominiously booted out of his yeshiva when teachers found him writing secular Yiddish poetry. I realized that Grade was a secular, non-observant Jew when, early in our relationship, I saw him joyously order and eat traif meat. Yet he continually surprised me. One early April day, I visited him in his small, book-saturated Bronx apartment. (Luckily, most of the time Inna was away; when she was home, the tension could be cut with a teaspoon.) The phone rang and I heard Chaim telling someone about his Seder. I couldn’t wait for him to finish the conversation.
“What? You? Chaim? Du pravest a Seder?” “Avadeh! Vos meynstu, ikh bin a goy?” (Of course! You think
I’m a goy?)
Then he stood up, raised a finger, and said, “Wait. I want to show you something.” He went into another room and came back with a large flat cardboard box of shmura matza. “You know who sent it to me?” Of course, I didn’t know.
“The Lubavitcher Rebbe. Every year at this time, he sends his personal shliakh (messenger) to bring me
a box of shmura matza . . . He’s been doing this for years.”
“Have you ever met him?”
Grade couldn’t stand the heat of the Bronx summer in his non-air-conditioned apartment. He longed to get away into the countryside for June, July, and August. Yet—I’m convinced it was purposely done, they had such a quirky love-hate relationship—his wife usually delayed and delayed until the middle of August. Once, they rented a house in Barryville, New York, and I drove up in mid-September to visit him. In the course of our conversation he mentioned going to shul for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He had abandoned the structures of halakha, but his ostensible secularism cloaked a traditional interior. He once told me, “I can pick up a Chumash and study it without wearing a yarmulke, but when I look into Rashi—in the Chumash or the Talmud—heybt mir on der kop tzu brennen.” (I feel my head starting to burn.)
In the mid-1920’s, Chaim Grade was a private student of the great and saintly Rabbi Avrohom Karelitz, who was known as “the Chazon Ish.” He was studying with him one Friday morning when a woman came in to consult the rabbi about the chicken she was about to prepare for the Sabbath. Here’s the story Chaim told me:
We were sitting at a little table in his house and a woman comes in holding her chicken. Since the
Chazon Ish was very nearsighted he actually couldn’t examine the fowl. So he whispered to me, “Iz
zee an oreme?” (Is she a poor woman?) In other words, he wasn’t going to ruin a poor housewife’s
Shabbes meal, probably bought with her last few pennies, and declare the chicken not kosher. And I,
naïve youngster that I was, I asked her, “Veefil fardint ayer man?” (How much does your husband
earn?) At once the Chazon Ish hissed at me, “Bist a nar!” (You’re a fool!) And to the woman he called
One of Grade’s most remarkable stories, and one of the great achievements of 20th-century Yiddish prose, is “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner,” which dramatizes his reasons for breaking with the world of tradition. The story consists of three philosophical dialogues between two Holocaust survivors, Chaim and Hersh, who meet after the war in Paris. Both had been yeshiva students, but Chaim is now a secular Jew while Hersh’s commitment to Orthodoxy has been strengthened by the horror of the Holocaust. Chaim argues that Jews must liberate themselves and participate in world culture, while Hersh advocates complete adherence to Jewish law, and a separation of oneself from the pleasures of the world, in line with the principles of the ascetic Musar movement in which they had both been schooled.
I knew that Hersh was based on an old friend, who went on to head a Musar yeshiva outside of Paris, and whom Grade had really met after the war. I remarked how unusual it was for Grade to bump into his friend three times and wondered how he was able to transcribe so meticulously the twists and turns of Hersh’s thoughts and their arguments. Chaim laughed. Again he gave a disparaging wave of his hand:
I didn’t meet him three times. And it wasn’t in Paris. And there was nothing to remember. I bumped
into Gershon Kovler standing in front of the entrance to The Forward building. And I didn’t talk for
hours with him. I talked to him for maybe five minutes, and in the story I put into his mouth the words
he could have said had he had the ability to articulate his thoughts and feelings.
Grade’s artistic achievement was always rooted in his Jewish knowledge, his Yiddishkeyt.
Although I maintain that no one should presume to translate from Yiddish without a mastery of Jewish, sometimes even knowing Hebrew and Yiddish and Jewish (and even Sanskrit) isn’t enough. In fact, sometimes even having the pleasure of a living author does not suffice. Once, while translating The Yeshiva, I ran across a puzzling word for some kind of pastry or cake. I had never seen the word and no dictionary I consulted had it, so I called Chaim. He thought about it for a moment, laughed, and then said, “Du Vaist? Ikh hob sheyn fargessen.” (You know? I forgot already.)
O’Brien himself didn’t consider his history of Zionism to be anything more than a bit of haute vulgarization, but it is much more than that. It is one of those uncommon works of political history in which a man who knows how the world works tells a great story with dazzling literary skill.
Many authors have passionate readers, but few have drawn as many self-consciously nutty fans as Saul Bellow.
There is more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, but today instead of words we offer images.
Dozens of books on Jewish history, culture, and literature are published each month. Here are some debuting this November.