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Lost Yiddish masterpieces may await discovery in a Bronx apartment

May 19, 2010

Chaim Grade, right, with Israel Rabinovitch.

Now that Chaim Grade’s widow is dead, and let’s face it, out of the way, her Bronx apartment will be combed “like King Tut’s tomb,” reports The New York Times, in search of manuscripts by the little-known Yiddish writer some call the equal of Isaac Bashevis Singer – if not better.

One reason Grade is not more famous: Since his death in 1982, his second wife, Inna Hecker Grade, rejected most efforts to translate her husband’s work into English. That’s sure to change now.

Inna Grade (pronounced GRAH-duh, according to the Times) died May 2 at 85 “without a will or survivors.” As a result, the Bronx public administrator has invited four institutions — the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Manhattan; the New York Public Library; the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass.; and Harvard University — to assess Grade’s papers and make proposals for their preservation and possible publication.

“This is our thrilling moment in Yiddish literature, this is our Dead Sea Scrolls,” said Aaron Lansky, president of the book center.

But the story of Chaim Grade’s faint literary reputation is more complicated than the machinations of an obstreperous widow. Inna Grade saw herself as the guardian of her husband’s reputation, and her responsibility to make sure any translations did his work justice.

“Those who knew her said she repeatedly declared that translations of her husband’s writing failed to do justice to the vitality of his language and the breadth of his cultural insights,” the Times reported in its obituary of Inna Grade, published May 12.

What’s more, Inna Grade hated Singer, especially after he became the first and so far only Yiddish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. And she was not temperate in her remarks: “”I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread into which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated,” she once said.

That quote comes from Sem40, a Jewish cultural website, where the case for and against Singer is discussed. Singer’s enemies viewed him as an inferior stylist and popular writer who coarsened and betrayed shtetl culture with his stories of “Polish whores and Yiddish devils,” as Jewish scholar Allan Nadler, of Drew University, put it in 2004.

Of course the world should have been big enough for Singer and Grade — American literature accommodates not only William Faulkner but also Margaret Mitchell, after all — but the Yiddish intellectual culture centered in New York, now all but extinct, loved a ferocious public quarrel — a characteristic that has produced good literature in its own right.

Cynthia Ozick immortalized the backbiting among Yiddish intellectuals in her acclaimed 1969 short story, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America.” Novelist and scholar Curt Leviant — a sometime Grade translator — produced an excellent comic novel somewhat based on Grade’s life, A Novel of Klass, which I reviewed in 2008.

Inna Garde’s enemies went so far as to spread the rumor she was not Jewish — a trope exploited in Leviant’s novel — but a thorough obituary-essay at the Tablet, a Jewish cultural journal, proves that to be untrue.

In any case, Chaim Garde is an important writer who may receive overdue attention, especially if untranslated work is found among his widow’s papers.

Born in Lithuania, Garde lost his first wife and mother to the Holocaust, making his way to the United States. Among the work translated from the Yiddish in his lifetime are The Yeshiva, The Agunah, Rabbis and Wives (also published as The Sacred and the Profane), and perhaps best known, “”My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” a short story.

Here’s hoping that even if new manuscripts are not found, Garde’s existing work will be reissued for those of us who are hearing of him for the first time.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 19, 2010 2:19 pm

    You read them firsts and let me know if you like. I follow you, Chauncey Mabe.

  2. rachel permalink
    May 19, 2010 4:07 pm

    I want to go on the treasure hunt! That sounds exciting.

    Why Harvard and not some New York school?

    I’ve never heard of him, but I agree with Candice. Chauncey Mabe if you read him and approve I’ll follow.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    May 19, 2010 5:20 pm

    While you’re waiting for me to check out Grade, I can already endorse anything written by Singer, Ozick, or Curt Leviant, of whom I seldom pass up the opportunity to call most underappreciated novelist in America. Here are books by each author that I can recommend on the basis of having actually read them:

    Singer — Gimpel the Fool and A Friend of Kafka (short story collections); Enemies; a Love Story; Shadows on the Hudson (novels). He’s published far more than this, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.

    Ozick: The Puttermesser Papers (a novel) and Dictation (four novellas — I especially like this one). Ozick has also published much, much more.

    Curt Leviant: Diary of an Adulterous Woman; Partita in Venice; A Novel of Klass; all these are excellent, and very funny. Leviant is not as prolific as Singer or Ozick, with only a handful of books beyond these three. I plan to read, at least, his early noverl, The Yemenite Girl. What a great title. He’s also translated books by Garde, Singer, and Sholem Aleichem, the trinity of great Yiddish writers.

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:02 am

    Thanks, Chauncey Mabe. I am going book shopping today. Woohoo!! Haven’t been in a long long long time…

  5. Sean permalink
    May 20, 2010 9:34 am

    Chaunce, this is unrelated to Grade, but check out this review of a play about a row over a book.

    http://theater.nytimes.com/2010/05/20/theater/reviews/20metal.html?src=un&feedurl=http%3A%2F%2Fjson8.nytimes.com%2Fpages%2Farts%2Findex.jsonp

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