Unsung, but Better than Singer

Hidden, or maybe not so hidden, in the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/13/nyregion/13grade.html and Tablet Magazine http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/33328/keeper-of-the-flame/ obituaries for Inna Hecker Grade is a novel about her fierce protectiveness of the literary legacy of her late husband, Yiddish novelist and poet Chaim Grade, and particularly her contempt for and feud with his much better-known and more popular contemporary, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

(This to-be-wished for novel is somewhat foreshadowed in Cynthia Ozick’s much-anthologized novella “Envy; or Yiddish in America,” which pits the Singer stand-in against another writer of the same era, who enjoyed even less English-language recognition than did Grade.)

As we read in Ecclesiastes, of making many books there is no end, and the Yiddish literary pantheon has room for Grade alongside Singer. In fact, one of the comments added to the Tablet obituary said that among Yiddish writers, Grade is to Singer as, among writers about the South, Faulkner is to Margaret Mitchell.

But while we’re waiting for someone to novelize the Grade story, or to accept the challenge of bringing Chaim Grade’s unpublished manuscripts to print, we have the opportunity to revisit those of his works that are available in English, the most accessible of which are The Sacred and the Profane, originally published in 1982 as Rabbis and Wives, and My Mother’s Sabbath Days, my edition of which also includes “The Other End of the World” and “The Seven Little Alleys.” (Harder to come by are the magisterial two-volume The Yeshiva and shorter works like The Agunah and The Well. Grade’s importance as a poet is mentioned in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, but none of his poems is included in the anthology, perhaps because of the widow’s over-zealous stewardship.)

The three novellas gathered in The Sacred and the Profane are set in Vilna in the first half of the twentieth century, and give us an unsentimental picture of a somewhat insular Jewish community battered by the forces of secularism, the rising tide of Zionism, and the difficulties of making a living. The first of the three, “The Rebbetzin,” tells of a wife whose own ambition pushes her husband out of his comfort zone, and takes on a special poignancy when we read it against the background of what we know now about Inna Hecker Grade.

For all her good intentions, and her ardor in controlling his literary estate, perhaps her passing will reawaken interest in the books we have, and unlock the availability of who knows what untranslated or unpublished treasures.

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