Being Chaim Grade
Tue, 10/04/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Hope, USA, 1945 From the collection of Dan Lenchner
Hope, USA, 1945 From the collection of Dan Lenchner

“Nu, what do you come here for? To sit shiva?” a beleaguered and emotionally drained Chaim Grade asks a long-lost neighbor, Balberishkin, as they wander through the empty Jewish streets of Vilna. “A shiva that is, apparently, never over,” Balberishkin replies as the two continue to explore their memories.

These Yiddish words are at the heart of the opening scene of “Der Mames Shabosim, My Mother’s Sabbath Days,” a play based on the memoir by Chaim Grade. I had the opportunity to play the role of Chaim last spring in a staged reading produced by the National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene. Our cast was multigenerational, reflecting a range of experiences vis-à-vis Yiddish, including Holocaust survivors for whom Yiddish was a first language, people who knew Grade personally, as well as young actors who never spoke Yiddish before and had never read or heard of Chaim Grade’s work.

“My Mother’s Sabbath Days” tells of a vibrant Vilna before the Holocaust, with rich characters and stories of Jewish life. These vignettes are intertwined with Grade’s return to the forlorn city, as he grapples with the future, guilt, renewal and hope after World War II. Grade’s personal religious struggles and convictions are present in this piece, but there is an underlying optimistic view Grade has of his mother, Vella, the quintessential Jewish mother, as bearer of tradition and Jewish ethics in their finest form. While Grade himself is irreligious by the end of the piece, his undying hope in Judaism and the power of faith perseveres, as he views his mother in a most noble and virtuous light.

I thought about the relevance of Grade’s work that night, as we performed at Baruch College, part of a free theater series. I glanced at the audience members as we walked on stage, scripts in hand, somewhat costumed. Families, supportive friends and usual Yiddish theatergoers were in attendance, and then a few people stood out: CUNY students in their 20s. I remembered my first introduction to Grade and wondered now, what brought our audience here tonight? What was the hope for works like those of Grade for a crowd largely non-conversant in Yiddish?

On one of the first nights of rehearsals someone asked me the same question, not knowing I would be an outlier. I grew up speaking and singing Yiddish at home, performing on the Yiddish stage since I was 3 years old. I never understood Yiddish as a dead or dying language; for me, it was a breathing, living entity. Yiddish introduced me to many different communities, from labor activists to chasidic thinkers. It wasn’t until high school, though, that my grandmother insisted I read Grade’s work. My grandmother knew Grade personally, as she and my grandfather had hosted Yiddish writers, singers and actors in their apartment.

I recalled a photograph of my grandfather and Grade at a Yiddish literary event. When I first saw the picture as a child, I remember asking, “Bubby, is that Bashevis Singer?” I thought the question was a valid one for an 11-year-old, especially given their physical resemblances, but my grandmother gasped slightly and I’m still not sure if she did so jokingly. I couldn’t have made a more egregious error even as a child. According to some in the Yiddish literary world, Grade was the rightful recipient of Singer’s Nobel. The two writers approached Eastern European Jewish civilization, their common subject, from different angles: Bashevis explored mystical and magical elements of Jewish life, while Grade, who was less known and less widely translated, was immersed in its people, the unsung heroes of shtetl life.

“You’d like Grade,” my grandmother argued. “You’re sort of like him.” Grade came from the elite yeshiva environment of Eastern Europe, studying in the Navoredok Musar yeshiva as well as under the tutelage of the Hazon Ish. But both worlds felt foreign to Grade, as he secretly read secular literature and eventually pursued his own commentary, Yiddish poetry and prose. I became drawn to Grade’s writing with “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner,” a short story that explores religious and theological arguments between two former yeshiva students. I became enthralled reading his other novels in Yiddish and English. I felt as if Grade served as an ambassador of the particular religious worlds from which he came, even as he deeply criticized them, still having a stake in what happened in these communities. The more I read of Grade’s writing, the more I wished his work were required reading at all Jewish high schools. Here was a hopeful way of looking into the Holocaust era; instead of solely focusing on how Jews died, exploring how Jews lived and thrived. My grandmother was right; I was hooked.

But how had CUNY students heard of Grade? Grade made it back into the news cycle recently, after his second wife, Inna Grade, passed away in May 2010. Inna had vehemently and aggressively guarded her husband’s work and with her passing, there was a treasury of unpublished material discovered in their Bronx home. There was excitement at the notion that some of his poetry might see the light of day and be translated now that Inna was out of the picture. Who, though, besides the small Yiddish-speaking academic community, cared enough to come see a Yiddish play by a relatively unknown author? I decided I would approach the CUNY students after the performance but they had already left by the time I entered the lobby.

Recently I returned to the “Shabbosim” script for a high school session I prepared on Yiddish writing as a means of spiritual resistance during and after the Holocaust. At the end of the first act, Grade is left on stage with Balberishkin as the author remembers his mother and first wife, both of whom died in the Holocaust. The two men discuss the resurrection of the dead, with Grade pontificating and demanding that the wicked must also rise along with the righteous, so that the wicked can die and burn again before the eyes of their victims. “The whole world should see,” Grade writes, “the murdered Jews should see, that there is a price to pay in this universe.” In these words, I discovered an articulation of hypothetical questions and emotions I long carried as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. However, beneath the rage and vengeful bite I felt there to be an eternal mournfulness. I believe Grade’s fuming must also have been venting and I tried to express that imagined catharsis in my portrayal. The young non-Yiddish speaking actors with whom I shared the stage conveyed similar sentiments: these poignant Yiddish words captured a piece of history and culture that didn’t have to disappear or belong solely in research libraries.

By the end of the play, Grade’s unforgiving fervor had been somewhat subdued. After a fiery exchange about the hope and future of Jewish life in Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, a Vilna survivor and friend of Grade’s mother says, “Of course we need justice. But believe me, one can comfort oneself too long with the thought of vengeance. Men darf lebn — we need to live on.” This reminder pushes Grade and the reader to move past the visceral and into the future. The hope that “Shabbosim” exudes rests in Vella and the way Grade portrays her. Vella’s final pleading words are: “Kind mayns! Child of mine, don’t forget Judaism, keep the Sabbath!”  This is Vella Grade’s final message to Chaim and future generations: remember who you are, have faith and nurture your identity.

As we finished performing that night, I wondered if Grade ever imagined this play, his story, being shared decades later, his words living on long after his war experience. I was grateful to have had a part that evening in telling Grade’s story. As an actor, I find his words riveting and heart wrenching, in any language. As a rabbinical student, I stood deeply aware of his own enmeshed journey and of the bittersweet irony of reading Grade’s raging challenges to God and humanity, and sharing them as my own. Herein rested the beauty and depth of Yiddish writers like Grade: armed with the familiarity and knowledge of the religious world, they offered the shrewdest looks into the Jewish communal mirror, even if they did so with khoyzik, ridicule. Their critiques are still accurate and resonant. Beyond Yiddish, Grade’s piece serves as testament to the perseverance of the human spirit amid destruction. What better venue to express this view than the theater, an enduring resource of hope and reflection? The play ends with Grade’s blessing: “From your grief should grow strength, as after the darkness comes the dawn. Honor each trace of your blood. May you find comfort in your beliefs.”  

Avram Mlotek is a first-year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale. He teaches at Hebrew and  Yiddish schools throughout New York City and performs  regularly with the National Yiddish Theatre-Folksbiene.