My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner by Chaim Grade - first published in Yiddish in 1952 - Translated by Ruth Wisse December 2020 - published in Mosaic - First published in The 1952 in the Rosh Hashanah Issue of issue of the New York Jewish monthly Yidisher kemfer (“The Jewish Militant”)
Chaim Grade,in the image above with his second wife, his first was murdered by Germans, Inna (née Heckler) Grade
Born April 4, 1910 in Vilna, Lituania
1932 begins to write Short Stories in Yiddish
He spends WWII in Russia
1948-moves to New York City, where he will live from then on, after a couple of years in Paris
Dies April 26, 1982 in The Bronx, New York
Chaim Grade is considered one of the greatest of Yiddish writers. He wrote plays, several novels considered Master works, learned treatises about how the Holocaust should be understood in Jewish tradition but I think it his Short Stories and Novellas depicting life in Vilna, Lituania that are most now read.
Mayn krig mit hersh rasseyner” is situated in Paris where Grade briefly lived after the war. His first published work of prose, it appeared in the 1952 Rosh Hashanah issue of the Jewish Militanf.
In her introduction Professor Wisse says some scholars see the work as an essay on post Holocaust reactions by Jews debating the meaning of the Holocaust to surviving Jews. Wisse classified it as a story as many Yiddish Short Stories are structured as two people, in most cases men, having an argument about how The Talmud dictates earthly events should be viewed.
There are three time and location segments in this work, Reading time is about one hour. In 1937 two friends debate Talmudic issues. They were classmates at a yeshiva , a Talmudic school. Now seven years have gone by and one is now himself a teacher. They debate how different readings of the scriptures and commentaries would see worldly events.
“In 1937, I returned to Bialystok, seven years after I had been a student in the Novaredok Yeshiva of the Musarists, a movement that gives special importance to ethical and ascetic elements in Judaism. When I came back, I found many of my old school friends still there. A few even came to the literary evening when I spoke. Others visited me secretly; they did not want the head of the yeshiva to know. I could see on their unshaven faces that their poverty had brought them suffering and that the fire of their youthful zeal had slowly burned itself out. They continued to observe all the laws and customs meticulously, but the weariness of their spiritual struggles lay upon them. For years they had tried to tear the desire for pleasure out of their hearts, and now realized they had lost the war with themselves. They had not overcome the evil urge”
The two ex-Class mates meet again in 1939, in Novaredak. The narrator,with same first name as Grade, is now a well know writer, his old Classmate, launches into a direct attack on him:
“Chaim Vilner, you will remain a cripple. You will be deformed for the rest of your life. You write godless verses and they pinch you on the cheek for it like a ḥeder child. To add to the blasphemy, you come to spread your godlessness in the very city where you once studied. Now they’re stuffing you with praise as they stuff a goose with grain, and spoil you like an only child! But later you’ll see, when you’ve begun to go to the school of those pork-eaters, oh, won’t they beat you! Oh, how they’ll whip you! Which of you isn’t hurt by criticism? Is there really one of you so self-confident that he doesn’t go around begging for some authority’s approval? Is any one of you prepared to publish his book anonymously? The main thing for you people is that your name should stand on the cover, at the very top!”
Of course Chaim counter attacks.
By far the longest segment takes place in Paris in 1948. Chaim assumed his friend died in the Holocaust so he was totally shocked to spot him on a bus in Paris. Hersh Rasseyner tells him how he survived in the camps. While there he risked execution to teach young men scripture.
Chaim tells him how can you love a God that would allow send six million Jews to be murdered in the Holocaust. They begin an extended very learned passionate debate on this issue.
Professor Wisse says My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner by Chaim Grade is the most profound treatment of Jewish theological and historical interpretations of the Holocaust ever written.
I am very grateful to Mosaic for placing the new translation and Professor Wisse’s essay online. These are very valuable works.