(Editor’s note: “Retro Reviews,” is a yearlong series in which Chronicle Correspondent Hilary Daninhirsch will review Jewish-themed books that have been out of print for decades, or perhaps remain in print but are difficult to find [except in your public library]. Some titles may be recognizable; others may be obscure. But if they appear here, then you can bet they still have something to offer the Jewish reader.)
Chaim Grade, a Vilna native who came to the United States after World War II, may not be as well known a Yiddish language writer as Sholom Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer; his works are not as widely translated in this country as his better-known counterparts.
Even so, Grade’s work is just as noteworthy, perhaps because some of the topics he tackles remain stinging issues even in today’s Jewish world.
“The Agunah,” originally published in 1974 and most recently reissued in 1978, is one of those books.
An agunah is an abandoned woman who, because she has not been granted a ritual divorce, known in Hebrew as a get, is forbidden to remarry; she is in effect, “chained” to her marriage.
The agunah in the title is Merl, a woman living in post World War I Vilna, Lithuania. Merl learns that her husband’s entire battalion was killed in the war, but his body was never recovered and there were no witnesses to his death. Because there was no definitive proof that he was dead, she is branded with the title of agunah, preventing her from remarrying without rabbinical approval. Otherwise, if her husband were to turn up alive, she would have violated the seventh commandment by committing adultery.
When the book opens, Merl has been an agunah for 15 years, but despite the urging of her mother and sisters (one of whom married a “lout” and the other a “sod”), she has no real desire to remarry. In fact, most of the other widows of the lost battalion remarried without the blessing of a rabbi. But when Moishke Tsrulnik, the horrid man whom she rejected years ago decides to try again, he stirs up her anger. Merl decides to spite him by remarrying.
Merl soon meets Kalman Maytess, a housepainter and cemetery cantor, who wants to marry her. He desperately searches for a rabbinical authority to sanctify the marriage. The rabbi in charge of agunahs, Reb Levi, refuses to permit the union. Kalman finds another rabbi, Reb David, to allow it. The problem is, Reb David is already on thin ice with the community: his son is ostracized from cheder (Hebrew school) and his family, consisting of an ailing wife and dying baby, is left for poor. And Reb Levi has problems of his own: both his wife and daughter have been long-term residents of a mental institution.
Merl and Kalman’s marriage, or more appropriately, Reb David’s decision to allow the marriage, causes a ripple effect of controversy in the small community, including an incident where the head shamesh slaps the assistant shamesh during a synagogue service, igniting a fury and dividing public opinion.
Eventually, the decision results in a chain of events that spirals totally out of control. With each escalating event in the book, accusations fly and blame shifts as the winds of public opinion changes. The community falls apart because of lies, rumors and the decision of one leader. It is wry yet alarming insight into what happens when a community is divided over religion and religious interpretation.
It is clear that Grade was highly learned in Torah; the entire book reads like a talmudic discourse, but easy enough to understand for the lay reader. Some characters are more like caricatures, used for social commentary.
Ironically, the heart of the argument is based upon the sanctity of marriage, but virtually every character in the book is stuck in a miserable marriage. And as it turns out, the agunah despises her new husband and wishes to be let out of the marriage. However, on principal, Reb David refuses to revoke his decision.
Grade’s writing is colorful and many of his sentences read like Yiddish proverbs:
“Reb Levi was the type of man who was ecstatic if he lost two of his own teeth so long as his opponent lost one.” (22)
“Ah, woe, look who you’ve picked — a housepainter! A bungling wall-smearer. … He looks like an old repainted horse. He reeks of mold.” (37)
“One sin leads to another, he thought. He had begun with an agunah and now he was boozing in a tavern with a gang of youths.” (159)
“How come you’re my friend?” Kalman bit into a dry biscuit and nibbled at it quickly, like a squirrel. “Because I’m a man who has suffered, that’s why I’m your friend,” Moritz answered dejectedly. “May I drop dead if you understand me! If a dog licked my heart he’d croak. Poisoned.”
Along with a significant collection of poetry, Grade, who died in 1982 at the age of 72, is also the author of “The Sacred and the Profane,” “The Yeshiva” and the memoir, “My Mother’s Sabbath Days.”
Upon Grade’s widow’s death last year, numerous unpublished works were discovered in the author’s apartment; his widow had refused to allow them to be accessed or translated. Because she died without heirs, the papers reverted to public administration, where they are eagerly being sorted through by literary scholars. Perhaps, 30 years after his death, Grade will finally take his place among prominent Yiddish writers of the 20th century.
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)