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Keeper of the Flame

Few writers have had champions as fierce as Chaim Grade’s widow, Inna Grade, who died earlier this month

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Inna Grade in the library of the Bronx apartment she shared with her husband, Chaim, in December 1974. (Jack Manning/The New York Times/Redux)

Inna Grade, the widow of the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade and a feared enemy of many within in the Yiddish literary world, died May 2. Her age was a matter of some uncertainty, but the rabbi who officiated at her funeral believes that she was 85.

Grade was a highly educated woman who wrote poetry and spoke several languages, but she was mostly known for her intense protectiveness of her husband, his work, and his legacy, which led her into battle with many Yiddish literary figures. Since his death in 1982, she blocked many from publishing or translating the work he left behind—and now that she is gone, speculation over the fate of his literary estate has begun.

Inna Grade’s most public battle began in 1978, when Isaac Bashevis Singer became the first (and only) Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Many of his peers, including, reportedly, Chaim Grade, greeted the news with despair: Singer, who was by far the most successful Yiddish writer in America, was also criticized as presenting a patronizing fairy-tale version of Eastern Europe. What Inna Grade saw as a slight against her more-deserving husband became the central fight of her lifetime. In 2004, the centennial of Singer’s birth, she was interviewed in the New York Times. ”I despise [Singer] especially because he is dragging the Jewish literature, Judaism, American literature, American culture back to the land of Moab,” she told Alana Newhouse, now Tablet Magazine’s editor-in-chief, referring to the biblical region where Lot and his daughters began an incestuous affair. ”I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread into which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated.”

But Singer was only the first on Grade’s list of enemies, which was long even by the standards of the often-acrimonious Yiddish world. “She really had hatred for the entire Yiddish establishment,” said Allan Nadler, a professor of religion at Drew University who studied with Chaim Grade as a graduate student at Harvard. And in turn, he said, “she was hated in the Yiddish literary establishment.” According to Nadler, Inna Grade first alienated her husband’s friends and students during his lifetime and continued to stand between the writer and his admirers after his death. “She would not let anyone near his literary bequest,” Nadler said. “The more you loved him, the more impossible she became.”

One person who encountered Inna Grade’s wrath—and her litigiousness—was David Brandes, a producer and screenwriter who adapted Chaim Grade’s short story “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner” into the 1991 feature film The Quarrel. According to Brandes, Grade had signed a contract and production was underway when she became suspicious of the filmmaker’s motives; she later threatened him with lawsuits and made harassing phone calls to his home. “She made my life just miserable, and for no reason at all,” Brandes said.

According to observers, what most outraged people in the Yiddish world about Grade is that many of them loved her late husband’s work and wanted as much as she did for it to reach a wider audience. But her strategy was different from theirs. Grade was apparently more afraid of poor translations and bad adaptations (which she thought had already diminished her husband’s reputation) than she was of no translations or adaptations at all. One of the few people she trusted at the end of her life, a Bronx psychiatrist named Ralph Speken, said, “In order to translate Chaim Grade you have to be at his level, and only Inna was.” Grade translated two of her husband’s books on her own, but Speken and others believe that an untold number of untranslated manuscripts are likely sitting in her apartment.

News of Grade’s death, then, has resulted in barely suppressed expressions of glee from Yiddish scholars dying to get their hands on those manuscripts. “‘My first thought was, ‘Now that she’s dead, someone will be able to get into that damn apartment in the Bronx,’ ” Nadler admitted. “Unless she put it to flames.” Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, put it more gently. “Now that Grade’s wife has passed away,” she said in an email, “students may have access to his papers, potential translators and publishers to his works.”

Inna Grade, born Inna Hecker, grew up in Russia in a sophisticated family and married Chaim Grade—whose first wife had died in the Holocaust—while still a teenager. According to Speken, Grade had told him that her father, whom he believed was not Jewish, was a physician who ran a field hospital for the Soviet Army during World War II and was executed by the Nazis. In the late 1940s, Grade and her husband immigrated to New York; she told Speken that she later studied literature with the critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia and had two Master’s degrees from that university.

Grade’s mother, also a physician, apparently made it to New York as well—though Grade’s funeral guests reported discovering this only last week as they buried their friend and found the gravestone of Marie Heifetz-Hecker—Grade’s mother—next to her own. This seemingly solves another mystery as well: One rumor long circulated by her detractors was that she was not Jewish. But Heifetz-Hecker’s gravestone, Speken and other guests said, included her name, and her own mother’s name, in Yiddish. Chaim and Inna Grade had no children, and Inna has no known living relatives.

One of Grade’s unforgivable sins, according to her detractors, was her decision to bury her husband in a private ceremony, closed to them, when he died in 1982. Her own funeral last Friday was not much larger. Grade died penniless, apparently without a will, and her funeral costs were paid by the Public Administrator of Bronx County—which also now has authority over the much-desired papers in her apartment. The public administrator tapped Noach Valley, a local rabbi who had never met Grade (but had, as it happened, once presented a plaque to Singer honoring him on behalf of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America) to officiate.

One of the four people in attendance was Brad Silver, a longtime neighbor of Grade’s and the executive vice president of the Bronx Jewish Community Council, which took care of Grade as she became increasingly unable to pay her bills. This week, Silver said, he has been fielding the phone calls from Wisse and from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research wondering about the plans for Grade’s papers. Last year, when Grade was threatened with eviction, Speken was appointed her psychiatrist under the county’s Adult Protective Services program. The two bonded over their shared interests in Maimonides and Jung.

As her health deteriorated, Speken said, Grade became increasingly concerned about what would become of her husband’s papers. Grade and Speken discussed sending them to the University of Krakow, where Grade had contacts, or to an adult education institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem named for Martin Buber (Grade felt an affinity with the philosopher). About a week before she died, Speken added, Grade related an epiphany that seemed to suggest she had reached a private understanding with her life’s leading antagonist.

“Ralph, my work is done. I was wrong,” Speken said Grade told him. “Singer was not trying to take us back to the land of Moab. The fact is, we never left. All he did was to capitalize on it.”

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Esther Nebenzahl says:

As a great admirer of I.B.Singer’s writing I would be most willing to become equally acquainted with the work of Chaim Grade. Let’s hope to see his writings widely published an easily available in the market. Looking forward!

“Grade was apparently more afraid of poor translations and bad adaptations (which she thought had already diminished her husband’s reputation) than she was of no translations or adaptations at all.”

I would agree with this, if with nothing else Inna Grade had to say. I think a poor translation is worse than no translation at all! It can ruin a writer’s reputation for a generation.

On the other hand, it’s not like everything that Grade published during his lifetime has been well translated, so there’s a lot to do even before the papers get sorted out.

this is a wonderful and moving article. it brings inna grade to life. i have read chaim grade.
he is a marvelous writer. i.b. singer was widely read and deserved the nobel prize. he didn’t
cheat chaim grade out of it. they weren’t looking for a jewish writer to award. chaim grade is little known though perhaps the better writer.
but now that i have met inna grade i’d love to read what she has written.

Verificationist says:

great piece.

J. Arnon says:

I have read both writers and Grade is to Singer what Faulkner is to Margaret Mitchell.

The reason Singer got the prize was because the same reason they gave it to Pearl Buck: ignorance of Yiddish and American literature.

What the anti-Singer camp seems to forget is that The Nobel Prize for Literature is supposed to be awarded to an author who has had a profound and lasting effect on world literature. It is not supposed to be an award for the author most representative of his/ her culture. Was Grade a better writer in English than Singer? Possibly. Did his work have more influence outside of Yiddish circles and on world literature? Definitely not. Writers as diverse as Saul Bellow and Salman Rushdie have praised the influence of I.B. Singer’s work, and described its influence on them: magical realists seemed especially to appreciate his “fairy tale” work derided by Grade. That washat garnered him the Nobel Prize.

As for the notion that he was just a “fairy tale” writer, he had a broad body of work in a variety of styles, including children’s stories: works like the Family Muskat, the Slave, or Enemies: A Love Story (which, like much of his work, wasn’t even about the shtetl but about the U.S.) can’t be pawned off as fairy tales a’la Fiddler on the Roof.

None of this is to deride Grade, but only to make clear that Inna Grade and several of Singer’s detractors seem to believe that because Grade was the better Jew, or “more authentically Jewish” writer than I.B. Singer, somehow he was the better writer overall. Literature doesn’t work that way: there are plenty of writers who were more representative of “Irish” culture than James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, but almost none of the more “authentic ones” was a better writer.

Michael Sklaroff says:

”I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread into which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated.”

Who else but Jews would use words like these in a fight over secular literature? Hooray for us! [Seriously.]

jolie says:

“What the anti-Singer camp seems to forget is that The Nobel Prize for Literature is supposed to be awarded to an author who has had a profound and lasting effect on world literature. It is not supposed to be an award for the author most representative of his/ her culture.”

I mlooked at the list of Nobel prize winners and was hard put to find how Sinkiewich, Pearl Buck, or Jelinek have influenced “world literature?”

That Grade is unkown means that his influence is yet to come.

Let’s also remember that when Sienkiewicz got his prize Mark Twain and Henry James were still alive.

Grade is more like Henry James in this sense.

The only thing that connects Grade and Singer, in my opinion, is that they both wrote in Yiddish. The style, and the content, of these two authors was very different. And Singer did, over his life, publish a large body of work, while Grade did not. It will indeed be interesting to know what he has left behind — if it hasn’t been destroyed by his wife, who seems to have been an unpleasant woman.

Raghav says:

Whenever the topic of the anti-Singer Yiddish literary turf-wars comes up, I feel I have to link Cynthia Ozick’s hilarious satire of the phenomenon in “Envy, or Yiddish in America”: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewarticle.cfm/envy–or–yiddish-in-america-a-novella-4707

(Not that it needs clarification, but Ostrover and Edelshtein in the story are stand-ins for Singer and Yankev Glatshteyn.)

Antigonos – I’m in complete agreement.

Jolie – I used the word “supposed” in recognition of the fact that the Nobel Comittee hasn’t always lived up to its own stated goals – indeed, James Joyce never won a prize.

I agree Buck and Jelinek (and Toni Morrison, and about half a dozen Scandanavian writers who won only because the Nobel Committee could read them w/o translation) shouldn’t have won the prize, but my point – Nobel or not – remains: Singer was a far more influential writer in world literature than Grade, though not necessarily a better writer overall. However, his Grade’s wife and other proponents have argued he’s the better Yiddish writer than Singer for reasons such as Singer included sexuality in his writing, or Singer wasn’t involved in resistance to the Holocaust, or Singer wasn’t as good a Jew – all reasons I find beyond unconvincing. Again, remember that Joyce and Beckett received almost all the same complaints.

Ironically, you mock Henryk Sienkiewicz, yet he was a writer of profound influence in the first half of the 20th century – especially on Yiddish and Hebrew writers, many of whom read him in the original Polish! I’d be suprised if both Grade and Singer wouldn’t have ranked him highly.

Joseph Abrams says:

I loved all of Chaim Grade’s work. Only someone who is a true Talmud scholar should translate his work.
Singer had no love for real Jewish learning or its student. Grade knew them and appreciated them for who they were.
I look fowrard to seeing more of his works in print. JA

Thanks for a great article. I love both Grade and Singer. I am eager to see more of Grade in English. I do agree that a translator of Grade would have to comprehend rabbinic literature and rabbinic politics. Hopefully, successful translations will lead to a wider appreciation of that world. Now that the Yeshivah world is totally into hagiography and historical falsification it is even more important to see Grade’s work translated as a corrective.

J. Arnon says:

“Singer was a far more influential writer in world literature than Grade, though not necessarily a better writer overall.”

MS: it’s too soon to say who will be the more influential writer. These things are emasured in generations and not in decades.

NOw, can you tell me where you see Singer’s influence in world literature, or even Jewish literature?

J. Arnon says:

MS: “However, his Grade’s wife and other proponents have argued he’s the better Yiddish writer than Singer for reasons such as Singer included sexuality in his writing, or Singer wasn’t involved in resistance to the Holocaust, or Singer wasn’t as good a Jew – all reasons I find beyond unconvincing. Again, remember that Joyce and Beckett received almost all the same complaints.”

I agree that the quality of Singer’s Jewishness has no bearing on the quality of his writing.

I have read all of Singer and I don’t find him as profound as Grade and my view has nothing to do with the latters supposed religiosity. In fact toward the end of this life Singer became more puritanical and More religiously Jewish than Grade ever was.

It’s just that Grade had a more complex mind and it shows in his writing. It’s also not true that Grade only appeals to readers who know traditional Jewish learning. I number of non Jewish friends of mine have read Rabbis and Wives and loved it.

Evan says:

An interesting discussion, here. I have long been a fan of I.B. Singer and am aware of the controversy surrounding him and his works among other Yiddish writers. I believe one of the contentious points regarding Singer is the priority that he gave to the English translations of his works over the original Yiddish. His serialised novels and stories in Yiddish were often never published in book form, making the English versions the “standard” texts, and these versions were then referred to when Singer was translated into other languages. No doubt dyed-in-the-wool Yiddishists would have perceived all this as a betrayal.

I have yet to read Grade, though I am aware of his reputation. Unfortunately, what many opine to be his best work, The Yeshiva, has long been out of print and second-hand copied are mightily overpriced. Here’s hoping it will be reissued in the not-too-distant future.

rabbi menachem mendal katz says:

I hope that whoever gets control over Chaim Grade’s writings will be kind and big enough to translate what has been translated already years ago into English and to this day has had no good Israeli translation-MY QUARREL WITH HERSH RASSEYNER-.For years i taught religious studies at KFAR HAROEH the first Bnei Akivah yeshiva and English.My honours English class were about to do a fine translation,when an old yiddish (and English) expert and friend warned me to not attempt to do so,as i would find myself embroiled in a war with Ina and courtcases .One of my students could not believe that such a classic which so mirrored Grades life(OLOV HASHOLOM)and so expressed religious and artistic viewpoints should be witheld from the Israeli Hebrew speaking public.”Its a crime “he said.Let this be rectified.

J. Arnon says:

“No doubt dyed-in-the-wool Yiddishists would have perceived all this as a betrayal.”

What is a “dyed-in-the-wool Yiddishist?”

Two comments: Mrs Grade’s “championing” of her husband”s work may be the cause of their absence from the Speilberg digital collection at the Yiddish book center in Mass. As a surviving Yiddish reader I can’t access his “Mussernikes” or the orginal text of “The Quarrel” More important is all the years that have been lost as the number of genuinely capable Yiddish translators dies off and his work becomes “a toyre on yidn”, i.e.-”a Torah sans Jews” (the only internet posted poem of Grade’s). Inna Heifetz-Hecker is apparently Inna Hecker-Grade’s mother since his mother remained in Europe and did not survive the holocaust

Evan says:

“dyed-in-the-wool Yiddishist” = Yiddish purist?

Prof. Sylvain Cappell says:

I recall decades ago attending Chaim Grade’s wonderful lecture series on Yiddish literature at Harvard (while I was a young academic visitor there in math), and then going out to dinners with him and Allan Nadler (then a doctoral student there). The discussion turned to portrayals of rabbis and traditional Jewish scholars in Yiddish literature. Grade observed that some of the greatest Yiddish writers had limited direct personal familiarity with rabbinic scholars, and hence Peretz’s rabbis were largely types or abstractions, and Sholem Aleichem’s mostly figures of amusement, however charmingly presented. But after thinking the matter over further, Grade added that Singer had in childhood known rabbis intimately, e.g., his father, and this had enabled some of his representations of scholars to achieve great depth.

Bonny Fetterman says:

Inna Grade was insane. I can vouch for the fact that she was into power for the sake of power and wielded it irrationally. In 1987, when I was senior editor of Schocken, I acquired paperback reprints rights to two of Chaim Grade’s books, My Mother’s Sabbath Days and Rabbis and Wives. Mrs. Grade didn’t like the covers, which we re-did twice to please her. When Schocken Books was acquired by Random House, she called the editors of Pantheon and Knopf to attempt to block Schocken from continuing to sell these books — just because she didn’t like the covers. She was such a pain that the books were dropped as soon as the first editions sold out. All she accomplished was putting these two fine works out of print — just to establish her authority. It was unbelievable.

Monica Goldberg says:

Thanks for an excellent article. I look forward to reading the work of Chaim Grade.

Avner says:

Rabbi Katz – Shlomo Zucker translated “my quarrel…” and it is published as the last chapter in “Yeshivot Lita – Pirkei Zichronot” ed. by E. Etkes and S. Tikochinski.

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Keeper of the Flame

Few writers have had champions as fierce as Chaim Grade’s widow, Inna Grade, who died earlier this month

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