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Will the Real ‘Hersh Rasseyner’ Please Stand Up?

Reading Chaim Grade’s classic story and wondering who, exactly, the Yiddish master is arguing with

Curt Leviant
February 23, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

Great art manages to find new ways to delight and surprise us. For decades, English readers only had access to Milton Himmelfarb’s shortened version of “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” the famous novella by Chaim Grade, one of the most famous Yiddish writers of the 20th century. The story first appeared in translation in the now-classic 1954 anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, edited by the critic Irving Howe and the Yiddish poet Eliezer Greenberg. Along with Isaac Bashevis Singer, Grade was one of the few living writers featured, and at age 44, was the youngest. “Hersh Rasseyner”—which concerns two yeshiva friends who repeatedly run into each other over the course of a decade—was the closing work in that collection.

As it turns out, Grade did not take the time to edit “My Quarrel,” nor to follow Chekhov’s dictum to keep it short. And Himmelfarb not only translated the work; he also did a masterful job of reduction and redaction. Then, four years ago, Ruth Wisse, the renowned Harvard Yiddishist, retranslated the entire Yiddish text. Wisse’s original and much longer version is accurate—but it reveals Grade’s story to be repetitive, and a little boring. Reading this new translation of Grade’s overly long text, one is tempted to skim paragraphs and skip pages. This longer version makes it clear how successful Himmelfarb was seven decades ago in making a masterful short story out of a long-winded polemic.

But something is illuminated when reading the two translations together. Knowing the real origins of the story, as I do, enhances our appreciation of Grade’s genius, as he expands into a work of art the almost fleeting real-life incident that led to “My Quarrel.” By comparing the story’s inception with the two English translations now in print, we get an intimate glimpse—one rarely available to readers—into the writer’s creative process.

Chaim Grade was one of the great creative forces in modern Yiddish literature. Born in Vilna in 1910, he was educated in yeshivas during his youth, but left that world and turned to writing. He started writing poetry in his 20s and, in 1936, with his debut poetry volume Yo! (Yes!) blazed his way into the Yiddish literary scene. He then turned to prose, depicting with almost photographic reality scenes and people from the religious and the secular worlds. In late June 1941, just before the German army invaded Lithuania, Grade fled to the Soviet Union, where he spent the war years. He moved to the United States in 1948, and in the early 1950s began serializing his fiction in weekly installments for the Yiddish daily Der Tog/Morgn Zhournal. Grade’s rival for attention, Isaac Bashevis Singer, did the same for the Forverts.

In the mid-1970s—the years I was translating Grade’s Holocaust memoir, The Seven Little Lanes, and his novels The Agunah and the two-volume The Yeshiva—I would often visit Grade in his Bronx apartment. These visits weren’t always about his writing. I frequently drove up to the Bronx for the sheer pleasure of schmoozing with him.

During one of these get-togethers, I asked Grade about his encounter with Hersh Rasseyner (whose real name was Gershon Kovler), and to share some background on “My Quarrel.” I had always wondered about the extraordinary coincidences of Grade meeting his old yeshiva friend three times in three different cities, over a period of 11 years, and having such long conversations with Hersh Rasseyner each time.

I could probe into such a matter with ease because we had a warm and almost familial relationship, though Grade’s wife, Inna—who was well-known for being prickly and defensive of him—did her best to abrade this mutual affection. My comment about coincidences and long conversations made Grade smile, and I was soon privileged to get what is referred to in Talmudic terms as “me-akhorey ha-pargod” (behind the curtain), and to hear Grade’s terse, one-line narration revealing the origins of “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner.”

Grade began his response with a disparaging downward wave of his right hand, which, if verbalized, would be “Eh,” in Yiddish, “shtuyot” in Hebrew, and “nonsense” in English, and which was accompanied by a glance that one could only describe as dismissive.

Then came the crisp, telling line: “I met him once, by chance, standing in front of a building in New York, and I spoke to him for five or six minutes …”

Now listen to the end of Chaim’s sentence, in Yiddish: “… un ikh hob arine-gelegt in zine moyl dee verter vos er hot gedarft sogn, volt er nor gekent redn.” In English: “… and I put into his mouth the words he should have said, if only he had the ability to articulate them.”

Grade’s description puts a different slant on “My Quarrel,” and lets us see how the author was able to expand a brief encounter with an old acquaintance into a story that encompasses the writer’s own yeshiva background, his intimate knowledge of Musar (rabbinic literature concerned with morality), and his life as a secular Yiddish poet and novelist whose works are replete with Yiddishkeit. Only a man like Grade could have been able to penetrate the essence of Hersh’s mindset, heartset, and thought-ways, and express them so clearly, honestly, and passionately, despite disagreeing totally with Hersh’s views.

In Wisse’s introduction to her translation, she insightfully suggests that the work is a monologue, but doesn’t elaborate, saying only: “The story merely hints at how Grade made literature out of the quarrel with himself.”

In my reading, the narrator speaks out of both sides of his mouth, playing the role of the Yiddish poet who has long abandoned the Musar way of life as well as that of his sparring partner, Hersh, the steadfast, uncompromising, rigorously devout Musarnik. “My Quarrel,” then, is not about the dispute between two men on opposite sides, but an argument between one man and his inner self.

One could argue that one flaw in Himmelfarb’s concision was his omission of a scene where Hersh’s student Yehoshua (a concentration camp survivor like Hersh), comes across Hersh and Chaim in the midst of a disagreement and joins the fray. Yehoshua’s passion for strict adherence to Jewish law, and his arrogance, scorn, and disdain for the ex-yeshiva bokher and hatless Chaim, whom he insults and sneers at, demonstrates the sort of zealous followers Hersh is creating. Hersh’s postwar yeshiva is in, of all places, Germany.

Nevertheless, omitting Yehoshua was a justified excision, for the quarrel between Chaim and Hersh should not be vitiated by the intrusion of another character, even if it tilts the scale toward Chaim and adds a few telling points.

Hersh’s argument can be condensed into one of his most memorable remarks: “We want a more onerous code [of laws], more commandments, more laws, more prohibitions.” The Musarist asceticism and self-denial have remained with Hersh and, after the war, have intensified. Hersh assumes that this behavior will make him a better Jew in the eyes of God.

But notice, as I think Grade wants us to, that Hersh does not utter one word regarding beyn adam le-khavero—the relationship between man and his fellow man: Hersh says nothing about feeding the poor, helping others, coming to the aid of widows and orphans. Hersh’s position is all about his own virtue before Hashem.

Yet, when Hersh Rasseyner speaks of the great day of reckoning that will surely come, it is not just Hersh speaking, but both Chaim and Hersh hoping that an el kano, a jealous/zealous vengeful God, will come and avenge the Gestapo’s brutal killing of Jewish infants. For, as Hersh says, not one-third of our people were murdered by the Germans and their helpers, but one-third of every Jew, “his body, his soul.” This passage is not about secular versus frum: It is rather about the collective hope of all the Jews, even if the paragraph ends with Hersh suggesting that it is only this hope and belief in the awesome day of judgment that “allows him to go on calmly doing the work of the Creator.”

With the two versions we have, we get an intimate glimpse—one rarely available to readers—into the writer’s creative process.

The story raises complex questions about Grade’s faith and observance. At one point in her essay, Wisse says Grade “had demonstratively shut the door on the yeshiva without attaching himself to any form of Jewish observance.” Perhaps. But then what to make of the fact that Grade also wrote The Agunah, which features a dispute among rabbis as to whether the novel’s heroine should be given permission to marry, even though there is no definitive proof that her husband was killed during World War I? Grade also wrote The Yeshiva, a novel abundant with Yiddishkeit.

There is more. Besides the Yiddishkeit of his poetry and prose, Grade remained Jewish in his own way, not entirely abandoning tradition. Once, about two to three weeks before Pesach, I came to visit him. When I entered his apartment, I saw a big, square, flat, 2-inch-high white cardboard box on a side table. It was obviously a box of shmura matzo.

After greeting me, Grade asked, “Do you know who sent it to me?” I did not know. “The Lubavitcher Rebbe,” Chaim said proudly. “With his personal sh’liakh (messenger). He does this every year for my Seder.”

I was astounded. “Chaim, du? Du pravest a Seder?” (“You make a Seder?”)

With good-humored affront, he replied: “Avadeh! Vos meynstu ikh bin a goy?” (Of course! You think I’m a goy?)

In fact, this wasn’t all. In her introduction, Wisse mentions observant admirers of Grade like Louis Finkelstein, the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Isidore Twersky of Harvard, who invited Grade to teach his students. To this distinguished list we have to add the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who followed the weekly installments of The Yeshiva in the Morning Journal, the Yiddish daily that Grade wrote for. Indeed the Rebbe once phoned Chaim and asked how he was feeling.

“Rebbe, how did you know I was sick?”

“I assumed you were,” said the Rebbe, “because for two weeks there were no chapters of The Yeshiva in the paper.”

As it turns out, Grade never fully abandoned the Jewish tradition: He would attend Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services in Barryville, an upstate New York town where he spent half of August and September. And despite Grade’s running away from yeshiva, Grade evidently still studied Talmud occasionally. “I can open a Gemara and read it bareheaded,” he once told me, “but when I look into Rashi without a yarmulke, heybt mir on mine kop tzu brennen (my head starts to burn).”

One would think that Grade’s escape from the tight bonds of Musar and its uncompromising self-abnegation would liberate him, and give him some solace, relief, and peace. But it did not. Living with all these opposite pulls caused him stress and conflict. As he once told me—and he purposely said it in English—“I am not a happy man.”

“My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” concludes on an apparently upbeat note. Chaim says to Hersh: “Come, let us embrace” (in Wisse’s translation, Himmelfarb adds: “each other”).

Reading “My Quarrel” as a monologue makes us realize that Chaim hugs no one but himself. He yearns to embrace these quarreling aspects of his identity.

Yet even this embrace is a fiction within a fiction. Toward the end of the story, Chaim says to Hersh: “I love you with all my soul.” But Hersh does not react. This is part of Grade’s subtle commentary on Hersh’s personality. From Hersh we see only anger and obduracy. Still, Chaim’s tone of affection for Hersh feels false (or “falsh!” as my mother would cry out when I was a youngster practicing piano and hit a wrong note). After all that arguing, after all that defense of Jewish creativity, which Hersh denigrates and despises, Chaim cannot possibly respect him. Hersh’s stance infuriates Chaim. How can you love someone who enrages you and whom you cannot respect?

This long paragraph of love, leading up to the final words, “Come, let us embrace,” is fantasy. Never in this world, and not even in the next, would Hersh embrace Chaim. This affection might be possible only if Chaim is embracing the two sides of himself.

The last line of the story is telling, too, for there are no other words below it. Nothing like: Hersh spread out his hands in welcome. Or a simple: “Yes!” So who is Chaim embracing? Himself. He was trying to blend what he learned as a yeshiva bokher with his current secularist views.

It was not an easy embrace.

Curt Leviant has translated four volumes of Chaim Grade’s fiction, including his two-volume The Yeshiva. He is also the author of 14 novels, the most recent of which are the just-published Tinocchia, the Adventures of a Jewish Puppetta and The Woman Who Looked Like Sophia L.