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The Yeshiva: The Jerusalem of Lithuania's Greatest Novelist-- Chaim Grade's--Greatest Novel

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

PARTS 1-3 Saturday, August 7, 2021, 5:00 - 7:00 pm Pacific

PARTS 4-5 Saturday, September 4, 2021, 5:00-7:00 pm Pacific


While the book, The Yeshiva, is now out of print, you can find copies through your library and/or interlibrary loan. You can also download a digital copy here:


The cardinal points of North and South are mapped Jewishly in terms of prominent cultural stereotypes of the Litvak (North) and the Galitzianer (South). These character types correspond to distinctive regional dialects and also to can help us to map some of the diverse Jewish religious cultures and population centers highlighted for us by reading Chaim Grade's work at this time, against our previous readings as background.


The novel, The Yeshiva, is set in the city of Vilna and environs in the 1920s. Known in Russian and in Yiddish as Vilna, in Lithuanian as Vilnius, and in Polish as Wilno, the city was a major center of Jewish life within the Pale of Settlement. Its author Chaim Grade's life corresponds and responds to key themes and events in the city in the turbulent 20th century. Born in 1910, Grade's family, already poor, suffered even greater deprivation as an effect of the First World War. His father was an underemployed Hebrew teacher and maskil (free thinker); his mother barely supported the family by selling fruit. Grade and his two sisters were placed in an orphanage, where both girls died. Afterwards, his mother somehow managed to support Grade to attend yeshivas in Vilna, Olkeniki, Bialystock and Novaredok.

Anyone who has read The Yeshiva can recognize that this is very much an autobiographical work, with the character of Chaim Vilner standing in for the author. But do not mistake the book for the bildungsroman of a young writer. Grade's career and reputation as a young man was made as a poet. Grade left the world of the Yeshiva in 1932, returning to the city where--according to Joanna Lisek, in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, V. 333--he moved with his mother into "a tiny, windowless room, furnished only with two metal pallets and table, in back of a blacksmith's shop on Jatkowa Street in Vilna." He began publishing poems and, in 1934, joined as a contributor to the Yung Vilne group of avant-garde Yiddish writers, earning immediate recognition. His poetry often used prophetic imagery from the Bible to characterize the dehumanization of his age. He also flirted with communist revolutionary themes, while personally rejecting an active role that might involve bloodshed.

Grade's work expressed both the universalist and particularist concerns of his generation of Jewish writers. On the one hand, they confronted and lamented the destruction and degradation of humanity associated with the First World War. On the other, they were preoccupied with the specific problem of Jewish nationalism following the demise of the Russian Empire. Yiddish-speaking Jews occupied a vast territory, a people and as some argued, a nation, without a state. Yung Vilne rejected the Zionist alternative and associated itself with the movements on the Jewish Left: Yiddishist, Folkist and Bundist. They embodied the Jewish Labor Bund's policy of doi-kayt (here-ness), the idea that Jews belong and should participate in the countries where they find themselves. Across national boundaries, Bundists, Yiddishists and Folkists alike viewed the Jews as constituents of an imagined national entity united by language. A place called Yiddishland.


The term litvak has a special derisive meaning beyond denoting a person who comes from Lita, the region comprised of what is now Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus and parts of Poland. The stereotype of the litvak portrays a spiritually narrow, overly rationalist skeptic. We met such a character in Esther Singer Kreitman's novel The Dance of the Demons in the persona of Deborah's mother. In fact, the stereotype of the cold, practical rationalist--and in this case, freethinking--mother stands in heightened relief against the pietistic Hasidic father who places his belief and trust in God's will. We also got glimpses of the litvak stereotype in Kreitman's brother's novel The Brothers Ashkenazi, in the unpleasant, sharp-dealing clothing dealer from Lithuania with his lisping accent. In fact, there is no end to the appearance of the litvak in literature and speech (even today) as one pole of a contrastive cultural type.

Here we will unpack where this stereotype comes from. The Jewish community was established in Lithuania in the 14th century, with the invitation issued to German Jews by the king. In the late 16th century, the community built the Great Synagogue in grand Italian Renaissance style, with a soaring interior made possible by a floor dug below ground level, complying with the rule that the building not stand taller than the Catholic Church. In 1812, after visiting the Great Synagogue on his march to Moscow, Napoleon dubbed Vilna "the Jerusalem of the North." The name stuck. The Great Synagogue's gated courtyard with its study houses (kloyzes) became a visual metonym for the city's Jewish presence and identity, as in the photo of the book's cover (above).

As readers know, the Great Synagogue and its courtyard are not actually a locale described in the book. While some action in The Yeshiva does take place among the poor of Vilna, giving us Chaim Vilner's (i.e. Chaim Grade's) background, most occurs in nearby towns (shtetls). The Valkenik shtetl, where the tormented teacher Tsemakh Atlas establishes a yeshiva, is only three stops away from the city by train. The severe teachings that Tsemakh Atlas imposes on the boys in the Valkenik yeshiva derive ultimately from Rabbi Israel Salantar, founder of the late-19th century Musar movement. The Novaredok yeshiva founded by Rabbi Yisroyl Hurwitz, in which Tsemakh Atlas studied and taught, was a place of radical Musar teachings of ethical introspection and self-abnegation.

This brings us to a discussion of the religious traditions associated with Vilna as a religious center and of Mussar's place within it. Vilna is the birthplace of the Misnagdim, the manner of Jewish study and observance that stands in direct opposition to Hasidism. The word Misnagdim means 'Opponents.' Opponents of what? Opponents of Hasidism. As we saw in the portrayal of the Bratslavers in The Family Mashber (and even more in its source material in The Tales of Rabbi Nahman), the Hasidic tradition started by ca. 1730 by The Baal Shem Tov in Ukraine invited Jews to participate in ecstatic prayer, dancing and other embodied expressions of joy.

The online source, The Jewish Virtual Library, puts it this way. The Baal Shem Tov sought to make the Kabbalistic teachings of the 16th century Rabbi Yitzchak Luria "accessible to even the simplest Jew, emphasizing prayer, love of God and love of one's fellow Jews."

He [the Baal Shem Tov] taught that even if one was not blessed with the ability or opportunity to be a Torah scholar, one could still reach great spiritual heights through these channels. http//

It was the rebbe, as spiritual leader of the particular Hasidic community, who bore responsibility for supplying the framework of Torah to his followers.

Towards the end of the 18th century, rumors and accusations of sexual abuses and other forms of heretical behavior prompted a frightened reaction and then a full-scale kulturkampf against the Hasidim. The center of the opposition resided with Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the Vilna Gaon ('Genius'), the scholar and rabbi presiding over Vilna's Great Synagogue. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, a majority of scholars agree that it was the Gaon who, among the opponents:

. . . galvanized the leading Jewish communities of Lithuania and Belorussia, such as Vilna, Brisk, and Minsk—in addition to Brody in Galicia—into a major battle with Hasidism. This battle was initially engaged through rabbinical letters of excommunication forbidding the establishment of Hasidic prayer houses, ordering the public burning of Hasidic literature, encouraging the humiliation and even imprisonment of Hasidic leaders, and banning contact with them or their followers.

A map of Misnagdic and Hasidic centers on YIVO's website makes clear the predominantly north-south axis of the schism between Misnagdim and Hasidim. Vilna is at the very top of the map. Bratslav and Uman, the last home and burial place of Rabbi Nahman, are at the very bottom. The intense schism between Misnagadim and

Hasidim ended due to a number factors. Among them was the Haskalah, the movement away from faith and toward secular learning. In the face of secularism and modernity, Misnagdim and Hasidim had a common enemy. The Misnagdim were also undercut by the emergence of a popular Hasidic movement in the north, in the Vilna Gaon's own lifetime, led by Rabbi Schnur Zalman of Lyady. This was the Lubavitcher Habad, the forerunner of today's far-flung Jewish self-missionizing Chabad empire.

Many Hasidic groups also moved westward during the 19th century into Poland, near urban and industrial centers such as Lodz, Warsaw and Lemberg (Lvov). It was the Misnagdim who kept up yeshivas in the small rural areas of the Soviet Union through the 1920s, 30s and 40s, Haim Dov Beliak reminds us (personal communication). They also found refuge from Soviet turmoil in Poland, as we learn from Tsemakh Atlas's forays to rescue Jewish youth across the border with Russia. All in all, most yeshivas in Europe, the Diaspora and Israel were founded by and derived from the Vilna Gaon, his disciples and their heirs. And, including the Lubavitcher, a Hasidic movement, they all keep close textual study of Torah at the core.

Seen in this context, Musar was, like Hasidism, a radical pietist intervention. Both challenged the self-absorbed routines of punctilious textual scholarship for its own sake. But in spirit these movements were complete polar cutopposites. Hasidism stressed love and joy, while Musar's demands for self-scrutiny and ethical behavior resulted--in Chaim Grade's novel--in the Musarnik's inability to experience joy and pleasure.

While The Yeshiva focuses on the figure of the rosh yeshiva (headmaster) Tsemakh Atlas who suffers from his lack of faith, the story pivots on Chaim Vilner, the autobiographical character based on Grade, who turns away from Musar just as Grade did in his mid-20s. Lisek summarizes: "Grade's prewar work shows a clear awareness of the Jewish tradition's insufficiency to meet the challenges of the contemporary world, including the seductiveness of secular creativity in ideology, politics, and art."


Chaim Grade began writing novels only after the Second World War. September 19, 1939 marked the Soviet occupation of Vilna under the Von Ribbentrop-Molotov pact with Nazi Germany. The German occupation of Vilna did not come until later, after a series of hand-offs that affected the Jews in a different manner than in the rest of Poland, which had regained Vilna in the First World War. The Soviets handed over the territory including Vilna to a nationalist Lithuanian government, in which Jews were able to continue their Zionist, Bundist and other movement activities. In June 1940, the Soviets abolished all Jewish organization and began sending perceived enemies east to Siberia. Some Jews went underground and others managed to flee to Shanghai, Palestine or to some degree of safety in Soviet Russia.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 set off panic among Vilna's Jews. According to Lisek and other writers, Grade allowed himself to be persuaded by his mother and wife to flee behind Soviet lines. He spent the war wandering the Soviet Union and continued to write poetry, following the dictates of policy requiring writers to praise the Red Army and its heroism. Grade returned to the ruined city of Vilna, which had been reclaimed by Poland, in 1946. His mother and wife did not survive the Holocaust. He found that the Polish government was not about to support reestablishing Jewish culture. The Kielce pogrom in July 1946 was taken as a message by Grade and many others to leave Poland. He went first to Paris where he did cultural work and, in 1948, traveled to New York as a founder and delegate to the World Congress of Jewish Culture (Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-kongres). Grade moved to New York with his second wife and lived in the Bronx, where he turned out a series of important stories, essays and novels, as well as continuing to write poetry and bring out collections of his earlier poems until his death at the age of 72.

Grade's full-length books in Yiddish and in English translation written in New York include Der mames shaboysim, published in 1955 (translated as My Mother's Sabbath Days, 1986), Der shulhoyf, in 1958 (The Synagogue Courtyard, 1967), Di Agunah, in 1961 (The Abandoned Wife, 1974), and our current novel in two volumes: Tsemakh Atlas: di yeshive, in 1967, 1968 (The Yeshiva, 1976, 1977). Of these, I personally have read only the two volumes of The Yeshiva (Volume 2, which focuses on the character Chaim Vilner, is titled Masters and Disciples) and the three novellas in The Synagogue Courtyard. These three stories give a less exotic picture of what we could call, tongue-in-cheek, Life among the Litvaks. We get to see how intimate relationships and ethical consciousness play out in the ordinary world and--in the story titled 'The Synagogue Courtyard'-- Vilna city life.

"A translator must know the hidden corners of a culture, and this is especially true for Chaim

Grade’s works." -- Curt Leviant

In an intimate and also incisive portrait of his mentor and friend, Chaim Grade, the translator Curt Leviant wrote on the writer's hundredth birthday: "I translated three of Grade’s most important books. In doing so, I came to understand that this actually required knowledge of four languages: not only Yiddish and English, but also Hebrew and Jewish" (Jewish Review of Books, Winter 2011 By Jewish, Leviant said that he meant a thorough knowledge of the Jewish life cycle, the Shabbes, Jewish holidays, the basics of Jewish liturgy, ritual and customs, and the basic texts of yiddishkeyt.

What this means for us, the Yiddish Schmoozers in Translation, is that in The Yeshiva, we have an almost unparalleled opportunity to encounter a slice of early 20th century Jewish religious and social life in and around Vilna. Even more than in Der Nister's imaginative reconstruction of the clash between the Orthodox and the Bratslaver Hasidim inThe Family Mashber, Chaim Grade gives us a straight ethnographic rendering of Jewish religion and daily life based on his own immersive experience. The faithful rendering of this Jewish world was, indeed, Grade's project in his postwar writing in Yiddish.

Further, as Joanna Lisek writes: "Grade was always skeptical about the possibility of accurate translation of his works. He believed that the world of yidishkeyt (Jewishness) that he was attempting to reconstruct could be fully expressed only in Yiddish, since it was the language in which that world had lived and died." Fortunately, as a translator, Leviant was at least able to rely on Grade while he was alive to explain and explicate meanings and nuances. Thus he was able to help advance Grade's ability to act, to use Lisek's term, as a 'reliable witness' to the rich culture that the Holocaust wiped away.

As modern anthropologists in America understood, in the same period in which Grade wrote as a member of Yung Vilne circa 1920s, to understand a culture means more than cataloguing its outward customs and manifestations. It is necessary to understand people's beliefs through their narratives. Today, we also seek to understand collective memory and consciousness in light of political economy, historical circumstances and encounters with cultural Others. But the modern anthropological insight remains valid that cultures not only shape but are shaped reciprocally--if writ small, initially--by shifts in individual psychology.

In this aspect, Grade's work provides invaluable insights into complex characters struggling to live in Jewish society while in relation to its higher values. The Yeshiva represents the special world of Musar. Here and in Grade's other works, we can see 'the litvak' on his (yes, his) home turf, in all his humanity and complexity, as flesh and blood, rather than the facile caricature drawn offhandedly by his culturally distant Jewish detractors. Let us not overlook, however, the implications of the homosocial yeshiva world for understanding the impediments and origins of 'modern' relations and gendered desires between men and women in Ashkenaz.

--Gelya Frank, July 27, 2021


If you have read the book, feel free to enter the conversation! Please stay on point, be responsive and inclusive. Help build a krayzl (circle) of friendship and insight.

If you are on the email list, you will receive an email reminder of the date with the Zoom link. You can also find the link here on the YSIT site. Go to the home page and menu bar at the top. Click 'Connect with Us' and then click 'How to Zoom In." Paste the link in your browser.

1. Chaim Grade wastes no time in telling us, in the third paragraph of the book, that the protagonist Tsemakh Atlas "knew that there was a Torah and that without the Torah man couldn't find his way. . . but he didn't know whether the Torah was divinely given." How does this early revelation set up the theme of the book?

2. Similarly, at the start of the book, when Tsemakh takes his doubts to 'The Old Man of Navaredok,' Rabbi Yosef-Yoizl Hurwitz urges him to get married immediately. How does this advice set up the plot?

3. Two novels that we read earlier come to mind as foils for discussing The Yeshiva:

Moshe Kulbak's The Zelmenyaners (serialized 1930s) is an affectionate, if satirical take on the Soviet modernization project in Jewish Minsk in the 1930s, while The Yeshiva introduces us, if slightly, to a slowly modernizing capitalist Poland in the 1920s. How does this 'modern' world in which the Musarnik, Tsemakh Atlas, is living strike you and, along with The Zelmenyaners, how you understand daily life in Eastern Europe (Poland and Belarus) after World War I?

Der Nister's The Family Mashber (published 1939) is a pre-Holocaust reconstruction of the clash between Orthodoxy and a radical mid-19th century Hasidic (Bratslaver) religious sect in Ukraine. How does the contrast with the Litvish cultural style and Musar world in The Yeshiva affect how you conceive of the range of pre-Holocaust Jewish religious experience and practice in Eastern Europe?

4. What characters and scenes jumped out for you? How did they affect you? What beliefs (discourses) and customs (practices) grabbed your attention?

5. The Yeshiva is considered one of the finest works of Yiddish literature. Ruth Wisse commented that Chaim Grade's work represented a melding of the yeshiva, on the one hand, and Dostoyevsky, on the other. What do you think of Grade as a writer? Comment on the construction of the book and, to the extent possible, given that this is in translation, on his style. What are the literary hallmarks and strengths of this work?

6. Not least, we can read The Yeshiva to think about problems in traditional and modernizing concepts of gendered roles between the sexes in the 1920s (see the amazing article below by Naomi Seidman, 'Reading "Queer" Ashkenaz'). Recalling our discussion of the homosocial world of Hasidim in The Family Mashber, how does Grade treat the sexual economy of Jewish life in The Yeshiva? What gendered values and expectations does he give to Vella, Chaim Vilner's mother, to Slava, Tsemakh's wife, and to the other women? What goes wrong in Tsemakh and Slava's marriage?

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Thank you, Gelya, for bringing the world of Chaim Grade and pre-WWII Vilna back to life for us. (And thank you, also, for having emailed us the link to Dr. David Fishman's fascinating Zoom presentation, "The Wanderings of a Yiddish Writer During and After the Holocaust" earlier this week.)

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