“The Sacred and the Profane’ contains three excellent novellas by Chaim Grade translated from the original Yiddish by Harold Rabinowitz and Inna Hecker Grade, Chaim Grade’s second wife, whom he married sometime after the Nazis murdered his first wife and his mother along with six million other Jews. The Yiddish name was Kloyz un di Gas, which means “The Synagogue and the Street.’ It was initially published in 1982 under the title “Rabbis and Wives.” In her foreword to this volume, Grade’s wife explains that the name was changed since “Rabbis and Wives” can mislead readers, making them overlook the essential message of the book, that human life is a tension of opportunities, a tension between the sacred and the profane, that it is the nature of the profane to wage war on the sacred. Yet, in the end, human yearning for the spiritual – the eternal – spiritualizes and redeems even the battle of the sacred and the profane.” She tells us that the revised title captures the meaning of the original Yiddish title.
Chaim Grade was a superb novelist who wrote about the terrible conditions of Jewish life in pre-World War II Lithuania and often primitive the worldview of these people because of discrimination and the difficulty of attending secular schools. This excellent, disturbing, and depressing 1974 collection of three novellas describes the pitiful and disastrous impact of these conditions upon three sets of people and their communities. It is worth reading because the stories are fascinating, they reveal a now no longer existing culture that was destroyed by the holocaust, and they serve as a warning to those Jews who seek to revive this culture in America and Israel, a culture of isolation and avoidance of secular education.
The stories also show Chaim Grade’s concern that religion can in some people become exaggerated, destroying one’s life and the life of one’s family and acquaintances. While he does not mention it, the tales can remind us of the warnings of the Greek and Jewish philosophers Aristotle and Maimonides that our behavior should not be extreme but moderate, according to “the golden mean.”
“The Rebbetzin” portrays how a rabbi’s wife tries to break out of this culture by persuading her husband to leave a small isolated community for a larger one. Her motive is not entirely honest. She is still hurt by the senior rabbi of the larger community who jilted her. She persuades her husband to take a different approach in his sermons in the new city. This angers the rest of the community because he is now teaching that Jews should not sit back and await the coming of a messiah but work as Zionists to re-establish Israel. The rest of the community is convinced that failure to wait for God to act by engaging in Zionism is heresy, an attack against God, and an abandonment of the religious understanding of two thousand years of trust that God will aid Jews at the proper time.
“The Oath” portrays the religious life of a rabbi who was overzealous in his younger years, resulting in his wife insisting on a divorce he granted. It tells about a dying man who requests his son to swear that he will give up his secular education and study Torah with the divorced rabbi. He makes this request despite supporting his son’s study in the academy for many years. His son reluctantly agrees and does so after his father’s death without any enthusiasm, yearning to work instead in the field. The dying father also attempts to have his daughter swear to give up her love for an unreligious man who is a communist. She refuses. His wife observes Orthodox Judaism and loves it but cannot persuade her two children to do the same. She develops a relationship with the divorced rabbi.
“Laybe-Layzar’s Courtyard” is, in my view, the best of the trio, even though all are excellent. Readers will see why so many people are convinced that Grade should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The approximately hundred-page novella tells about the life of different Jews, males and females, religious and non-religious, all living in the same courtyard. There is Rabbi Yoel Weintraub, a knowledgeable scholar who started in the rabbinate taking an extreme view regarding what is permitted and prohibited by Jewish law. But something happened, and he feels terrible saying matters were forbidden. He gives up the rabbinate, comes to Laybe-Layzar’s Courtyard, spends his day secluded in the Bet Midrash, the study hall, studying the Talmud and Jewish Law books, and requires his wife to work selling fruits and vegetables to support them. The locksmith Heskiah Teitelbaum is radically different yet similar. He is also well-informed in Jewish Law but insists on acting strictly, fasts frequently, spends many hours studying in the Bet Midrash, reuses to work many times when he wants to study, and hurts the lives of his three daughters. We read what are, in essence, short tales of many others, including Paltiel Shklar, who sues his brothers about an inheritance and blames Rabbi Weintraub for not helping him; Moishele Manvas, who has an affair with a hat maker despite being married, and then with one of Heskiah Teitelbaum’s daughters; Itka, Heskiah Teitelbaum’s daughter, who wants to sell women’s clothes in the center of town away from the Jewish center; Serel, another daughter who wants to marry a Jew who knows little about Jewish Law; Sheftel Miklishansky known far and wide for his extreme piety and humility who has a run-in with Heskiah because of Itka; and many more.