Monday, December 07, 2009

The Yeshiva: Volume 1 by Chaim Grade (1967)

When I bought this copy of The Yeshiva by Chaim Grade (1967), which I'm reading because it is on Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, I knew that it was a two volume work, and I was pretty sure that the copy I bought had both volumes bound together. Not so. So, after Christmas I will work on getting the (out of print, rather expensive) Yeshiva, Volume 2: Masters and Disciples. Until then, you and I will have to make do with just one half of this epic Yiddish novel.

The Yeshiva draws on some of Chaim Grade's own experiences growing up in Lithuania and Poland between the wars in a story that crosses religious torment with vingettes of everyday life. The main character is Tsemakh Atlas, a scholar who fanatically follows the teachings of the Mussar movement (a Jewish ethical movement that focuses on removing all traces of sin from your thoughts and actions, rejecting comfort and pleasure, and [apparently] telling the truth to everyone even if they don't want to hear it). The problem, however, is that Tsemakh secretly doubts the existence of God and openly belittles close studying of the Torah, which is what pretty much everyone else thinks a good scholar should work on.

Tsemakh fights with his home yeshiva (a yeshiva is kind of an academy for studying the Torah -- as a side note, I am very thankful this book came with a glossary), and finds himself agreeing to an engagement with a pious unmarried woman in a far-off town. But, because Tsemakh is fiesty and often acts without thinking, he sours on the idea, breaks his engagement, and moves on, only to lustily fall for a freethinking, beautiful and wealthy woman from a merchant family. Slava is on the market because everyone knows she has been having an affair with a married man in the big city, but Tsemakh falls head-first into his passions and ignores all the reasons why he and Slava are not a good match. He shaves off his ear-locks and beard and attempts to be a shop-keeper with his brothers-in-law.

It naturally does not take Tsemakh long to work himself into a guilty fury for ignoring his Mussar teachings and falling for a non-observant beauty. After hurling himself back into his faith, he decides to take another scholar from the village and move somewhere else to start up his own yeshiva. He brings a few students from Slava's town with him, including Chaikl, who soon takes over the focus of the book as he walks a parallel path between piousness and temptation.

Grade paints a realistic and engrossing picture of Jewish life between the wars in the period where freethinking and secular movements were threatening the traditional way of life. In Tsemakh we have a man with horribly ordinary passions and doubts who takes pleasure in tormenting himself and generally alienates those around him. He is balanced by a whole host of scholars, villagers, families, and shopkeepers who spend their time just living their lives. This is only the second Yiddish novel I've read, but I liked it even better than the first (although, to be fair, they are pretty different) and I am very interested to read Volume II and see what kind of fervor Tsemakh works himself into next.

[Anyone know how to pronounce Tsemakh? (Professor Romance?) It has been driving me crazy to not be able to pronounce it in my head....]


Anonymous said...

I could tell you, but I can't write it to well. try: Sim CHa
With the "Ch" as a gutteral (clear your throat).
Professor Romance

Lauri said...

How do you pronounce Grade?

Spacebeer said...

I'm not sure, but if I had to guess I would say it would rhyme with "pod."

kirschbaumr said...

Correction on your pronunciations:

Tsemach is Tzeh-mach (the tz creates a sound nonexistant in English, the ch is the same as in "chanukah")

Grade is grah-deh

Spacebeer said...

Thanks kirschbaumr!