As Yom Kippur approaches, a Day of Awe meant to be used for soul-searching, famed Yiddishist Ruth Wisse will be discussing a well-known story that delves into that very subject for the Beit Avi Chai culture center in Jerusalem.
The online event on Sunday, September 12, at 8 p.m. Israel time (1 p.m. EDT), is a conversation between Wisse and Jewish historian Asael Abelman, and one that they’ve had more than once, said Wisse in a phone call from her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It’s a discussion of writer Chaim Grade’s Yiddish short story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” written in the 1950s and now with a new and complete translation by Wisse.
The story describes a chance meeting of a Holocaust survivor with an old friend from his yeshiva. The narrator has lost his faith, while the friend has continued to lead a pious and devoted religious life. The former friends debate the place of religion in the postmodern world.
The story was later made into a film, “The Quarrel,” written by David Brandes and Joseph Telushkin, and a play.
Wisse — who created the Jewish Studies department at Montreal’s McGill University and then became the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard University — recounted that she first met Grade when she began her studies in linguistics in Yiddish at Columbia University.
“This story immediately grabbed my interest and has held it all these years,” said Wisse, now 85. “I’ve reread it many, many times.”
She has also taught it many times, in English as well as in Yiddish, but the initial English translation was truncated and, while “excellent,” was only available in a “mimeographed version,” said Wisse. So she finally undertook to do it herself.
Wisse and her Beit Avi Chai partner, Asael Abelson, have also taught the story together many times, with Wisse handling the literature portion and Abelson teaching the historical perspective.
She’s looking forward to an Israeli audience for this edition.
“Israelis reading the story may immediately identify the argument as one between the Haredi and the secular and it may seem familiar and really contemporary, but I don’t see it that way,” said Wisse. “The more I have read this story, the more I believe that Chaim Grade needed a voice to be able to express his anger, his fury, his disappointment in Western liberal culture and he could not do that in his name.”
Grade was raised Orthodox in Vilnius and studied in yeshiva as a teenager, but then developed a more secular outlook. He lost his family in the Holocaust and resettled in New York, where he began writing fiction and poetry in Yiddish.
As a poet, said Wisse, Grade didn’t have a forum big enough for all that Hersh has to say.
“That’s the power for me, how much anger is unleashed,” she said.
She views the short story as a choice between identity and values.
“It’s such a Jewish-specific story — it feels Talmudic and internal but no, quite the contrary, students find it easy to read to penetrate,” she said. “I don’t see it as being divisive, but as a way of trying to find some equilibrium. It’s a way to achieve some kind of balance.”
For Wisse, the study of Yiddish and Jewish culture was a path she chose, having grown up in a family and city where Yiddish was still very prominent. Wisse attended Yiddish afternoon school and spoke Yiddish at home, and her mother made sure Wisse and her siblings were part of preserving her own past life in Vilna. Wisse’s brother, David Roskies, became a Yiddish scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary and her sister was head of the Jewish public library in Montreal.
As for Wisse, she first studied English literature, as it seemed the most encompassing subject of all, but when she later met poet Abraham Sutzkever, he suggested she study Yiddish, something that hadn’t occurred to her.
“When he said it, I said, ‘Eureka, this is terrific — there are so many people teaching Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson, whom I loved, but there’s no one teaching Yiddish,’” said Wisse.
Wisse is about to launch her own memoir, “Free as a Jew,” a personal reflection of national self-liberation that is being released later this month.
“I’m now 85, and I realized that my life had become ever richer and ever more satisfying and I had more and more to be grateful for, personally,” she said. “This memoir is a way of expressing my gratitude. I also saw the world around me growing worse and much more dangerous, so the contrast between these two things is what I try to deal with in the memoir.”