In my previous reviews of Chaim Grade’s books, I gave my opinion that Grade (1910-1982) should receive the Nobel Prize for literature. He was one of the leading Yiddish writers of the twentieth century. According to many, he was the best of an amazing group. His books are classics. I still feel this way.
The French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) wrote an extensive interpretation of “What is a Classic” based on the writings of past thinkers and his idea. He wrote. “A classic, according to the usual definition, is an old author canonized by admiration.” It denotes a writer of worth and distinction, a writer of account, and those who have become models.
Sainte-Beuve added, a true classic, “as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in [the] heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style…easily contemporary with all time.”
Chaim Grade’s books meet these definitions.
In the 276-page 1967 translation of his masterpiece “The Well,” we read an engrossing story of life in a Jewish shtetl after the First World War that is tragic, funny, moving, emotional, and filled with exceptionally well-drawn portrayals of many inhabitants of the shtetl and their feelings and thoughts about what is transpiring before them. What they think makes us think.
There is a well in the synagogue courtyard of the shtetl from which Jews and non-Jews draw water. It was their only free source of water. One day it broke and would cost a fortune to repair. Jewish housewives, half dead from lack of water, run to the monastery, where despite being impoverished, they have to pay for the water. Mende, the porter, an orphan without any education, whom no one apprenticed to a trade, a laborer who carries people’s packages and delivers for them, takes the task of finding funds to repair the well upon himself. He feels that it is a mitzvah, a pious deed. Although he has no money to give toward the repair bill, he goes from place to place, even to a convention of ultra-pious rabbis, to beg money to pay for the repairs.
We read about the strange inhabitants of the shtetl. Among the multitude, Sarah the Conjuror is an old great-grandmother who casts out the evil eyes that torment Jews. She prescribes remedies for various illnesses such as toothaches, “Pour a few drops of camphor and a few drops of horseradish on a piece of cotton and push the cotton into the bad tooth. Boiled tobacco and alcohol is even better.” The widow Badane, whose saintly husband, a rabbi, died, looked younger than her daughter Rebecca who rejected two suiters, an outspoken communist and a beardless scribe whom pious Jews refused to use because he had no beard. She wants to marry Yerochum, who insists that everything on earth is just an illusion. He prefers spending time philosophizing and not working for his father, the wealthy merchant Reb Avigdor. Rebecca’s mother, Badane, wants to marry Reb Avigdor, making the lovers Rebecca and Yerochum brother and sister. There is a beggar who is nearly blind and is a miser. He does not seek a remedy for his eyes because the doctor’s bills would diminish his considerable savings. He donates a Torah scroll to the synagogue that he can hardly read.
Reb Bunem tries to help Mende the porter acquire funds. All of his children died, and his wife is now barren. He approaches the foremost rabbi of the generation. Could the rabbi please bless him and his wife so they can have another child? The rabbi refuses because nowadays, no one knows how children will turn out, and he may have a gangster as a child. We read about other ultra-Orthodox rabbis who considered the Mizrachi rabbis un-Jewish because they refused to wait for a miraculous messiah to appear and worked to reestablish Israel as the Jewish homeland. Would they contribute to repairing the well?