The Yeshiva – Part One – by Chaim Grade
I wrote in past reviews of Chaim Grade’s books that I and many others are convinced Grade deserves the Nobel Prize for literature. Most readers of his book published in Yiddish in 1967 titled Tsemakh Atlas and translated into English in 1976 as The Yeshiva in two parts will agree. The first part is 387 pages, and the second is 394. Many consider The Yeshiva his crowning achievement. Tsemakh Atlas is the name of the principal person in the drama. He is a scholar and rabbi and, for a time, the Rosh Yeshiva, the head of a Jewish Yeshiva, which teaches the Bible, Talmud, and Ethics, called Musar in Hebrew. Yet, he is in spiritual turmoil. He doubts God’s existence and the Torah’s divinity, basic principles for most Orthodox Jews. The novel is set in six Jewish towns in Lithuania after the First World War.
Regarding Musar, he rejects the generally accepted view that people should act according to the Golden Mean, in moderation, between extremes. An example of the Golden Mean is courage. A proper courageous hero is not cowardly, fearful, hiding away from danger, or fearlessly rushing into unsafe situations without care. He assesses the difficulty, plans how to overcome it, and faces and overcomes it. Tsemakh rejects caution. He insists that people should behave most strictly, even if it provokes anger, which it usually does. Grade knew this extreme view of Musar since he, born in 1910, attended a Musar Yeshiva as a student until he was 22 in 1932, when he left the rabbinic world and Orthodox Judaism and began his writing career as a poet and later as a novelist. But, unlike Chaim Atlas, Tsemakh Atlas did not abandon Orthodoxy as he understood it. Although, despite his insistence on stringency, Tsemakh is flawed, inconsistent, and attracted by female beauty.
I have seen no explanation of Tsemakh Atlas’ name. The Hebrew word tsemakh means “growth.” The word atlas is used in English and Hebrew to indicate a map or chart, but also one who bears a heavy burden, as the Titan in Greek mythology whom the Greek god forced as punishment for betraying him to carry the heavens on his shoulders. It is possible that Chaim Grade gave him this name because the rabbi attempted to improve and grow to control his emotions and carry his heavy emotional burdens.
Besides the overall story and his outstanding writing, what stands out for me is his treatment of the many people in the novel. I read a lot. But I cannot remember any writer who tells us so much about every character in the book. When a person is introduced, whether male or female, young or old, Jewish or non-Jewish, even if the person appears for a very short time, interesting information is given about that person, which is so detailed that it is like a story in brief.
The translators of Book one devote three pages to “Cast of Characters,” telling us their names, when they appear in the six cities where Tsemakh travels, and a few words about them. This listing shows us how many people populate this novel, people whose character is told in brief tales. There is one in Navaredok, Tsemakh’s teacher; two in Nareva, Tsemakh himself and the head of the Musar yeshiva; three in Amdur, Tsemakh’s fiancée, her father, and an innkeeper; nineteen in Lomzhe, including members of Tsemakh’s family and people associated with the yeshiva; sixteen in Vilna, town people and a brilliant young man, Chaikl, who becomes Tsemakh’s pupil; twenty-six in Valkenik, including students of Tsemakh and a renowned scholar, rabbi, and sage who saves Chaikl from Tsemakh. It is significant that despite the vast number of people in the drama, sixty-eight people, readers do not confuse them with other people because of Chaim Grade’s skill. It is like a loving father selecting dissimilar strands of colored silk and weaving them into a single coat of many colors as a gift to a cherished child.
Tsemakh, in this drama, breaks his engagement to a lovely young woman from a religious household and, because he doubts God and the Torah, marries a beautiful woman from a freethinking family, stops being religious and doing the mitzvot, praying, and studying. He tells his friends who try to persuade him to return to Orthodoxy that a Jew does not have to believe in the Torah as long as the Jew loves his neighbor as himself, uses his reasoning ability, and does good deeds. However, he leaves his wife, moves to Valkenik, and with a friend, establishes a yeshiva, but becomes infatuated with a married woman.