Keeper of the Flame
Few writers have had champions as fierce as Chaim Grade’s widow, Inna Grade, who died earlier this month
Inna Grade, the widow of the Yiddish writer Chaim Grade and a feared enemy of many within in the Yiddish literary world, died May 2. Her age was a matter of some uncertainty, but the rabbi who officiated at her funeral believes that she was 85.
Grade was a highly educated woman who wrote poetry and spoke several languages, but she was mostly known for her intense protectiveness of her husband, his work, and his legacy, which led her into battle with many Yiddish literary figures. Since his death in 1982, she blocked many from publishing or translating the work he left behind—and now that she is gone, speculation over the fate of his literary estate has begun.
Inna Grade’s most public battle began in 1978, when Isaac Bashevis Singer became the first (and only) Yiddish writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Many of his peers, including, reportedly, Chaim Grade, greeted the news with despair: Singer, who was by far the most successful Yiddish writer in America, was also criticized as presenting a patronizing fairy-tale version of Eastern Europe. What Inna Grade saw as a slight against her more-deserving husband became the central fight of her lifetime. In 2004, the centennial of Singer’s birth, she was interviewed in the New York Times. ”I despise [Singer] especially because he is dragging the Jewish literature, Judaism, American literature, American culture back to the land of Moab,” she told Alana Newhouse, now Tablet Magazine’s editor-in-chief, referring to the biblical region where Lot and his daughters began an incestuous affair. ”I profoundly despise all those who eat the bread into which the blasphemous buffoon has urinated.”
But Singer was only the first on Grade’s list of enemies, which was long even by the standards of the often-acrimonious Yiddish world. “She really had hatred for the entire Yiddish establishment,” said Allan Nadler, a professor of religion at Drew University who studied with Chaim Grade as a graduate student at Harvard. And in turn, he said, “she was hated in the Yiddish literary establishment.” According to Nadler, Inna Grade first alienated her husband’s friends and students during his lifetime and continued to stand between the writer and his admirers after his death. “She would not let anyone near his literary bequest,” Nadler said. “The more you loved him, the more impossible she became.”
One person who encountered Inna Grade’s wrath—and her litigiousness—was David Brandes, a producer and screenwriter who adapted Chaim Grade’s short story “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner” into the 1991 feature film The Quarrel. According to Brandes, Grade had signed a contract and production was underway when she became suspicious of the filmmaker’s motives; she later threatened him with lawsuits and made harassing phone calls to his home. “She made my life just miserable, and for no reason at all,” Brandes said.
According to observers, what most outraged people in the Yiddish world about Grade is that many of them loved her late husband’s work and wanted as much as she did for it to reach a wider audience. But her strategy was different from theirs. Grade was apparently more afraid of poor translations and bad adaptations (which she thought had already diminished her husband’s reputation) than she was of no translations or adaptations at all. One of the few people she trusted at the end of her life, a Bronx psychiatrist named Ralph Speken, said, “In order to translate Chaim Grade you have to be at his level, and only Inna was.” Grade translated two of her husband’s books on her own, but Speken and others believe that an untold number of untranslated manuscripts are likely sitting in her apartment.
News of Grade’s death, then, has resulted in barely suppressed expressions of glee from Yiddish scholars dying to get their hands on those manuscripts. “‘My first thought was, ‘Now that she’s dead, someone will be able to get into that damn apartment in the Bronx,’ ” Nadler admitted. “Unless she put it to flames.” Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, put it more gently. “Now that Grade’s wife has passed away,” she said in an email, “students may have access to his papers, potential translators and publishers to his works.”
Inna Grade, born Inna Hecker, grew up in Russia in a sophisticated family and married Chaim Grade—whose first wife had died in the Holocaust—while still a teenager. According to Speken, Grade had told him that her father, whom he believed was not Jewish, was a physician who ran a field hospital for the Soviet Army during World War II and was executed by the Nazis. In the late 1940s, Grade and her husband immigrated to New York; she told Speken that she later studied literature with the critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia and had two Master’s degrees from that university.
Grade’s mother, also a physician, apparently made it to New York as well—though Grade’s funeral guests reported discovering this only last week as they buried their friend and found the gravestone of Marie Heifetz-Hecker—Grade’s mother—next to her own. This seemingly solves another mystery as well: One rumor long circulated by her detractors was that she was not Jewish. But Heifetz-Hecker’s gravestone, Speken and other guests said, included her name, and her own mother’s name, in Yiddish. Chaim and Inna Grade had no children, and Inna has no known living relatives.
One of Grade’s unforgivable sins, according to her detractors, was her decision to bury her husband in a private ceremony, closed to them, when he died in 1982. Her own funeral last Friday was not much larger. Grade died penniless, apparently without a will, and her funeral costs were paid by the Public Administrator of Bronx County—which also now has authority over the much-desired papers in her apartment. The public administrator tapped Noach Valley, a local rabbi who had never met Grade (but had, as it happened, once presented a plaque to Singer honoring him on behalf of the Jewish Vegetarians of North America) to officiate.
One of the four people in attendance was Brad Silver, a longtime neighbor of Grade’s and the executive vice president of the Bronx Jewish Community Council, which took care of Grade as she became increasingly unable to pay her bills. This week, Silver said, he has been fielding the phone calls from Wisse and from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research wondering about the plans for Grade’s papers. Last year, when Grade was threatened with eviction, Speken was appointed her psychiatrist under the county’s Adult Protective Services program. The two bonded over their shared interests in Maimonides and Jung.
As her health deteriorated, Speken said, Grade became increasingly concerned about what would become of her husband’s papers. Grade and Speken discussed sending them to the University of Krakow, where Grade had contacts, or to an adult education institute at Hebrew University in Jerusalem named for Martin Buber (Grade felt an affinity with the philosopher). About a week before she died, Speken added, Grade related an epiphany that seemed to suggest she had reached a private understanding with her life’s leading antagonist.
“Ralph, my work is done. I was wrong,” Speken said Grade told him. “Singer was not trying to take us back to the land of Moab. The fact is, we never left. All he did was to capitalize on it.”