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A former student remembers a seminar with Chaim Grade—and how it changed his life

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Chaim Grade and Harvard’s Widener Library. (Grade photo from the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York. Widener Library photo by Sebastià Giralt; some rights reserved.)
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I fell in love with Chaim Grade before we exchanged a single word.

From the moment he stormed into our graduate seminar in the storied “Room G” of Harvard’s Widener Library to deliver the first of his series of talks on East European Jewish Culture in 1977—the first classes ever held in Yiddish at Harvard—I was enthralled by the power of his personality, mesmerized by his brilliantly poetic rendition of otherwise dry academic subjects, and awed by his mastery of, and love for, his subject.

Following the session, which took place in the former office and personal library of Harry Wolfson, we were asked by our teacher, the late Isadore Twersky, to take Mr. Grade to lunch. Instead, after delivering his exhausting tour de force about the contrasts between the worlds of Hasidim and Misnagdim, Grade sprang from his chair and demanded of us—a small group of Yiddishly literate graduate students—to show him where Harry Wolfson’s Spinoza books were shelved. (Among his many major works, Wolfson was the author of the magisterial two-volume The Philosophy of Spinoza.)

“I want to be sure that Wolfson didn’t own any Spinoza books that I don’t have,” he said. “Lunch can wait.”

At the time, I was a young, earnestly Orthodox Jew, and I naively asked Grade why he was so interested in Spinoza. He positioned his nose inches from mine, laughed, and then shouted: “He who has not read the Tractatus, knows nothing about modern thought.” That evening, I discreetly picked up a copy of Spinoza’s notorious critique of religion, took it home, and over the next three weeks studied it—though only, I should add, while on the toilet. After all, such heretical works—known in the yeshiva world as trayf-posuls (both unkosher and forbidden to use)—are allowed no place other than the one in which a kosher book is forbidden.

Yes, I was that frum. Or so I had believed.

As the only member of our little group of graduate students who owned a car—the happiest perk of a part-time rabbinical position in Boston—I became Grade’s designated driver, picking him up at Logan Airport and then shuttling him back and forth to campus. And so we got to know each other over the next few months—during which Grade developed notions about my soul that were entirely different from my own.

One night, Grade arrived very late due to a flight delay, and this time the food could not wait: He insisted that we stop at a Burger King, the first restaurant we passed after exiting the airport tunnel. When he offered to buy me a Whopper, I protested that I couldn’t eat it.

Farvos nisht?” Grade impatiently demanded. (“Why not?)

Vayl ikh bin frum; nit nor frum, nor a Rov!” I said. (“Because I am not only religious; I am a rabbi!”)

A Rov?” he laughed, “Du bist der Royter Rov!” (“You are the Red Rabbi.”) There was a tinge of red in my beard back then, but what Grade really meant was that there was more than a touch of red subversiveness in my soul, of which I was not yet aware.

He never again called me by any other name. And over the years, I slowly, often painfully, grew into the fullness of that very loaded nickname, bestowed on me by this prophetic poet, a former Talmudic prodigy destined himself to be a great rabbi, but who chose instead the life of a secular poet; who had survived the Holocaust only thanks to the Godless Soviet Red Army.

In Yiddishist circles, Grade was famous for (though not particularly loved on account of) his gruff and stormy personality and his explosive temper. He suffered neither fools nor mediocre writers lightly. But these harsh traits masked a passionate humanism. He always displayed an earnest, probing curiosity about each of the students who attended his seminar, one that far transcended conventional academic interests. Like all great writers, he peppered us with personal, often “inappropriate,” questions, half of whose answers he angrily rejected as self-delusion. He berated us mercilessly for our naiveté, for our lack of introspection, and especially for our emotional immaturity. But the loving, parental concern lying behind those harsh admonitions was evident—and moving.

In fact, more than any of my other teachers, Grade took a deep interest in my studies. When I told him I was planning to write my doctoral dissertation about the history of halakhic literature in early modern Germany, he quickly dismissed the theme as both boring and ill-suited to my personality. Instead, he called my attention to an obscure Lithuanian maggid named Pinchas of Polotsk, a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna. The next day, I skeptically searched the Widener card catalog for titles by him and came across a little masterpiece, Keter Torah, a powerful polemic against both Hasidism and the Enlightenment.

A day later, I informed Twersky that I had decided to write my dissertation about the Misnagdim, based on Pinchas’s work. Twersky, unfamiliar with this author, was reluctant, but when I told him the idea came from Grade, he approved the proposal immediately. Years later, long after Grade’s death, I published my first book, about the Misnagdim. And today, several bookshelves in my home groan from the weight of my Spinoziana, in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish. I have often wondered if Grade had any books missing from those shelves.

The greatest moment in Grade’s brief career at Harvard was a public lecture he delivered in Yiddish about the Hebrew national poet, Hayyim Nachman Bialik, before hundreds, many of them survivors. The very first work of Grade’s I had studied—just a few years before he appeared at Harvard—was his masterful epic ballad Mussernikes, depicting the austere lives of the students in Lithuania’s most-demanding yeshivas. While listening to Grade’s lecture, Bialik’s poem, “ha-Masmid,” about the last lonely Yeshiva bokher in Lithuania, rang in my ears. As he went on, I began to understand how deeply Grade identified with Bialik; that, in fact, Grade was the Yiddish Bialik, encompassing in his stormy soul all of the pathos and painful contradictions that defined Zionism’s greatest poet’s work, to say nothing of his prophetic voice.

Grade never expected to be lecturing to young students at Harvard, and the surprising experience enlivened him, even as it did us. For too many decades his only audience had been a dying generation of native Yiddish readers, mostly survivors. He told me, after our last seminar, that the visits to Harvard gave him a renewed energy to write, as had a life-changing trip to Israel in the 1960’s. Before boarding his last flight out of Logan Airport, Grade asked me to read his poem “Oyf Mayn Veg Tsu Dir” (“On My Way to You”)—the title work of his Yiddish-Hebrew bilingual collection (Tel Aviv, 1969) inspired by that visit to the Holy Land. It ends,

My lonely destiny, I once sadly thought determined
But our surprising encounter too was divinely destined.
God had finally dragged me from my old, alien bed
And forged from our fresh encounter a new being

It is no easy matter to love equally the heretic Spinoza and the religiously intolerant Maggid of Polotsk; to embrace the secular world and enjoy a good Whopper, all the while dedicating one’s life to erecting a magnificent literary monument to the lost world of Lithuanian Jewish piety, which is Grade’s greatest bequest to Yiddish literature. The unbearable burden inherent in maintaining an abiding love for the Jewish religious past and a lifelong dedication to preserving its memory, embedded in the heart of a true apikores who still believes God is acting in his life, defined the pain that Grade shared fully with Bialik, and one he transmitted, at least in some small part, to me. It is a cross I humbly and so gratefully have carried since Grade’s passing, almost three decades ago. Had God not dragged Grade from that tired bed and allowed me to share a small part of his burden, I would never have discovered who I really am.

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Meems Ellenberg says:

What a beautiful article. This Royter Rov certainly has a way with word.

Nadler Fan says:

This could be the best thing I have ever read of yours. Red Rabbi rocks.

S. Heilman says:

Beautifully written. Makes me want to read more Grade

I recognized the author’s name from reading his book reviews in The Forward. So I read the article and enjoy his article here.
זיי גזונט ומחיל אל חיל

– r.

Big Mac says:

What impresses me most about Grade’s prose is his unflinching honesty. He deftly exposes the flaws of all sides, political machinations; his own thoughts, the depth of his soul, remains hidden.

Now, the world knows he liked Whoppers, that Edom is subversive.

His wife was right. Grade was the greatest Yiddish writer of the Twentieth Century.

His haunting cry – how many Jews for “attah horeisa” resonates in our ears.

We are in the debt of Isadore Twersky who recognized genius and to his students for humanizing him.

a riveting portrait.

Thank you very much for this wonderful portrait.

Norman Kabak says:

Of all the articles I have read by Rabbi Nadler, this beyond all has given me an understanding of the man.

N Kabak
Wellington, NZ

Norman Kabak says:

“It is a cross I humbly and so gratefully have carried since Grade’s passing, almost three decades ago.”

Another facet of Nadler’s wit!

mort weinfeld says:

very moving, very informative, a superb appreciation and essay.

This is funny to read because the Royter Rov here is my professor now.

Norma N says:

The “cross-bearing” comment was paticularly brilliant in this ever-so-touching and beautifully written piece, since Litvaks are contemptuously referred to in Yiddish by the Hasidim, as Tseylem-Kep (Cross-Heads) because of their reputation for heresy….best piece I have ever read on Tablet !

Loren Bebee says:

Your article reminded me how powerful words are. Our words to another can literally change a persons destiny!

virginia says:

Most of the essay escaped me due to my ignorance, but the poem delighted me. Thank you

Shai Secunda says:


yehudah cohn says:

wonderful and moving piece.

really great piece of writing.

Art Green says:

But this roiter rov is a complicated guy…maybe he’s just telling a Whopper about saintly old Chaim Grade.

DBS says:

That collection of Grade poetry should be published. One of the poems–re. Yehudah HaLevi–he dedicated to my great uncle and aunt, Aaron and Fay Moldaw.

roiter says:

My grandfather had a red beard. His congregants would laugh when they called him “der Royter Rov.” They knew he wasn’t a Communist. He was aware of Spinoza, would never have purchased a non kosher hamburger for a fellow Jew. Conclusion: reading on the toilet doesn’t add insight, but knowing Grade intimately does.

Sholom says:

Alan, since 1974 you’ve never ceased to amaze me. I’m half way through ‘The Yeshiva’ and you’ve managed to add insight and depth to that masterwork through your tale. Kol Hakavod

Nina W says:

Nadler does it again. A new insight into Grade that is both poignant and interesting.

A Theist says:

I want to know whether tbe author did or did not actually go to the Burger King. What do you folks think?

Big Mac says:

The artistry, poetry, soul, of Chaim Grade transcends whoppers. His world destroyed, his wife, mother and child forsaken, what voyeur has the right to question if a “mensch fun feuer” liked barbecue.

Equally compelling, what would Benedict have eaten there?

Where is S. Maimon when you need him and his tailor?

Ned Alfred says:

Haim Grade,like many other survivors ,was quite rough around the edges and lacking in the social graces we native Americans take for granted.I wouldn’t read any special wisdom in his comments or actions. Many direct or indirect survivors of the Holocaust gave the impression that they had a special wisdom,but I can tell you that often they did not.This is not meant to bellitle what they experienced. Grade’s eating a “whopper” is nothing more than eating a whopper. My parents and other survivors who kept Yiddishkeit would hardly have been impressed .Yiddish writers, like writers in other languages,are best appreciated through their work ,not through their personal lives. I conclude by offering my protest of Dr. Nadler’s image referring to a “tzeylem.” It is unfortunate in light of the untold suffering the “tzeylem” has brought on the Jewish nation over the centuries.It is neither “cute” or appropriate.

Jake the Snake says:

Grade wasa a troubled soul like great artists.
He wrote great books , many about people and the directions their lives took. Marriages made and unmade , and the like.
Grade lived in a very difficult period of history. He too faced many tough decisions.
He managed to survive the Holocaust. But he left his wife and child behind , and one wonders why ?
he “married” Ina in Moscow clearly not knowing if his first wife was dead or alive. Perhaps it no longer mattered.
He married a woman who was probably not Jewish and knew nothing about Judaism. Why ?
I met him too. And I found him gruff, and intimidating and even touchy as far as Rabbis and orthodoxy goes. He was offened at my discussion, yet that was all he wrote about rabbis, yeshivas, shuls, frumkayt. Vilna had other aspects too. But he chose to write only about frumkayt.
I very much doubt that Grade could be regarded as a role model. Yes his works recreated Vilna for future generations, but in his life he excluded himself and his potential generations from any role in the Jewish future.

At YIVO’s celebration of CG’s 100 birthday a , Prof. Nadler added many more vignettes about his relationship with the writer. One involved a comment CG made about a blond Harvard shikse….

I simply wanted to appreciate you yet again. I do not know the things that I could possibly have created without those tricks provided by you relating to this question. It became a very scary setting in my position, nevertheless taking note of your professional manner you resolved the issue made me to jump for fulfillment. I will be thankful for the information and even sincerely hope you comprehend what an amazing job your are doing instructing men and women all through a web site. Most probably you haven’t got to know all of us.

I’ve said that least 3845731 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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I just now wanted to thank you yet again for that amazing blog you have developed here. It really is full of ideas for those who are genuinely interested in this specific subject, specifically this very post. You’re really all actually sweet along with thoughtful of others plus reading your blog posts is a wonderful delight in my opinion. And thats a generous surprise! Jeff and I usually have enjoyment making use of your guidelines in what we must do next week. Our list is a kilometer long and tips will certainly be put to excellent use.

When I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I receive four emails with similar comment. Perhaps there is by any means you are able to eliminate me from that service? Thanks!


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A former student remembers a seminar with Chaim Grade—and how it changed his life

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