Title: My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner
Translated by Ruth Wisse
The Talmud (Yuma 9B) notes that Reish Lakish was sparing in his speech and extended friendship to only a select few prominent, righteous people, to the extent that a person to whom Reish Lakish was seen speaking in the marketplace, one would give him a loan and do business with him without witnesses.
One could use the same logic and observe that any study partner (chavrusa) of the Chazon Ish would have to be a serious scholar. One of those study partners was Chaim Grade, who learned with him in the 1920s. With his 40th yartzeit just passed, Grade (pronounced Grahdeh) has long been off the radar. And as one of the most prominent Yiddish writers of the twentieth century, it’s not like his books will be found in the bookstores on Cedar Lane.
Grade was born in Vilna in 1910, attended Mussar movement yeshivas, and returned to Vilna in the early 1930s, where he was a poet. After the war, where he, like so many others, lost his entire family, he relocated to New York City.
First published in 1952, My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner has just been republished from Toby Press with an English translation from the noted scholar of Yiddish literature, Ruth Wisse, formerly a professor of Yiddish Literature Harvard. Wisse calls this book one of the greatest stories in Yiddish literature, a work she believes uniquely illuminates the debate of post-Holocaust religions.
The story is written with Grade as the narrator in the character of Chaim Vilner and describes his chance encounter after World War II on a Paris metro with his former chavrusa and close friend Hersh Rasseyner. The narrator had long-abandoned religious observance, while Rasseyner is still an observant Jew – both on the inside and with his traditional garb.
While Grade never mentions who Rasseyner is, later research showed that the character is based on Rabbi Gershon Liebman, who headed up the group of Novardok-based yeshivas in France after World War II.
Grade, like Liebman, was a student of Novardok, and in reading this book, it’s clear that while Grade left observance, Novardok never left him.
The quarrel comes down to Chaim, who feels that Jews must be liberated from the religiosity of the stifling ghetto, and Hersh, who remains faithful to halacha.
The language is deep and rich, and while Grade left the yeshiva world, his writings are still saturated with the language of the yeshiva. Wisse has done a remarkable job of translating the book.
While categorized as a short story, when studying Grade’s life, this is, in truth, an autobiographical short story, and a fascinating one at that.
Hersh Rasseyner’s interlocutor is Chaim Vilner, who abandons the Mussar movement to pursue a life in secular literature. Which coincidently is exactly what Grade did.
While I don’t understand Yiddish, I think the book could have been improved on had it been formatted in an interlinear-like presentation, such that the reader, who may not be fluent in Yiddish, could understand and appreciate the specific Yiddish terms with Talmudic references that are on every page.
The dispute between Vilner and Rasseyner is the same dispute that has been raging for thousands of years. A more current version of it is in Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures (Maggid, 2020), a superb work by Moshe Koppel that also looks at the differences between traditional religion and contemporary secular society.
My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner is considered a masterpiece of Yiddish literature. And Ruth Wisse has done a masterful job of bringing this gem to the English-speaking reader.