My Quar­rel With Hersh Rasseyner

Chaim Grade; Ruth Wisse, trans.

  • Review
By – December 26, 2022

Mayn krig mit Hersh Rasseyn­er (My Quar­rel With Hersh Rasseyn­er) has nev­er fit neat­ly into stan­dard cat­e­gories of lit­er­a­ture. Intro­duc­ing her new-and-com­plete Eng­lish trans­la­tion of what could rea­son­ably be referred to as Chaim Grade’s most well-known work, Ruth R. Wisse notes that upon ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion, the Yid­dish press could not agree on the genre of Grade’s med­i­ta­tion on post­war life and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. But what kind of prose was this? A sto­ry? A mem­oir? What the edi­tors des­ig­nat­ed an essay’ was Grade’s own hybrid form to con­tain the wars rag­ing inside him: a slice of fic­tion­al­ized auto­bi­og­ra­phy that harked back to his poem Musarists,’ trans­port­ing its yeshi­va argu­ments into a post­war debate between two survivors.

Wisse argues that Mayn krig should be read as a sto­ry, and her (excel­lent) trans­la­tion paints a vivid por­trait of the con­ver­sa­tions that Grade clear­ly replayed inter­nal­ly. Much of the text is solil­o­quy; Chaim Vil­ner (the pro­tag­o­nist and stand-in for Grade him­self) encoun­ters — and argues with — his for­mer yeshi­va class­mate, Hersh Rasseyn­er, three times over the course of eleven years. In 1937, Chaim returns to Bia­lystok, where, sev­en years ear­li­er, he left his Hasidic class­mates behind. In 1939, he sees Hersh in a bread line, and the two have a brief but with­er­ing inter­change. Hersh, I bear no more respon­si­bil­i­ty for all this than you do for me,” Chaim Vil­ner says, as the two of them gaze upon Red Army tanks block­ing their path. You’re wrong, Chaim,” Hersh mut­ters in response. I do bear respon­si­bil­i­ty for you.

When Chaim spots Hersh in a crowd­ed Parisian metro car in 1948, he can hard­ly believe his eyes. My heart began to pound. Could he real­ly be alive? Hadn’t he been in Vil­na under the Ger­man occu­pa­tion?” It seemed like a for­gone con­clu­sion to Chaim that the most devout among Jews would have been tar­get­ed most direct­ly. And yet there Hersh is — thin­ner, more dis­tract­ed in his gaze, stead­fast­ly instruct­ing yeshi­va boys in Torah and abid­ing by Jew­ish law more fer­vent­ly than before. In this final exchange, as Chaim and Hersh exit the metro and begin to wan­der the streets of Paris, they cling fast to their respec­tive bul­warks against anni­hi­la­tion: the trem­bling, ecsta­t­ic fer­vor that Hersh cul­ti­vates from a devout Hasidic life, and the qui­et, con­tem­pla­tive order that Chaim derives from a sec­u­lar life ground­ed in rea­son and moral reflec­tion. Both men stood on the edge of the abyss dur­ing the war. Now both claim Jew­ish­ness and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty as the core of their being. And yet they can­not agree on what true Jew­ish­ness con­sists of. Chaim argues that the right­eous Gen­tiles among them have equal claim to good­ness and the life of the world to come (if such a thing exists; what sec­u­lar Jew could imag­ine par­adise in the arms of a lov­ing God fol­low­ing such a geno­cide?). What point is there to the life of a refugee, to the life of a Jew who was saved from the cre­ma­to­ri­um, if he isn’t always ready to sac­ri­fice his bit of res­cued life for the Torah?” Hersh bel­lows at Chaim. “ … and now are you sat­is­fied to crawl under the table of life hop­ing for a bone from the feast of treyf plea­sures, or a dry scrap of this world’s rewards?

Mayn krig mit Hersh Rasseyn­er con­tains a scant sev­en­ty-two pages in its new Eng­lish trans­la­tion; as Yid­dish is includ­ed in this updat­ed 2022 edi­tion, you can dou­ble the page count and take a sec­ond pass at the fire and grit of the sto­ry in its orig­i­nal con­struc­tion. Wisse notes that in the pre­vi­ous trans­la­tion, Chap­ter Six, in which Chaim and Hersh encounter a boy Hersh tutored in the camps on their walk­a­bout of Paris, was left out entire­ly. It is, in some ways, a near-impos­si­ble task to adapt such a text with brevi­ty; each page con­tains pro­nounce­ments that are arrest­ing and demand­ing of an under­line — or at least a pause. The divide that had formed between the tra­di­tion­al and sec­u­lar Jew before the war remains inde­pen­dent of the Nazi attempt to destroy them both,” Wisse mus­es in the intro­duc­tion. Hence, the quar­rel picks up where it left off, and remains unre­solved when they part again.

Jus­tine Orlovsky-Schnit­zler is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the Jew­ish Women’s Archive and Lilith mag­a­zine, liv­ing and work­ing at home in the South. 

Discussion Questions