My obsession with my Hasidic father’s handwritten letters
My father was a storyteller. I don’t mean that he told stories for a living or in a professional capacity of any kind, but rather that he knew how to tell a good story. And he took such conspicuous pleasure in the telling. On winter Friday nights, when the Shabbos meal was over but it was still too early to go to bed, we — my sister, brother and I — would spread out on the blue velvet couch that sat against a wall of the dining room in my childhood home and listen to my father’s stories.
Some of them were fairy tales. “Chassidishe maaseh’lech,” he called them, Hasidic little tales. Most of them featured a porets, a feudal landowner, who was cruel to the Jews in his jurisdiction but eventually received his comeuppance. They were magical stories, with dancing monkeys that swallowed gold coins, or ghosts that haunted an evil porets’s dreams or angels disguised as paupers who’d appear in town and perform miracles. Till today, though I don’t remember all the details of those stories anymore, I can still — when I close my eyes and concentrate — feel exactly how I felt then, listening to my father’s words, the room’s light taking on a shade and glow particular to winter Friday nights, the ashy scent of Shabbos candles flickering down to their nubs wafting in the air around us. My mother was usually in bed by then, and my father’s voice took over all other sounds in the room.
I think the reason my father’s stories were so good was because no matter how often he retold one, he said it with the same pleasure and relish as if he were unfurling it in front of us for the first time. He himself had lost his father when he was ten, so perhaps he was reenacting a role he imagined his father would have played, had he lived long enough. Or perhaps it was simply his love of an audience, which manifested in other areas of his life too. Who knows? While he was alive, I never thought to ask him.
My father was not like the fathers of today. By that I mean that he wasn’t our buddy or even very involved in his children’s lives. He didn’t know much about my friends or the routines that comprised my daily life, nor did he think he should be interested in them. In the 1970s, many fathers were that way. Loving, but uninvolved. At least, most of the fathers I knew in my community were like that.
But he told good stories.
Nature and nurture — those winter Friday nights! — are what predisposed me to my career as a writer and translator, which is how I found myself one afternoon last fall at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, reading the personal correspondence between famed Yiddish writer Chaim Grade and his wife, Inna – famous in her own right for so fiercely guarding her late husband’s works that until her death, they could not be accessed, let alone published. The file included typed and handwritten letters and several Valentine’s Day cards with handwritten love poems that the couple had exchanged over the years of their marriage.
I was privileged to see these papers, I knew. And more than that, to have been asked to translate some of them. The Yiddish literary world had waited decades to unpack the contents of this extraordinary writer’s archive, while Inna — who’d outlived her husband by 28 years — toyed with their hopes, dangling the prize of his papers, yet ultimately refusing access to them.
Yiddish is my native tongue, my first language, as it is for all who, like me, are born into Hasidic Satmar families in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yet despite being a voracious reader even as a child, I had never read anything by Chaim Grade until well into my adulthood when I was in graduate school. Books by prewar Yiddish writers, nearly all of whom had abandoned religion (or did not come from religious homes in the first place) were taboo in my community. Yet years later when I discovered the Grade oeuvre, I found that the world he wrote about was not very different from the world in which I lived.
The Grade novel I had been hired to translate — which will be published in English as “Sons and Daughters” — had been unearthed by YIVO, who, along with the National Library of Israel, was granted the Grade estate a few years after Inna’s death. When YIVO gave me the job, the manuscript was on galley sheets; it had been readied for print right before Chaim Grade’s death but had never been published in book form, not even in Yiddish. Based on the number of galley sheets, I expected the novel to come to about 350 pages.
To keep myself motivated, I didn’t read “Sons and Daughters” ahead of time but read and translated simultaneously. I became enamored of the characters. And the plot, with its complex family relationships and its characters’ struggles between tradition and modernity, held me in its grip. But beyond the characters and plot, the real magnet for me was the familiarity of Grade’s world. Somehow, it felt like home.
Which made no sense, if you thought about it. The story’s setting was a fictional Polish town, and its attitudes and values, its mores and taboos, were inspired by those of Grade’s beloved Vilna, the city of his youth, the city that had been stolen from him by the Holocaust but which he could never, to his dying day, stop loving.
“Where are you, grandfathers with your thick flaxen beards / Where are you, mothers in your pious-covered shawls,” Grade bemoaned in his ode to Vilna in one of his poems. But I myself had never lived in Vilna, nor been alive during the era Grade wrote about. And the characters’ problems, though still relevant to religious Jewish families today, were cloaked in different details and specifics. Yet as I read and translated his novel — the last one he would write — the setting and its people, their perspectives, fears, conversations, arguments, critiques, their synagogues and gathering places, all felt recognizable and identifiable. For me, Grade might as well have been writing about my own Williamsburg.
Yiddish, too, played a role in this feeling of familiarity. In fact, when I would become lost in the hum of translating the Yiddish words, I would sometimes imagine — strangely! — that it was my father regaling me with this story. My father, whose devotion to religion, Hasidism and Satmar had likely made him unaware of Chaim Grade’s very existence, let alone his books. Still, as I read, it would seem to me that I could hear my father’s voice — his expressions, his inflections — emanating from the page.
That afternoon at YIVO spent perusing Chaim and Inna Grade’s letters was not my first experience with Chaim Grade’s personal correspondence. That had happened a few years before as I was working my way through translating “Sons and Daughters”. The more progress I made in my translation and the closer I drew to the end of the book, the more worried I became. There were too many dangling subplots. Too many loose threads in each character’s story line. How could they all be resolved in the pages that were left?
At about the same time, I received an email from Yehudah Zirkind, a graduate student at Hebrew University. He had heard that I was translating Grade’s unpublished novel — the finding of it had generated significant buzz among academics — and since he was doing research on Grade for his dissertation, he thought he’d let me know that he’d discovered a file of personal correspondence in the National Library of Israel. The letters in the file had been written by Grade to his friend and patron, Abe Bornstein. “The letters,” Yehudah wrote, “include several discussions about the book you’re translating.” Would I care to see those letters, he wanted to know?
Would I! Thrilled at this development, I wrote back expressing my eagerness. And sure enough, a short while later he sent me scanned copies of about twenty letters. And that is how I learned that the book I was translating was actually half a book. It was volume one of a two-volume novel.
The story of the search for the second volume merits an article in its own right, but for me, the most wonderful upshot of the mix-up was my introduction to Grade’s letters. If I’d thought his novel had held me in its grip, his letters just about hypnotized me. There’s something about handwritten letters that exposes vulnerabilities, that reveals truths, often unwittingly on the letter writer’s part. The Grade-to-Bornstein letters bared Grade’s anxiety about “Sons and Daughters”: his fear that he wouldn’t live to write its ending, that it wouldn’t sell, that it wasn’t good enough. This, even as he also wrote Bornstein that he believed “Sons and Daughters” was his magnum opus.
The letters bared Grade’s vulnerabilities: his envy of, and contempt for his peer and rival, Isaac Bashevis Singer; his desperate need for validation and constant reassurance; his inner struggles over his abandonment of his former piety; his mixed feelings for his wife who was both the love and bane of his life. And it exposed his brilliant mind: his philosophies about literature and art, his introspective musings on the human condition and life in general, his perceptive insights into the minds of Inna and others in his life.
It’s a shame that people no longer write handwritten letters to each other. Texts and WhatsApp messages, emails, even phone calls – none of them can express yearnings, emotions and introspection quite like longhand or typed letters do. Letter writing requires a specific kind of discipline, one that forces a person to set time aside, to treat writing as an official task, and the results, therefore, are different from what one puts down in an email. Later, I would realize this again when after my father’s death, I discovered a cache of letters that neither I, nor anyone in my family, had known about.
I’ve already said that my father was a wonderful storyteller. But as we, his children, grew older, my father stopped telling chassidishe maaseh’lech and instead offered us true stories, stories that had happened to him. And as he told us those stories, he was — without us realizing it — gifting us with a world. Our world. The early days of our Hasidic Williamsburg community. The story of its pioneers.
My father was born in Kiskunhalas, Hungary, in 1940, and arrived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1950, with his parents and siblings. Williamsburg began to coalesce as a Hasidic community in 1946 with the arrival of Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Rebbe of Satmar. Gradually, the community became solidified, as men, women and children, survivors of the Holocaust, made their way to New York, either to follow the Satmar Rebbe or simply to settle in a place where a Hasidic community had been established. They trickled in gradually, family after family who had secured the necessary papers to leave Europe and start fresh here. They were, as we say in Yiddish, the sheyres hapleyte, the surviving remnant – a term possibly first used in an official capacity by Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Rebbe of Klausenburg, to name the yeshivas he established in postwar DP camps.
The surviving remnant. The term is somewhat romantic, with its elegiac undertones and its allusions to a certain pluck and pertinacity. And it is true that I myself — possibly because I grew up with this term — have retained a romanticized image of the nascent Hasidic Williamsburg community of the 1950s and 60s; I view them as the “little engine that could.” Determined, pragmatic, these early settlers plodded ahead, pushed forward. Despite what they’d been through, and despite the obstacles and challenges facing them in their newly adopted land, they kept chugging along: they endured, they adapted, they built, then endured, adapted and built some more.
I was born into this world. But throughout my childhood and teenage years, when this was the only world I knew, I didn’t realize that it was unique. It didn’t seem strange to me that the grandparents of nearly every one of my classmates, friends, and neighbors were born in Europe. It didn’t seem strange that in the shops of Williamsburg — in the midst of the modern metropolis of New York, the gritty urban borough of Brooklyn — you heard people conversing in Hungarian or Yiddish more often than in English, or that the various Hasidic sects and synagogues that comprised the Williamsburg community were named after European towns or cities, or that my grandmother, great-aunts and uncles, and quite a few of my neighbors had blue numbers tattooed on their arms.
These tattoos were so ubiquitous, they were like white noise, unnoticed, unacknowledged. Oh, we knew the numbers were “from Auschwitz,” imprinted by the evil Nazis. But Auschwitz itself was just a vague concept in our minds. Even romantic, in a way. After all, our grandparents had survived it. And the stories we were fed were only those of courageous people, those who’d risked their lives in the concentration camps for the sake of Judaism and piety. We were told how they’d traded their rations of bread for the privilege of praying with the one siddur that had been smuggled into the camps. How they’d insisted on fasting on Yom Kippur. How they’d traded their meager food for a bit of oil and a match to light a single Chanukah candle. How despite freezing weather, they’d shared their measly blankets with others who had none. It had not yet become commonplace — at least, not in our community — for survivors to speak in public about the persecutions, degradation and humiliations they had undergone.
I remember once — I must have been about nine or ten — innocently telling my blue-numbered maternal grandmother that she had “surely eaten only kosher food in the camps, right?”
She looked at me with an odd expression: disdain mixed with anger and even pity. “Yeah, sure, kosher in Belsen,” she muttered, shaking her head at my ignorance.
I remember my shock. The very thought! That my grandmother, a devout Jew, a Hasid, could have eaten food that wasn’t certified kosher! That’s how unknowing I was. When I remember the expression on my grandmother’s face, I feel my own face turning hot. I am ashamed.
Still, eventually I would learn how the six million Jews of my father’s and grandmother’s generation had died. And I would learn what the camps were really like. There is so much literature on the subject that it would have been nearly impossible for me to remain uninformed. But without my father’s Friday night stories, I would not have known much about the beginnings of the community into which I was born and raised.
Here is one true story my father told me:
One week after he arrived in America, his father passed away from a surgery gone wrong, leaving behind my grandmother, who was in her ninth month of pregnancy, and seven children. The tragedy seems particularly unjust. Here was a man who had survived the Holocaust, had spent nearly two years in a Displaced Persons camp in Leipheim, Germany, had undergone the difficult work of securing the papers for his family to immigrate, and finally reached American shores, family intact, only to die right after from medical negligence. At any rate, the family he’d left behind needed food on the table. In the 1950s, without a male breadwinner, among a fledgling community most of whom were poor, this was a significant challenge.
One day, my grandmother was told by a friend that there was a way for her to receive bread free of charge. A Williamsburg bakery owner named Shloyme Weiss, a Holocaust survivor who had originally owned a bakery in prewar Vienna, donated bread to any widows or orphans who came to his store. (As an aside, the bakery Mr. Weiss founded on Lee Avenue in Williamsburg still exists today.)
“Receiving free bread,” my father explained to us, “wouldn’t solve the big problem, which was that we’d lost our father, but it would at least solve the problem of our going hungry. So one Thursday morning, my mother gave me a chore. ‘Lazer’l,’ she said, ‘go to Shloyme Weiss’s bakery on Lee Avenue, tell him who your father was, and then he’ll give you some bread.’
“‘But Mameh,’ I said, ‘I don’t have money.’
“‘Never mind,’ she said, ‘he’ll give you bread. You’ll see.’
“I was ten years old,” my father told us, a catch in his voice. “What my mother was asking me to do terrified me. Just walk into a store and ask for something without money? I was scared the man would laugh in my face. And I was embarrassed. We’d been a respected family in my hometown, and now I was asking for charity? Every bone in my body protested. But listen, when my mother told me to do something, I obeyed. So I put on my coat and went. My heart was pounding for entire walk down Lee Avenue. I got to the bakery, and what do I see? Customers. Packed with customers. Paying customers. I could barely breathe. I almost turned back. But of course, I didn’t. My mother had given me a job to do. I couldn’t not do it.
“I slowly pulled open the door of the bakery, and before I’d even dared to step inside, Reb Shloyme’s eyes caught mine. He was in the middle of packing up some cake for a customer, but he spotted me standing there, and I don’t know, he saw something — epes hot er gezayn in mayneh oygn, there was something he saw in my eyes — and he stopped what he was doing, gestured to me to come close, and as I did, he told the paying customer: ‘Just a minute. I’ll finish your order in a minute.’ Then he took a huge brown sack, the kind the bakers used to place their rolls of bread in and began to fill it. Bread, some rugelech, some kokosh cake, they all went into the sack. He handed me the sack, it was almost as big as me, and said, “Loz grisn di mameh” – “Send regards to your mother.”
“What did he see?” my father asked. “How did he know?”
“How did he know who you are, you mean?” I asked my father.
But he shook his head. “How did he know how I felt.”
My father told this story more than once. And each time I would imagine my father as a boy, shuffling down Lee Avenue, hesitantly grabbing hold of the handle of the heavy shop door, peering inside with his big, round sad eyes.
“How did he know who I was, what I’d come for, how scared I was? What would make a businessman drop a paying customer and rush to serve a child? Those were the kind of people we had then. You don’t find such people anymore.” There were many stories like these that my father imparted to us. Like an offering, like a prize. And I swallowed them and retained them deep in my marrow, so that my image of those early years of Williamsburg was of an idyllic world, where people aided each other and store owners were charitable and unbelievably kind.
These were, as I said, true stories. I have since heard from others about the humble compassion that the baker Shloyme Weiss possessed. My grandmother wasn’t the only widow he helped, and my father wasn’t the only child that his thoughtfulness touched. But like the anecdotes of Holocaust victims who shared their blankets and food, these stories told only part of the history. There is, after all, a reason why some anecdotes get passed on, retold, become part of the oral tradition of a community. These anecdotes have a beginning and end. They usually have a punchline. They leave a listener either moved or amused. The man who traded his ration of food for the privilege of praying from a siddur is a story. The bakery owner who had such a gentle soul he could intuit a child’s terror and shame is a story. And a community is built, and thrives on such stories.
But what these stories fail to convey is the prosaic, the routine lives of people in any given community, their comings and goings and troubles and joys and fears and habits, all of which comprise the days of a life, both of a self and of a community. The feel-good stories, the heartwarming anecdotes of shared blankets and free bread for widows, are the surprise, like a neon pink pillow in the middle of a traditional living room. Daily life, on the other hand, is the beige couch in that room. The thing you use most and notice least. Such pieces do not make for a good story.
What I had received from my father was the bright pink pillow. The fabulous stories. The idealized vision. It is not that the pink pillow is a lie — it is there, in the room; it exists — but it’s only a part of a much bigger whole. An incomplete portrayal. And an incomplete portrayal is a false one.
Then, in August of 2020, my father passed away. A short time later, as I was organizing his papers, I discovered a cache of letters that had been sent to my father before he was married. Most were from friends who had been temporarily living in South America and Belgium until they could secure permanent visas to the U.S. Some were from relatives. One bundle of letters, rolled into a rubber band, were actually my father’s that he had written to a friend. Apparently, that friend had saved the letters and, at some point, given them back to my father.
A few years before, when I’d first encountered the file of Chaim Grade’s letters that Yehudah Zirkind had sent me, I found — in addition to the letters to his patron, Abe Bornstein — a letter to journalist and lexicographer, Yehuda even-Shmuel. In that letter Grade had written: “I now feel akin to that romantic seafarer who sends a letter in a sealed bottle over the waves.” Why exactly Grade had felt that way at that particular time I cannot say, but as I began to read my father’s letters, it was precisely such an image that came to my mind: a sealed bottle that had been sent over the waves into a vacuum. A time capsule. And I was the finder! I got to melt the wax sealing the bottle. I got to unpack the time capsule.
What I unpacked — slowly, letter by letter — was not a world of “stories.” There were no heroes intuiting a child’s pain, no acts of compassion that become the stuff of legends. What I’d stumbled upon instead was the beige couch. Here was the world of the pioneers as they had actually lived. Here were the original teenagers and young men of Hasidic Williamsburg, the first group to attend the postwar Williamsburg cheders, summer camps, yeshivas. Here was the stuff that had interested them, that they talked about, fought about; here was their heart. “Ah,” I kept muttering silently in my head, “so this is how it was.”
Of course, other than a few letters from my father’s mother and my father’s oldest niece, with whom he was very close, the world I encountered in these letters was limited to the male domain. In the gender-segregated Hasidic community, my father’s friends — and hence the letter writers — were all men. Still, I found that this realm was surprisingly similar to what my own teenage world had been in the female domain. (Perhaps, in fact, it is similar to teenage worlds everywhere). Petty gossip among friends. Misunderstandings. Pranks. But also, deep friendship. The letters were filled with communal politics that its writers felt so passionately about, it was hard not to view the letter writers as ridiculous when read in hindsight, now in 2022 when so much of what they were writing about was no longer relevant. Indeed, most political arguments — communal or national — quickly become outdated.
I discovered that the young men in the letters were image-conscious in a similarly foolish way and about similarly foolish topics as we young Hasidim are today. “Y. took his driving test today but failed it,” my father wrote to his friend. “And I know you’re going to ask, why is a bokher [an unmarried man] driving? Well, first of all, he’s already engaged. And secondly: don’t tell anyone!”
I laughed when I read that. Plus ca change…. I had not realized that even during the community’s nascent years, such societal norms had already been established. An unmarried man must devote his days to studying the Talmud, not to such mundane endeavors as driving, or he risks not finding a match. Luckily, Y. had already found his match, so he could cheat the system. But despite Y.’s engagement, my father still fell it important to warn the letter receiver not to tell anyone. Underlined, no less. A person’s reputation must be protected at all costs.
More communal politics: “M., in his usual way, refused us bokherim access to the Rebbe’s room,” my father wrote to another friend who was living in Buenos Aires at the time. “But D. went behind his back and got us in.”
I chose these passages to excerpt because I found them funny and real, typical — as I’d said — of the petty gossip and politics that churn among groups in their teens and twenties everywhere, albeit about different topics than those that concern this particular community. But in truth, most of the letters were anything but catty. In some, the caring and love and devotion these people had for each other was so palpable on the page, they brought tears to my eyes. They validated my idealization of the tender early years of my community.
Over the course of writing this essay, I have been attempting to understand my fascination — a better word might be obsession — with these letters, both Grade’s and my father’s. Part of the allure is simple. I miss my father, and being surrounded by his letters is comforting. My absorption with Grade’s letters is understandable too. I spent more than two years translating a novel of his. Naturally, I’m intrigued by his life.
But it’s not just that. I think that what makes the reading of such letters — letters by people who are gone — so satisfying is that we get to see a story come to an end. We get to see a life after it’s over. We get hindsight. We get to look back at something complete as we ourselves wrestle with our own partly-lived life and try to find meaning in one that already has an ending. Ultimately, it all comes down to story. The story of a life. Of a community. The story that is told and the one that is read. The story that appears on the pages and the one that actually occurred. Through Chaim Grade’s novels, I learned about the prewar life of communities such as mine. Through my father’s letters, I learned about the community that had spawned me. In both, I found myself.
Rose Waldman teaches writing at NYU. Her translated works include “Pioneers: The First Breach” by S. An-sky (2017) and the forthcoming “Sons and Daughters” by Chaim Grade (2023-2024).