Chaim Grade letters find home in YIVO

Acclaimed Yiddish writer Chaim Grade with Sally and Leon Eisner (left) of Toronto

Readers of Jewish literature will be interested to know that a cache of about 50 letters by Lithuanian-born novelist and poet Chaim Grade (1910-1982) have surfaced in Toronto.

The letters belong to Sally Eisner, a longtime North York resident who, together with her late husband Leon Eisner, was a close friend of the New York-based author and helped to arrange many of his visits to Toronto.

Grade (pronounced Grad-duh) penned many highly esteemed works, including The Agunah, The Yeshivah, Rabbis and Wives, and My Mother’s Sabbath Days, a rich memoir of his native Vilna before the war. Originally written and published in Yiddish, his books won a wide readership and glowing critical reception in their English translation.

“He’s one of the great Yiddish writers, and some people think he’s comparable in stature to Isaac Bashevis Singer,” said Leo Greenbaum, accessioning archivist at New York’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, a facility dedicated to the history and culture of Ashkenazic Jewry. “He and Bashevis Singer are of equivalent rank, and some people like him better than Bashevis.”

According to Greenbaum, Grade’s stories “aren’t as sensational — they don’t have the sex or the supernatural beings” that appear in Singer’s writings. A feeling persists among some Yiddishists that Grade was more deserving than Singer of the Nobel prize in literature that Singer won in 1978. Another reason Grade is less well known is that he was published by a much smaller publishing company, Greenbaum said.

Over a “glaz tea” and cookies in the living room of her Bathurst Manor bungalow, Sally Eisner treated this journalist to the sweet story of the long, warm friendship between the Eisners and the author, whom they first encountered at a reading for the Arbeiter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) in Toronto about 1970.

“When you listened to his lectures, you were butzoiberen, you became enchanted,” she recalled. “You could not have a dull moment with this man.”

Both Holocaust survivors from Poland, the Eisners were married in Romania in 1945 and came to Canada several years later. Leon participated in a family business and Sally was a speaker and volunteer for the Holocaust Education Centre for many years.

After meeting Grade, the Eisners and several friends essentially adopted him. They set up local readings and book-signings, even sold his books by the box-load and sent him the proceeds. “We cherished his footsteps,” Sally Eisner said. “When he came it was like a yomtov. Leon and a few friends wined and dined him. They took him to Spadina and he was outfitted by his admirers. They picked him up at the airport and arranged for his stay at the hotel.”

“He had most dinners here, he didn’t enjoy eating in restaurants,” she continued. “I used to cook for him. He became like family to us. Leon adored him and he adored Leon. Chaim Grade said he was ‘vi a zun,’ like a son to him.”

Grade corresponded with the couple over a period of 12 years: his handwritten letters were in Yiddish and covered a range of subjects. “Every letter has something else,” Sally said, sorting through the sheaf of odd-sized pages. Her husband also assembled a small archive of newspaper articles by and about him.

Since Leon’s death two years ago, Sally has given much thought to the fate of the letters as she is determined that they find a good home. At her request, the CJN was able to play a role in the outcome of this question.

Narrowing down the field to two possible recipients, we contacted both the University of Toronto’s Rare Books Library and the YIVO Institute. The U. of T. said it would be glad to take the letters, but suggested YIVO would make a better home for them.

YIVO’s Leo Greenbaum response to the offer was immediate. “Yes, we are very keenly interested” in the letters, he said, adding that they would be “an important donation” and offering instructions for their safe delivery.

Sally Eisner expressed contentment and gratitude at the outcome. “The letters were my husband’s treasure,” she said. “You know how many times he read them? When he began to slow down, it was his biggest concern what would happen to them. I’m so glad to know that they’re going to be in a good place.” END


Some 50 letters that New York Yiddish author Chaim Grade (right) sent to Leon and Sally Eisner in Toronto between 1970 and 1982 have found a new home in the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.