Chava Rosenfarb on CBC

The oldest essay in my new book, Sweet Heaven When I Die, is “For Every Life Saved,” a portrait of the last great Yiddish writer, Chava Rosenfarb. I adored Chava. I loved her massive, crudely translated novel, Der boym fun lebn (The Tree of Life), and her later, even sharper short stories, especially “Edgia’s Revenge,” the most full and complex evocation of collaboration, in its darkest sense, that I know. And I deeply admired the elegant, proud woman with whom I sat for days in Montreal, listening to her story. “Her story” is too singular: like The Tree of Life, she contained multitudes. I did my best to convey her rich voice, coming as close to hagiography as I ever have in writing. At the National Yiddish Book Center, where I worked, the little bookstore had a stack of her work sitting unsold. I wanted her to be remembered. Maybe I succeeded; or, at least, contributed to a modest revival of her writing: The Yiddish Book Center’s copies sold, and The Tree of Life came out in a new three-volume edition from the University of Wisconsin Press, followed by a number of newly translated works.

But Chava wasn’t happy with what I’d written. A piece of her past she wanted forgotten was lodged in the middle of the story. Not the Holocaust, but Henry Morgentaler, the childhood love, and fellow-survivor, with whom she tried, for awhile, to live a happier life in Montreal. She asked me to leave him out; I said I couldn’t; I thought we had an understanding; and I was wrong. I didn’t speak to her again.

Chava died at 87 on January 30, 2011, the day before I handed in the final manuscript of Sweet Heaven When I Die, including my portrait of Chava. Recently, “The Late Show” on Canadian public radio — an interesting program that looks at “the art of living through the deaths of ordinary — extraordinary — Canadians” — dedicated a half hour to Chava. It’s beautiful. Please listen.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).