|Songs for the Butcher's Daughter|
Songs for the Butcher’s
Daughter is a novel with two inseparable stories. In 1996, a recent
college graduate, not Jewish, looks for a job in which he can make use
of the Hebrew he studied as a religion major. He winds up cataloguing
Yiddish books in a warehouse and soon becomes fascinated with both the
language and a young Jewish intern who works with him. Along the way,
he also discovers the self-described “greatest Yiddish poet in
America,” Itsik Malpesh, who asks him to translate his memoir into
English. Moving adroitly between the poet’s tale of love, language and
emigration from nearly a century ago and the translator’s quest for
romance while “passing” as a Jew, author Peter Manseau creates two
fascinating characters, supported by a lively circle of friends and
foils. For his masterly prose—peppered with some pretty decent
poetry—Manseau’s novel won the 2009 Harold U. Ribalow Prize. In the
accompanying excerpt, the translator talks about the challenge of
moving between languages—
Illustrations by Yevgenia Nayberg
and between peoples.
Any attempt to render a written work in a new language is bound to
create some distance between the text and the translation. Usually this
distance is regarded as a change not only of means, but of value.
Consider the way an untranslated text is referred to always as “the
original,” which by implication makes the translation, regardless of
the level of creativity employed in its execution, “the unoriginal.”
how could a translation be anything but original in its own right? In
the movement from one tongue to another, there is after all what the
French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called a “surplus of meaning.” Text
and translation are never exact equals; there is always something
added, or lost.
Take for example the phrase
spoken when Malpesh’s father Abram marched through the goose down
factory barking orders at his Russian and Moldovan workers. I have
rendered his command simply as: “Pluck with pluck, my pluckers!” and I
will be the first to admit this does not quite suffice. The words
Malpesh actually put in his father’s mouth were these:
“Lomir umdekn di dekn mit tetikn tenerkes,
mayne kleyne, lustike teklekh.”
this is a longer statement than the five words I have used in its
place. And more than length has been sacrificed in the move to English.
The original, to begin with, is something of a tongue-twister. With the
shifting “d” and “t” sounds, and the repeated use of the syllables ik
and ek, it is in fact a line of near-nonsense verse displaying
something of the limerick-like quality of Malpesh’s early poems. Little
of this comes across, however, in a literal translation:
“Let us uncover the [geese’s] bottoms with active hands,my tiny, cheerful dolls.”
awkward in English, in Yiddish the sentence practically dances from the
lips. No doubt Malpesh wrote it this way to convey not only meaning but
also something of his father’s joy at being on the factory floor, and
perhaps also the extent to which this joy made him oblivious to the
suffering to which Malpesh himself was so sensitive, as we will see in
later notebooks. It is also interesting to note that though Malpesh
never mentions that his father was a direct influence on his poetry,
here he seems to hint that this was indeed the case.
does one convey all these intentions in a few words? Throughout this
translation I have often chosen the path of least resistance. “Pluck
with pluck, my pluckers” does not fully capture Malpesh’s use of
language, but I have made use of it as a simple play on words that
would be impossible to render in Yiddish, just as Abram’s more
elaborate wordplay would be impossible to render in English.
this and in all the other interpretive choices I have made, I have
tried to be true to Malpesh’s spirit, ever aware of the surplus of
meaning lost, and reminded constantly of another contribution Ricoeur
made to the art of translation. “If it is true that there is always
more than one way of construing a text,” he wrote, “it is not true that
all interpretations are equal.”
should be acknowledged, lest there be any misunderstanding, that I am
something of an amateur in the translation business. I was neither bred
nor educated for this sort of work. Though I dabbled in language in
college, I am not one of those polyglot internationals—summering in
Yupik, wintering in Tagalog—who overpopulate the field. It seems many
such translators enjoy flitting between the tongues the way a
philanderer enjoys keeping a number of mistresses. While I am perhaps
lesser in ability because of it, I come to the art more honestly than
that. I am, in other words, an amateur in the original sense: I did it
for love. I did it for a girl.
I have said I was
mostly alone in the Yiddish book warehouse in the months before meeting
Malpesh. Though that is true, I doubt I would have met him at all were
it not for the one companion I had, an assistant who worked half days
twice a week—a Mount Holyoke College student by the name of Clara Feld.
was, she told me within five minutes of our acquaintance, a baal
t’shuva—“a born-again Jew,” she said, who had recently discovered the
“emptiness” of her secular upbringing. She had opted to remain on
campus through the summer to attend an intensive Judaic Studies
seminar, which in turn had led to an internship with my employer.
Raised in New Jersey, star of her high school tennis team, Clara Feld
now wore a uniform of long-sleeved peasant tops and black skirts that
swept the floor. Whenever she walked into work, she breathed in deeply
the musty air, loving the place, she explained, for its “overwhelming
Yet for all the affectations of her
newfound orthodoxy, her connection to the work we were doing was far
more personal than mine.
“I have this box full
of letters written by my great-grandmother,” she told me. “They’re in
Yiddish, so I can’t understand a word of them, but they’re like my
prized possession.” She seemed to get choked up a bit at the thought,
then added, “You’re so lucky to be spending your days preserving the
history of our people.”
As she spoke, she lifted
her hair from her shoulders and twisted it into an auburn knot, which
she pinned to the back of her head with a pencil. With no other skin
showing, the nape of her neck would drive me to distraction for the
rest of the day. I saw no reason to deny what she believed me to be. I
saw no reason to deny her anything at all.
“You ought to bring in those letters sometime,” I suggested. “Maybe I could help you read them.”
“Maybe I will,” she said.
to pass, it turns out, is less a matter of acting than not acting. You
can become part of a given scene, situation, or people (“our people,”
as it were), simply by letting yourself serve as a mirror for those
around you. When I was still in college, when I still thought I might
make a good priest, I spent some time in a Trappist monastery. I found
that by exerting as little of my own personality as possible, I was
able to fit right in. The monks in no time came to call me brother,
believing I was destined to make vows as one of their own. Passing
begins with the assumptions of those around you. The best thing you can
do to maintain the illusion is to come as close as possible to doing
nothing at all.
Of course, it helps when there is assumed to be a
sharp divide between the place a passer comes from and the one he
enters through his deceit.
goyim are a curious people,” Malpesh once said to me, before he had
discovered who and what I was. “Not curious that they want to know
things,” he clarified, “curious that they don’t.”
him the gulf between who he was and what “they” were was so vast that
humanity seemed irreconcilably divided between the less than 1 percent
of the global population who were Jews and the more than 99 percent who
were not. Such was the divide I crossed in my failure to disabuse Clara
Feld of her assumptions about my religious and ethnic affiliations. It
was a divide that was never so clear to me as it was in her immediate
warehouse we occasionally shared occupied the top two floors of a
former textile mill that was more than a century old, a vast red brick
block teetering on the edge of a stagnant canal. In its prime it had
been the kind of place that could turn a third-rate river town into a
city rich with jobs and manufacturing revenues. Now it was leased for
two dollars per square foot to businesses that couldn’t afford to rent
a more respectable space in the suburbs.
mill’s first floor there was a small tailoring operation, staffed by
two dozen Vietnamese ladies who never seemed to come or go. Whenever I
arrived at the warehouse in the morning, escaped for lunch at noon, or
went home at night, I could hear the workers sewing and chattering
through their main entrance, which they kept propped open with a
folding chair in apparent hope of a breeze wicking off the canal.
second level was occupied by a furniture shop. I have no evidence of
dual use other than the affirming “One Day at a Time” and “Easy Does
It” posters that decorated the walls on either side of the shop’s
minifridge, but it appeared to double as a drug and alcohol rehab
program. The workers were damaged-looking hard cases with bruises on
their necks; and from the shouts that drifted out to the stairwell, I
guessed they were prone to slipups and displays of sudden anger.
different as these two populations below the book warehouse were, they
had one thing in common. To those on the first and second floors, we on
the third and fourth were known simply as The Jews.
was often puzzled by the plurality of it—most days there was only me,
after all. Yet it was a welcome reminder as well that I was part of
something. There had been others who had performed my job in years
past; there would be more to come. No doubt they would nearly all be
Jews, and so the name was more fitting than not.
any rate, there was nothing derogatory about its use, as far as I could
tell. In fact, one of the Vietnamese women was rather friendly about
it. Of all the workers I’d seen through the shop windows, she was the
only one who ever seemed to come out. As she dressed in stylish suits
and garish jewelry, I supposed she must’ve owned the place. Whenever I
ran into her in the parking lot beside her Lexus SUV, she would look me
over, frown at my beat-up Celica, and ask, “You with the Jews?”
I would answer, and she would cheer “Hi!” by which I can only assume
she meant “Bye,” because at that point she would invariably climb into
the driver’s seat and roar out of the parking lot.
was the same with the furniture makers. My only contact with them came
because they had a habit of leaving the door to the freight elevator
open, making it inoperable on any other floor. Not a week went by when
I didn’t find myself poking my head into the shop and yelling over the
whine of band saws that someone should please shut the safety gate. The
five or six workers kept their heads down with cigarettes dangling from
their lips as they cut piles of dresser knobs and shelving planks. They
wore no ear protection except for knit caps pulled down to their
goggled eyes. Eventually I’d walk through the sawdust cloud that hung
below the rafters, past the minifridge and the AA posters, and close
the elevator myself.
On my way out I would often hear one worker say aloud. “Who was that?”
“The Jews,” another would say.
such an environment, not passing would have required a concerted
effort. And, worse, it might have been disruptive. Why bother insisting
I was not a Jew when such insistence would only confound everyone
around me? And what about my own attractive coworker? As Malpesh wrote,
“A man is in his pants what he is not in his heart.”
days inside the warehouse felt as though the earth had tilted closer to
the sun. Heat that was merely oppressive in the parking lot became
unbearable in the entryway and just got worse on the march up the
stairs. With windows sealed shut and the stairwell railings scalding to
the touch, it was almost a relief to reach the top and arrive at work
each day. Four flights up, our maze of metal bookshelves baked with the
accumulated warmth of all the floors below, filling the place with a
musty smell like incense mixed with newsprint. A few industrial fans
blew the burning air around.
Twice a day, once
for UPS, once for regular mail, I brought up the recent deliveries from
the loading dock. When Clara was there, she helped. Together we would
pile the boxes onto pallets and, using a pallet jack to wheel them into
the freight elevator (a steel cage twelve feet wide by ten deep), we’d
bring them to the fourth floor. There, we’d position the boxes in the
gust of the fans and unpack the books as loose pages flew to the
I have mentioned that it was during
this time that I began to develop a grasp of the language. It might be
useful to explain how exactly this came to be. To the extent that there
is ever truly a single moment of discovery—a shining light of
comprehension where before there had only been the murk of limited
understanding—it occurred one morning in July. While digging through a
box of books sent from Montreal, I came upon a slim, bright yellow
volume with an abstract drawing of a bearded man on the cover. Turning
the book on its side, I studied the collection of characters I took to
be the author’s name. It did not look like the other Yiddish names I
had read—something about the placement of vowels in relation to the
consonants. So I organized the sounds of the letters in my mind, and
then tried to speak them aloud. First the beginning three letters: hey, ayin, mem. “Hem.” Then the second three: yud, nun, gimel. “Ing.” The final four: vav, vav, yud, yud. “Vay.”
“Did you say something?” Clara asked.
I ignored her, focusing now on the words I guessed were the title. The last was one I recognized from Hebrew; just two letters, yud, mem. Yam. Sea.
About 10 percent of Yiddish is taken directly from Hebrew. Within the language these borrowed words are called loshn kodesh,
the holy tongue, because it is drawn directly from Scripture. The yam
of this yellow book’s title was the same yam into which the prophet
Jonah was thrown, the same waters where Leviathan haunted the depths.
I sounded out the title and read it to myself, “Der alter un der yam.”
I knew enough German to guess those two instances of der might be
“the,” and un seemed close to “and.” I looked again at the bearded man
on the cover and now recognized him. I reread the author’s name.
“Hem-Ing-Vay.” He wasn’t some hatless rabbi but an American icon.
Then it dawned on me: Alt. Old.
The Old Man and the Sea! I shouted, holding up the book triumphantly. Clara looked skeptical. “Hemingway was Jewish?”
couldn’t tell if she was joking, but I didn’t much care. Nothing could
dampen my spirits. Standing in that awful heat, boxes and books
scattered around me, I had completed my first translation; that it was
only five words long and essentially an untranslation of a book title I
had known since high school didn’t matter in the least. Suddenly my
warehouse clerk’s life was filled with a million solvable mysteries,
and I had stumbled on a code key that could unlock them all. From that
day on, whenever I unpacked a box of books, I’d pick up each volume,
pronounce the name of its author, and hope to come across something
familiar that might spur me to understanding. Within the first week I
discovered Yiddish translations of Dickens, Shakespeare, Tolstoy…
July turned to August, the heat inside the warehouse caused the books
to sizzle on their shelves. Filled with nearly a century of moisture
and the oils of readers’ fingers, they hissed in the arid air, yielding
up the scent of warm paper. Just looking at the maze of books, such a
fire hazard, all that potential energy, I had soaked through my shirt
by noon. So I sat and I read.
Three days each
week, alone among the bookshelves, with boxes piling up at least as
high as they’d been in June, instead of sorting through them, I’d
position myself by the largest of the metal fans and work my way
through page after page. I did so haltingly, with a Yiddish-English
dictionary by my side, from the moment I arrived until it was time to
On Clara’s days in the warehouse, she’d
join me in the relative cool, and we’d look over her
great-grandmother’s letters. There was a ritual to this: Clara sat in
the same spot each time and selected a letter at random. Then I’d read
aloud a line or two in Yiddish, doing my best to translate on the fly.
Yiddish script was so much more difficult to decipher than the
typefaces I’d read in the books that most of the sentences went only
half translated, “Something-something-something…on the train to Birobizhan,
which…something.” This caused me no end of frustration, but Clara was
enthralled by just the margins of the story that seemed to be emerging.
stormy afternoon we tried for an hour to make sense of a short note,
but the legible words amounted to not much more than “the baby is
getting so big…”
“That must be my grandmother!”
Clara exclaimed. She moved in close to my side and peered at the letter
in my hand. The idea that these strange markings held clues about her
family was thrilling to her. Outside, thunder boomed and lightning lit
up the warehouse windows, and it was exactly the kind of commotion that
seemed to be going on inside her. She looked up from the letter and
held me in her gaze, her eyes shining. “It really says that?” she asked.
it does,” I answered, then looked down at my watch and guessed that the
mail might be waiting on the loading dock, possibly getting wet. “We’d
better go down and get it.”
We rode the
freight elevator to the dock, and sure enough, rain was falling hard on
two dozen boxes. Darting in and out of a thunderstorm’s downpour, we
grabbed them by their sides and pulled them under cover. In three
minutes only one box remained in danger, and this one was already so
waterlogged that its cardboard corners came apart in my hands. When I
lifted it to my chest, a small blue book fell out onto the concrete.
Clara retrieved it as I wrestled the ruined box to the safety of the
Dripping and exhausted by the
exertion, I pulled the elevator shut as we caught our breath. Clara was
examining the book she had saved from the rain. It was no bigger than a
pack of cigarettes, but, even wet, it was impressive. Gold letters
gleamed on its hard blue covers, as did a sever-armed pitchfork design
that appeared to represent a menorah. Clara ran her fingers along the
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Yes,” I agreed, and took a quick look. “Some kind of prayer book.”
“You can tell so fast?”
“Yeah. Look at the ornamentation. Doesn’t it make you want to pray?”
“Are you teasing me?”
I said. “Just think of the hands that have held it. It seems so well
loved. And look here—” I opened the book to its inside cover, where a
few lines of Yiddish mixed with Hebrew. “This word is tehilah. Prayer.”
Clara stared down at the book with renewed wonder, then up at me.
“Can I tell you something?” she asked.
twisting her finger in her hair, she said, “I never knew anyone so…” I
pressed the button marked “4,” and we began to rise. “So?”
she cried and pushed me against the elevator wall. She kissed me so
hard my back hit the buttons and we stopped with a crash, halfway
between the first floor and the second. Through the safety gate we saw
a gang of furniture shop carpenters taking a coffee break.
look at the Jews!” one of them said. Four-eyed with goggles raised to
their foreheads, a cigarette loose in each set of lips like a snaggly
fang, they could have been another species. Whoever or whatever I was
at that moment, I knew I wasn’t one of them.
behind me, I pressed the button marked “4” again, and up we went, the
soggy book pressed between us like a bride’s bouquet.
is an intimate act,” Malpesh once told me. “So much is made of the
sharing of fluids, the pressing of bodies, as if chemistry or anatomy
were the realm of the highest order of human exchange. But how is it
not the sharing of language? Who but a writer in a lonely room could
impregnate the thoughts of so many?”
“And where does translation fit into that scenario?” I asked.
a writer who has outlived his tongue, there is no other means of
contact,” Malpesh said. “Without a translator, who would unzip the
Excerpted from Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter by
Peter Manseau. Copyright © 2008 by Peter Manseau. Excerpted with
permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
By Peter Manseau
Reading Group Discussion Guide
Reminiscent of Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love, Peter Manseau’s Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
introduces us to two people who meet for the first time in the twilight
of the twentieth century: Itsik Malpesh, a ninetysomething Russian
immigrant who is the last Yiddish poet in America, and his
twenty-one-year-old American translator.
In a book warehouse in
western Massachusetts one sweltering summer, a man at the beginning of
his adult life—and the end of his career rope—becomes involved with a
woman, a language, and a great lie that will define his future. Most
auspiciously of all, he runs across Itsik Malpesh and a set of
accounting ledgers in which Malpesh has written his memoirs, twenty-two
volumes brimming with so much adventure, drama, deception, passion, and
wit that the young man is compelled to translate them, telling
Malpesh’s story as his own life unfolds and bringing together two paths
that coincide in shocking and unexpected ways.
A novel of faith lost and hope found in translation, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
is at once an immigrant’s epic saga, a love story for the ages, a
Yiddish-inflected laughing-through-tears tour of world history, and a
testament to Manseau’s ambitious genius.
1. “Now that I have read
them all, I know the many ways in which the tale of Malpesh’s life
resonates with the events that led me to his door: a failed love
affair, lies of faith, threat of scandal, and, most important, the
promise of deliverance through the translation of words. (p. 7)” To
what extent does the translator’s involvement with Malpesh seem
grounded in his own preoccupations and emotional needs, rather than in
an exact rendering of those of his subject? When he writes of
“deliverance through . . . translation,” what kind of redemption is he
looking for, and how does he achieve it in Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter?
2. How would you characterize Sasha Bimko’s role in the birth of Itsik
Malpesh? How does Malpesh’s account of his birth compare to the reality
that Sasha discloses to him as an adult? What does his own romanticized
vision of his entry into the world reveal about Malpesh’s personality?
Why does the translator decide to include both accounts of Malpesh’s
birth in his translated memoir, despite their contradictions?
3. “In such an environment, not passing would have required a
concerted effort. And, worse, it might have been disruptive. Why bother
insisting I was not a Jew when such insistence would only confound
everyone around me? (p. 41)” How does the translator’s decision to
conceal his true religious identity as a Catholic affect his
interactions with his coworker, Clara, and with Itsik Malpesh, the
subject of his translation? What does his decision to feign being
Jewish reveal about his own comfort with his actual identity?
4. “[M]y secret learning came at a cost. How could I forget the
daily labor I endured to remain housed within this new castle of the
mind? (p. 63)” How does Itsik’s deception of his family in order to
learn how to read Russian compare to his translator’s deception of his
employers to learn Yiddish? How does each man’s discovery of a new
language open up new worlds to him, and what do these worlds represent
in terms of future possibilities, hopes, and dreams?
5. How is Chaim Glatt responsible for changing the course of Itsik
Malpesh’s life as a young boy in Kishinev, and how does that compare to
his impact on Itsik, the young and naive émigré in New York, in his
newly adopted persona of Charlie Smooth? What accounts for their
seemingly irreparable connection to each other? To what extent is
Itsik’s implication of Chaim in the death of Hershl Shveig a kind of
payback for Chaim’s mistreatment of him over the years?
6. “Owing to my own relative ignorance when I first encountered his
work, I did not mention any of the larger issues of accuracy . . .
merely some incidents that, to my mind, strained a reader’s confidence
in his reliability. (p. 85)” How does the series of translator’s notes
that appears in the narrative of the Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
affect your reading of the life story of Itsik Malpesh? How did the
translator’s role in the narrative inform your appreciation of Malpesh?
To what extent can you imagine this novel stripped of the translator
and his story?
7. “Is my bashert then Sasha Bimko? (p. 52)” I asked. How does his
idealized vision of Sasha Bimko as his destiny, his beloved, and his
muse enable Itsik Malpesh to focus his budding ambitions as a poet? In
what respects does Malpesh’s attachment to Bimko seem to be grounded in
a kind of self-preservation, as she is his one living connection to his
birthplace and his family? To what extent does their eventual romantic
involvement seem inevitable, and why does the resolution of that
relationship in Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, draw in Malpesh’s translator and his girlfriend, Clara?
8. How do the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Malpesh and
Hershl Shveig’s first encounter compare to their later involvement as
adults? Why does Malpesh misinterpret Shveig’s interactions with Sasha?
What role do their religious differences of opinion play in Malpesh’s
inability to comprehend Shveig’s innocence? How would you characterize
the consequences of Malpesh’s actions against Shveig? Why does the
translator choose to relate this information in his translation of the
memoir, rather than expose Malpesh to the authorities as a murderer?
9. “There is more to tell about how I came to be the translator of
Itsik Malpesh, and about the great joke of the fates this arrangement
would come to seem.(p. 6)” How do the translator and Malpesh seem fated
for each other? How does the translator’s connection to Sasha Bimko,
through his relationship with Clara, lead Malpesh back to his bashert?
How does “the great joke of the fates” (p. 6) seem to be at play
throughout Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, given the many quirks of coincidence that bring characters back into one another’s lives?
10. Of the many characters who populate Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,
which did you find most compelling, and why? Given the novel’s
simultaneous narratives—the story of Itsik Malpesh, and the story of
his translator—did you feel that either story was more engrossing, or
did both engage you equally as a reader? To what extent are these dual
narratives able to be separated from each other, and what argument
might the author be making about the nature of translation in their
A CONVERSATION WITH PETER MANSEAU
Q: Among many other occupations, you have worked as a Yiddish typesetter. How did that unique experience lead to your writing Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter?
A: Much like Itsik Malpesh, I stumbled into the Yiddish typesetting
business. For me it was done with graphic design software rather than
hot lead or printing blocks, but the feeling of discovery I write about
in the novel (the revelation of learning to piece stories together word
by word, line by line) was much the same. There was something about
working closely with a language I barely understood that made me pay
more attention to the way the shapes of letters fit together to make
meaning where it hadn’t been before. I came to love grappling with
Yiddish—in part because it was exotic for someone with no cultural
connection to the language to do so, but moreover because it was
transformative in the way learning a new language always is. At a
certain point while working as a freelance Yiddish typesetter—setting
type for such projects as the Yiddish-English edition of Winnie the
Pooh—I came to realize I was trying to enter the language for the same
reason so many who were raised with it wanted to leave it behind: to
become something new. That was the realization that started the novel.
Q: What led you to develop and explore the translator’s story in the narrative of your novel?
A: At first I only intended to write Malpesh’s story. After working on
it for a few months, I realized what I most wanted to convey—the
experience of “discovering” poets like Malpesh and the world from which
they came—wasn't coming through. I needed someone to mediate and
comment upon the more historical story, framing it in contemporary
terms. On a practical level, making that decision allowed me to write
in Malpesh’s voice without worrying too much about making him explain
himself or his world. When he does provide a bit of context, I hope it
arises naturally, leaving the heavy lifting of explaining Yiddish
literature and history to the translator. On a more thematic or
meaningful level, I became most intrigued by the ways in which a number
of written works can seem to converse with and inform one another
within a single novel. I’m sure it is no accident that my favorite book
I read in the year before I started Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
was David Mitchell’s masterful Cloud Atlas, in which six texts interact
across the centuries. The story of Malpesh and his translator is
nowhere near as ambitious, but it is similar in spirit: We’re a
storytelling people and though the languages and media of storytelling
may change, the simple fact that we continue to tell and listen to—and
translate—stories, means there is always a hope of understanding and
respecting the lives of others, no matter how different their
experiences may be.
Q: You’ve explored faith and identity in previous works,
most notably in your memoir, Vows. How did the creation of a translator
who passes as a Jew in order to win the love of his coworker allow you
to reenact that exploration?
A: When friends and family
read Vows, which among other things recounts my coming of age as
someone who thinks and writes about religion, I heard the same question
again and again: “What about Yiddish?” My memoir is a very Catholic
book—my father is a Catholic priest; my mother a former nun—and yet
those who knew me best knew that my dabblings in Jewish culture had
been almost at least as formative—at least as far as my writing was
concerned. And yet in Vows I didn’t write a word about it—at the time I
didn't know how best to tackle these questions of shifting and
alternate and imagined religious identities. With the novel I wanted to
engage those questions head on: If belief is determined by community,
as it so often is, are we finally only what others believe us to be? Is
faith, then, always an act on some level? The idea of using Yiddish to
“pass” as Jewish for the sake of a girl does, I hope, have some
inverted humor to it, but there’s a more serious side to it as well.
I’m fascinated by the role of both religion and language in the
construction of character—both fictional and in the real world—the ways
in which the intangible can become matters of ultimate concern.
Q: You were raised Catholic. How would you characterize your
experience in creating a novel that could easily be classified as
A: It came quite easily—almost inevitably
given who I was and what I had experienced by the time I started
writing seriously. Like most people with an interest in contemporary
literature, by the time I graduated from college I had read a lot more
modern Jewish fiction than Catholic fiction. The very fact that the
former is a recognized genre and the latter is not points to the
shortage of living role models a young Catholic novelist might have if
forced to read books only by writers with a Catholic connection. On the
contemporary fiction scene the names that jump to mind as influenced by
Catholic culture are Don DeLillo, Richard Russo, Alice McDermott . . .
maybe a dozen others if I sat down and thought about it. The list of
well-known writers steeped in and engaged with Jewish culture, on the
other hand, would fill several pages. In this sense it was only natural
that I began to be drawn to Jewish themes and stories. Of course, I
wasn’t unaware of the great flowering of Catholic literary culture in
the middle of the twentieth century; it’s just that I always preferred
the stories of Bernard Malamud to those of Flannery O’Connor; and the
novels of Philip Roth to those of Walker Percy. All questions of
literary influence aside, I think it comes down to the fact that my
experiences with Yiddish beginning about twelve years ago planted a
seed in my head that finally and almost on its own could only be
expressed through the odd act of a Catholic boy from Boston writing a
Jewish story set in Odessa, Jerusalem, and Baltimore.
Q: You are in the midst of completing a Ph.D. degree in
religion. How do you find time to write fiction, and to what extent
does it serve as a complement to your academic work?
It's always difficult to find time—and it’s even more difficult to use
the time effectively once I find it. Pursuing scholarly work and
fiction simultaneously does have its challenges, but overall I find
inspiration for my writing in my doctoral work. While I have no
interest in writing a novel about academic life, I do find that the
necessity it makes of wandering alone among library shelves to be
endlessly rewarding. When I’m in the library I very often leave behind
whatever research I’ve come to do and find myself tracking down all
kinds of unexpected leads. For me that's where fiction starts—stories
hidden in a maze of shelves. With both fiction and academic work, I
most enjoy the part of the writing process that takes place just before
the process begins, those moments at which it seems an idea is before
you fully formed but covered over, in need of excavation.
Q: You’ve also worked at the National Yiddish Book Center.
How closely does the translator’s depiction of reclaiming lost or
neglected libraries of Yiddish books in Songs for the Butcher’s daughter track with your experiences?
A: The “Jewish Cultural Organization” I mention in Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
bears only a slight resemblance to the National Yiddish Book Center. I
have spent a few hot summers in the NYBC’s book warehouse, but more of
my work took place in a beautiful museum/library that the Forward once
referred to as a “post-modern shtetl,” set among a picturesque apple
orchard in western Massachusetts. I worked at the book center first as
an intern, then as an exhibit researcher, and finally as a
jack-of-all-trades who helped digitize the Yiddish canon, wrote about
Yiddish poetry for the book center’s magazine, and drove a big diesel
truck up and down the East Coast picking up donated books. It was in
this last task that I made the acquaintance of quite a few elderly Jews
who could have been the inspiration for Itsik Malpesh. To meet the
owners of Yiddish libraries was to know that stories could be hidden
not just in books but inside the most apparently ordinary lives.
Q: To what extent were you influenced by Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov’s great novel of mistranslation?
A: I’ll have to read it and get back to you on that. With the exception
of Cynthia Ozick’s excellent novella Envy, or Yiddish in America I
haven't read many stories about translation. I have always been
fascinated by the process—perhaps because I can read only one language
without a bilingual dictionary at my side. In a way, writing fiction is
an act of translation to begin with—the challenge is “translating” the
story as it exists in the language of the mind to the much less
forgiving language of the page.
Q: There’s been a resurgence of contemporary fiction about
speakers of Yiddish, including—most recently—The History of Love by
Nicole Krauss and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. What
do you think accounts for this development?
A: Yiddish has
come to play a peculiar role in American culture. It seems that for
many it now stands for all that was lost over the last century or so.
The loss Yiddish represents takes many forms: It can be as personal as
a grandmother, as horrific as the Holocaust, as inevitable as the
process by which immigrants became Americans. To write fiction about
Yiddish is to wrestle with all these things. At least that is what I
suspect draws other writers to it. Since I began thinking about Itsik
Malpesh, I’ve stayed away from contemporary novels in which Yiddish
plays a part; there is bound to be some similarity between these books
based on theme alone, and I wanted to allow Malpesh and his story to
develop as apart from that as possible.
Q: Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter makes the
Yiddish language itself a kind of beloved character in the book, one
that is unapologetic about its right to occupy that place in the
narrative. Is such a characterization inevitable for a language that is
in danger of being forgotten?
A: This is perhaps where I
cite the famous line about Yiddish spoken by the linguist Max
Weinreich. When asked why he spent so much of his career on a language
many regarded as dead or dying, he reportedly said, “Because Yiddish
has magic, it will outwit history.” (This same line, by the way, was
used as the title of one of the better books about Yiddish Outwitting
History by the NYBC's founder Aaron Lansky.) I must admit, however,
that I do not use Yiddish as a character because I feel it has magic or
because I believe it will outwit history. In fact, I use it because
exactly the opposite has happened. History has ravaged Yiddish. A
vibrant language and culture that existed a hundred years ago simply is
gone. It is wonderful that places like the NYBC exist to rescue Yiddish
books, and it is great that books about Yiddish have again become
popular, but ultimately the story of Yiddish is a story not unlike the
one I tell of the life and death of Itsik Malpesh: The life is worth
celebrating, but that doesn't make the death any less real. There is no
danger that Yiddish will be forgotten, but already it has become
something other than it was through its thousand-year history: It is
now less of a language and more of a myth, a story about a way of life
now gone. It will live on, as perhaps Malpesh does in some way, but
only in a form far removed from the vitality it once knew.
Q: A number of fortuitous coincidences facilitate and
advance the plot of this book. Did you write these moments in because
life seems to occur to you in this way, or because it tends to in the
genre of Yiddish fiction, or for another reason altogether?
A: The funny thing about coincidence is that chance occurrences or
encounters that don’t fly in fiction are readily accepted as facts of
life in the world beyond the page. I’m particularly taken by the way
people—and the objects that represent them—find ways to return after
they have been lost. This happens throughout the novel, and I think it
is an accurate depiction of the uncanny way our lives work sometimes.
I’ve always liked the Yiddish version of the expression “small world”:
It begins with as a mere translation— kleyne velt . . .—but then
continues to put the “small world” of coincidence in context: . . . . .
groyser gott. The world may be small, but God is big, and so no matter
how unlikely something seems, there’s no reason it should not come to
Even without resorting to spiritual explanations, I think everyone
has experienced moments in life in which the unlikely and the
unexpected seem inevitable in retrospect. An example: Six years ago I
lost a watch in my wife-to-be's apartment in Boston; it was given to me
by a friend with whom I'd lost contact, so when the watch went missing
I regretted its loss the way I regretted the loss of my friend. In the
years since, my wife and I have lived in many different places in four
states and on other continents. Most of that time has been spent
together, some apart, and then, as of two and a half years ago, with
our baby daughter. Just this morning my daughter was playing in the
living room of our house in DC, climbing on an old armchair my wife has
had for ages. For a moment I heard the playing stop and I was about to
go check on her when I heard, “Look! Look! I found something!” Sure
enough, she came running toward me, holding the watch I had not seen in
six years. It had fallen deep inside the armchair, in a spot only a
two-and-a-half-year old would be inclined or able to reach.
Objects have a way of finding us sometimes, often by way of
circumstances that did not exist when they were lost in the first
place. Of course it’s then up to us to make meaning out of their
return. I don’t suppose that an epic reunion like the one had by Itsik
Malpesh and Sasha Bimko will come of the finding of my watch, but I do
know that seeing it again made me want to call my friend.
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. In Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,
families become separated by war, ethnic and religious violence, and
longstanding disagreements. Many of them carry around fragments of
their lost families in the form of letters, photographs, stories, and
memories. How do you carry around your family with you? What historical
documents, letters, images, and stories do you feel depict your
relationship with the far-flung members of your family? If someone were
translating your life into a book, what would be the essential pieces
that would help him or her make sense of it? You may want to bring some
of these pieces to your next book group gathering, to share the sense
of belonging and separation that comes with being part of a family
comprised of many generations.
2. Oy vey! Peter Manseau’s book makes use of deep wordplay to
explore the remarkable flexibility of the Yiddish language. Have you
ever wondered how many words you know and use in everyday conversation
that derive from Yiddish? Are there Yiddishisms you know that you
aren’t entirely sure of the meaning of? Visit the Yiddish dictionary
online to enter words in either English, Yiddish, or Hebrew to learn
more about your own Yiddish references :http://www.yiddishdictionaryonline.com.
3. In Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, entire families are
lost to one another in the course of their immigration to America.
Today, tremendous digital resources exist to enable families to track
their ancestors’ arrivals to America. Accessing a database of some 25
million records of immigrant arrivals, the Statue of Liberty-Ellis
Island Foundation enables visitors to search (for free) by name or date
of birth for long-lost relatives. Do you know when your family first
arrived in this country? Visit http://www.ellisisland.org to begin your search for your ancestors. You may want to compare notes with your fellow book club members about your findings.