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—
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.”
Yet 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.”
Obviously, 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.”
While 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.
How 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.
In 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.”
It 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.
She 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 Jewishness.”
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.
Learning 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.
“The 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.”
For 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 vicinity.
The 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.
On the 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.
The 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.
As 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.
I 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.
At 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?”
“Yes,” 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.
It 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.
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? And what about my own attractive coworker? As Malpesh wrote, “A man is in his pants what he is not in his heart.”
Summer 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 rafters.
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?”
I 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…
As 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 go home.
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.
One 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.
“Yes, 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 elevator.
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 spine.
“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?”
“No,” 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.
Smiling, 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?”
“Jewish!” 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.
“Hey, 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.
Reaching behind me, I pressed the button marked “4” again, and up we went, the soggy book pressed between us like a bride’s bouquet.
Translation 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.
“For a writer who has outlived his tongue, there is no other means of contact,” Malpesh said. “Without a translator, who would unzip the words?” H
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 interconnectedness?
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 Jewish fiction?
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?
A: 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 pass.
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 :https://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 https://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.