In this acclaimed fiction debut, "a rich, often ironic homage to Yiddish culture and language" (Publishers Weekly), Peter Manseau weaves 100 years of Jewish history, the sad fate of an ancient language, and a love story shaped by destiny into a truly great American novel.
In a five-story walkup in Baltimore, nonagenarian Itsik Malpesh—the last Yiddish poet in America—spends his days lamenting the death of his language and dreaming of having his memoirs and poems translated into a living tongue. So when a twenty-one-year-old translator and collector of Judaica crosses his path one day, he goes to extraordinary efforts to enlist the young man’s services. And what the translator finds in ten handwritten notebooks is a chronicle of the twentieth century. From the Easter Sunday Pogrom of Kishinev, Russia, to the hellish garment factories of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Itsik Malpesh recounts a tumultuous, heartrending, and colorful past. But the greatest surprise is yet to come: for the two men share a connection as unlikely as it is life-affirming.
With the ardent and feisty Itsik Malpesh, Peter Manseau has created a narrator for the ages and given him a story that will win over readers’ hearts and keep them turning pages long into the night. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is a literary triumph.
|Product dimensions:||5.52(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.97(d)|
About the Author
Peter Manseau, the author of the nonfiction works Killing the Buddha and Vows, lives in Washington, D.C. This is his first novel.
Date of Birth:November 15, 1974
Place of Birth:Washington, D.C.
Education:B.A., University of Massachusetts, 1996
Read an Excerpt
The Memoirs of Itsik Malpesh
It's a long way from Kishinev to Baltimore. Separating the place of the beginning of my life from that of its likely end, the sea of history sent waves that threatened always to pull me down. How did I survive? I floated on a raft of words.
My first were those of the mamaloshn, the sweet kitchen Yiddish my mother used to soothe my cries. These were words like wooden spoons, feeding hot soup on the coldest days, cracking down on the pot when little hands reached to taste too soon. Before long, my earliest words were joined by the loshn kodesh, the holy tongue of Scripture. When, in my most distant memory, my father wrapped me in his prayer shawl and carried me to the synagogue to hear the language of prayer spoken, it was as though I was the holy scroll itself, carried in the arms of the righteous to lead the Simchat Torah parade. Father was not particularly pious and became less so through the years, but nonetheless he was a good Jew, said kaddish for his mother when she died, and was pleased to send his only son to the religious school where I learned to write my letters.
Such letters! The flexibility of the twenty-two letters of the alefbeys impresses me even now. With them I could write my name two ways, one as I heard it spoken each day in Yiddish yud tsadek yud kof and again as it was given in the Torah's Hebrew yud tsadek khet kof like the son of Abraham our patriarch. There is only a slight difference between Itsik and Isaac, but still it was a marvel to me to be one boy with two names one for the streets, one for the shul as if who I was depended always on the walls around me.
And that was only the beginning of what I would learn from the differences between my first two tongues. Look at the way the same four letters in the loshn kodesh find new life and meaning in the vernacular:
alef yud vav beys
In Hebrew, this spells Job, the name of the saintly, tortured, righteous man from the Teachings of the Prophets. In Yiddish, if we take this word and reverse the vav and the yud, it becomes simply oyb, "if."
You see how language itself explains the mysteries of man? Only in the relation of one tongue to another do we understand that God treats the life of each creature as a question; a walking, breathing "if." The rabbis would have us believe the Holy One sits in heaven with nothing to do but look down upon His world and wonder about this or that soul that happens to catch His eye. What questions He must ask Himself: If I slaughter this one's children, will he still pray? If I wreck this one's body with boils, will he still sing that I am just? What do we do if God puts such questions before us? To some, that is the true challenge of living: Who will we be if we become another Job? Will we bear our suffering as he did?
Ach, such thoughts are for the philosopher. The poet meanwhile is a heretic and a pragmatist by nature. Personally, if God in his mystery chooses to treat me as he treated poor Job, I'll tell him to stick a fig in his ass.
But I leap ahead of myself. Forgive me, my pen reaches always for the closing lines. It hates the start of things, the first marks on the virgin page. Yet before I explain what I have made of the world and what the world has made of me, I must tell you how I came to be.
If it is true what my mother told me, I was born in the scarred city of Kishinev on a Sunday in April, late one evening when white feathers filled the sky like a springtime snowfall. Kishinev was part of the Russian Empire then; before and since it has known nearly as many nationalities as have we poor Jews. Always another boot on its neck Ottoman, Russian, Romanian the city lay with its face in the gutter of the swampy river Bic, which never cared who among the goyim called himself czar.
According to my mother, my birth fell on the Russians' Easter of that year, 1903. (When in my boyhood I asked why my birthday was not Easter every year, she explained that the Christian holy day was a moveable feast, while the anniversary of my arrival was as fixed as a grave.) At the time, the family Malpesh my mother, my father, my sisters, and my grandmother was living in the center of Kishinev, near Chuflinskii Square, down the block from the market on Aleksandrov Street. My father was a cabinetmaker by trade, but before I was born he'd become manager of the city's goose down factory and now earned a comfortable living. My mother no longer needed to work but on a regular schedule gave assistance to the Christians next door. Her two daughters were old enough to look after themselves, and the mother in the neighbor's house was bedridden and had no girl children to care for her, so several times each week Mama went with baked goods to feed the invalid and her four sons. That is how it was in the community the family Malpesh lived in then: Jews living on the same street as Christians, with young ones of each running in and out of all the houses. Even in my boyhood, after the violence, the Christian children came to our door for pastries.
Kishinev was half Jewish, the other half made up equally of Russians and Moldovans. The Russians ran the local government, placed in power by the czar. They hoped to Russify the Moldovans, a rough people who were the natural inhabitants of the province of Bessarabia, of which our city was capital. Each of these groups believed they comprised a full half of the overall population, which accounted for what my father called the Christian mathematics of the Bessarabian census bureau: Fifty thousand Jews in a city of 100,000, and we were regarded as a troublesome minority.
Nevertheless, the family lived well. This perhaps bears explanation, as many Jews in Kishinev did not live at all well at the time. How could they? Endless regulations guarded against their prosperity. Jews were not permitted to live beyond the city's boundaries, and so most clustered together within a few squalid streets; they were not permitted to vote in the local elections that determined the governance of the city in which they were forced to live; their choice of employment was restricted by various ethnically affiliated trade guilds. Even those Jews who did find some success seemed to the rest to be interested only in currying favor with the authorities. Generally speaking, our lives were circumscribed by the ancient prejudices of the Christian population. That our numbers were on the rise while theirs were declining did not indicate to our neighbors that we were the future and hope of Kishinev, but rather that we were its threat and would soon be its doom.
How then did the family Malpesh rise above such conditions? As my mother told me, it happened like this: Five years previous, having just begun his employment at the local goose-down-gathering operation, Father awoke with a start one night, shaken by a terrible dream. In his sleep he had seen an entire flock of white birds with snapped necks, their blue tongues lolling out of beaks as black as ink, all impaled on giant spikes attached to mechanized wheels. The birds hung upside down, each with two webbed feet pointed to the sky like the hands of surrender. As the coal engine fire raged, a machine squealed to life and the carcasses inched forward toward a faceless man with blood in his beard.
My youngest sister, Freidl, later told me that Father said the shadowy figure in his dream looked "like hell's shoykhet," and she swore she would never forget the description. She was all of five years old but had once seen Moishe Bimko, one of Kishinev's kosher slaughterers, perform his work in the shed behind the synagogue. Six foot five and broad as a cow even for a butcher, Moishe was a fright to behold. The man who served his role in Gehenna was too awful to imagine.
Grandmother shrieked when she heard Father's dream, convinced it was the product of a hex. "Some old witch has caught you with her evil eye," she said. He was not a superstitious man, but hearing his mother's reaction, he admitted the nightmare had rattled him. For days Grandmother pestered her son. "You must go see the rabbi. He will tell you what the vision means."
Mama disagreed. "The rabbi is the mayor's lackey," she said. "He will tell you the birds' two feet mean you should pay your taxes twice."
She suggested that instead of running to the synagogue, he should describe the image of the moving birds to Mr. Bemkin, who was the owner of the goose down operation. Father was reluctant; he wasn't proud of his job and found all affiliation with Bemkin's down company distasteful. He'd sought employment there only because a new law forbade hiring cabinetmakers who were not members of the Bessarabian Carpenters' Guild, and membership was denied to Jews. At the down operation he worked not with his hammer and planes but with a shovel, cleaning up the mountains of shit that were the byproduct of large-scale slaughter.
Yet to pacify my mother, Father agreed. He first made drawings of all he could remember from his nightmare: the engine, the wheels, the conveyor belt, and the curved metal spikes that held the geese in place.
When Mr. Bemkin examined these sketches, he saw the potential immediately. He was a Christian but also a shrewd businessman who valued the possibility of increased revenue over the particulars of religious affiliation. Father's "goose machine," he said, was very much like innovations that had guaranteed the fortunes of the large down operations in Odessa. But who in Kishinev, he wondered, could build such a thing?
Father volunteered to try. Through considerable elaboration upon his initial sketches, he finally hit upon a great idea: the use of five iron spikes to affix each goose to the workings of the machine. Four of the five spikes merely pinched the fowl beneath the wings, two on each side, keeping them positioned on the conveyor belt more with the threat of being pierced than by actual penetration. An additional spike, lowered from above, was intended only to be used when a bird could be kept still no other way. The spike would stab through the goose's neck, pinning it to the belt and allowing its blood to drain into the gutter that ran the length of the machine. By this design, many of the geese would survive the process and so could continue to produce down for another plucking cycle; only those birds that slowed production would be killed.
The machine was an immediate success. Within six months Mama had packed the family's rented rooms in the Jewish quarter, and they had moved to a two-level home near Chuflinskii Square with a view of the famous merry-go-round from the second story window.
For Father, it would be impossible to exaggerate the change of status this afforded him. Teams of Russian and Moldovan laborers now worked for him at the factory, and he proudly told my mother how closely they listened to him. When he demanded they pick up the pace to meet a rush order "Pluck with pluck, my pluckers!" he'd cheer workers who had harassed him as a shit-shoveling Jew months before now sped up or slowed down upon his command. It was almost as if they weren't Russians or Moldovans but extensions of his will.
In truth, it was hard for Father to take note of them as anything but parts of the great machine, or perhaps of a hungry animal. Yes, that was it: like the organs of some goose-eating golem. How else to explain the common feeling among the workers that they toiled deep in the gullet of a beast? With so much blood draining, the air in the factory hung thick with a meaty haze, and the farting squawks made by the punctured geese sounded and stank like the digestion of rotted flesh.
When the occasional worker spoke up against these conditions or the obvious cruelty suffered by the birds, Father was quick to say that he had nothing against either his geese or his workers. It was simply a matter of supply and demand. The demand for bedding required an ever larger supply of feathers; the end justified the means.
"In fact," he proposed, "given that one-quarter of Kishinev sleeps on Bemkin down every night and only, say, one one-thousandth of one-quarter of the city works here on the factory floor, I would say that we come out rather ahead. It's simple mathematics: If you add the suffering of the workers to the suffering of the plucked geese and then divide this total suffering by the pleasure derived from sleeping on Bemkin down plus the pleasure of those unplucked geese who enjoy life all the more knowing the fate they have avoided, it seems clear that our work here is for the common good."
Once the workers learned they could not approach their manager without coming away fully perplexed, Father's control of the factory seemed complete. He loved to watch both men and machine hum with activity each morning, nearly oblivious to the loss of avian life that was lubricating the whole endeavor.
As the birds moved through the processing room, it was each man's job to deplume a single section left wing, right wing, upper breast, lower breast so that by the time a goose had passed through a gauntlet of eight pluckers it was picked to the skin. Formerly a single bird would have taken half an hour to clean; now it was five minutes. And because each worker no longer left his stool whenever he finished a bird a process that by tradition had involved the enjoyment of several cigarettes on the short walk to the fresh goose pile even more time was saved. This last was accomplished by the positioning of a single man at the start of the disassembly line. There he sat all day long, pinning goose after goose with the sharp iron spikes. Under the old system this spiker had been the slowest plucker of the bunch, a portly fellow who broke a sweat with the slightest exertion. Now the workers no longer paused to brag or argue over who had plucked best; they worked as a unit, toward a single goal.
As the only man who knew how all the parts fit together, Father walked among his workers and assessed their labor: "Left Wing, pick it up! Right Thigh, you're leaving too much on the skin! Neck-and-Head, do you need this job?"
Under his supervision the storehouse filled with feathers, and Mr. Bemkin paid Father well for his service. Of course, as Mama liked to point out, it was not just their own family who benefited. Father found a way to deliver geese with overly rigid down to Moishe Bimko for the feeding of the synagogue's indigent. And the price of bedding dropped so significantly as a result of his invention that Father made it possible for even the poorest of Jews to have a comfortable night's sleep. Years later I'd meet men all over my new country, from Baltimore to Brooklyn, who sang my father's praises for his pillows and featherbeds. For a few blissful years, all of Kishinev slept on his dreams.
So it was that I was conceived one warm shabbos night, the first bird of the Malpesh flock to begin life's endless migration from the comfort of a downy nest. From the factory Father brought Mama a mattress stuffed plump as a New Year's challah, and for his effort she let him share it from the feast of Shavuot through summer's end.
For me that was when the trouble started. The trouble for the rest of Kishinev came soon thereafter. I do not mean to suggest that it was the first sign of my impending arrival that started it, but who could argue that the months before a child is born is a time when anything seems possible?
What happened was this: A long day's journey north, in the little town of Dubossary, it was said that a body had been found. This was not unusual. Kishinev was a modern city, with sidewalks, streetcars, and factories such as the one my father managed. But Dubossary, though not very far away, remained rough country. The peasants there plowed rocky earth in the heat or the cold, as they had for centuries, and scarcely ate enough to stay alive. By local custom, the dead found in the fields were buried where they lay.
In Kishinev, when such sad findings were reported in the daily Bessarabets, they were read with the same interest as would have been given to accounts of the czar's bowel movements. Better in the Dubossary fields, the people of Kishinev liked to say, than on the merry-go-round in Chuflinskii Square.
This body, however, had caused some alarm. From the moment of its discovery by a vagrant great-grandson of serfs who'd stepped off the road to relieve himself, it was evident that this was a death for which someone would answer. First of all, it was only a boy, a youth of about fourteen, my eldest sister Beylah's age. He'd been stabbed several times and had bruises about his face and neck. Furthermore, the boy was a Christian. Word spread that he was last seen alive accompanying his grandparents to the Orthodox liturgy.
Who is to say where lies grow best? In the dark, like a mold? In the bright light, like a flower? In Dubossary they were growing everywhere. They took root in the marketplace, where they were tended by merchants. They were cultivated in the chapels, where they were harvested by priests. The boy had been killed, the rabble whispered, by Jews. The Jews needed his blood, the ancient tale went, to sweeten their matzo and thicken their wine; they needed his blood for their Passover feast.
Of course! Who else, O wise men of Dubossary? Who but the Jews would kill a boy and leave him on the roadside for a Christian peasant to piss on? Who but the Jews would be so stealthy in their motives yet so careless in their execution? Who but the Jews would build their own gallows, tie their own nooses, and hire the hangmen to stretch their necks? All these years later, it remains baffling to me that Jews know this same lie has been told for a thousand years, while Christians hear it each time as a revelation. That we should be judged and murdered by such imbeciles is sorely vexing. With a Cossack's boot on his neck, a Moldovan dirt farmer would strain himself to ask who was the Jew that knocked him down.
But such is the world. And such was our corner of it in those days that provisions traveled with difficulty over our rattling roads, but words moved like fire. Through the next three months, as I grew in my mother's womb, the lies of Dubossary impregnated our city and likewise grew, waiting for the day when they might burst forth with wailing and blood.
During the preparation time for Passover, Mama busied herself sweeping crumbs from the cupboards. She took all those foods the family could not eat during the days of unleavened bread and brought them to the Christian neighbors, who accepted her charity gratefully. Mama fed a flour-thickened soup to the invalid woman in her bed and inquired in a sideways fashion if she had heard any news lately, or if one of her sons had read to her from that day's Bessarabets.
"The newspaper says," Mama told her, "that a group of Jewish chemists have invented a new method of making wine without grapes." She studied the woman's face even as she put the spoon to her sickly lips, watching for a reaction that might betray hidden sympathies. Seeing none, she went further, as though exploring a wound. "The newspaper says this new wine is as red as blood," Mama continued, "but the Jews keep their recipe a secret. Have you ever heard such a thing?"
"All I have heard is nonsense," the Christian woman said. "There may be some unpleasantness in the countryside, but not here. Kishinev is a modern city." She strained to lift her hand and used it to pat my mother's cheek. "Look at us, two citizens talking over the news without fear of reprisal," she said in a calming tone. "For how many years have you been caring for us in this way? Four years? Five? As long as we have been neighbors. If this is so, then surely the world is not as wicked as you suppose."
Mama wanted to believe her, especially now that she was so close to the day of bringing an infant into the world. Her doctor had told her it might be early May, and she prayed for the tension in the city to pass before then. In the meantime, reading the mood of the goyim became a pastime as constant as divining the weather. When Father returned home from the factory each day, he'd catalog the peculiar looks he received as he made his way through town. He knew that every Christian who tipped his hat and bid him, "Good day, Mr. Manager," had some opinion about the boy whom the Jews had killed.
In such an atmosphere, it seemed as if Passover that year would be a somber affair, though it began without incident. Father's brother, his wife, and their son Zishe came from the Jewish Quarter to fill our large table, and together the family Malpesh sang the ancient songs of captivity and liberation.
I was by far the youngest at the table, but I was yet in my mother's womb, and so the four questions fell to my cousin, Zishe. Fate determined I would never meet this boy, yet I feel as though I can hear it now as if it were a memory: How is this night different from all the others? His words came haltingly, as he was too early in his studies to understand their meaning.
As the Seder progressed, Mama perceived the dark mood around the table. Her two girls, usually so attentive, sulked in their seats, not even smiling when they were called upon to drop spots of wine on their plates in commemoration of Egypt's plagues. In years past this had been a time of merriment among the children. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, they rarely had the opportunity to openly and righteously play with their food.
Yet this night was indeed different from all the others, for it was then, after placing the last drop, signifying the plague by which God had slain the firstborn sons of Egypt, that my oldest sister Beylah, fourteen and brazen, dared to mention the fear that stalked Kishinev's streets. Surely what she hoped to say was this: Father, I'm confused by what is happening. We have a lovely home and we're happy here. Mama cares for the Christians next door, and I believe one of the boys there thinks I'm pretty. And yet when I step outside I feel cold looks from every window on the street. Could you please explain this for me?
But this is not what she said. Perhaps poets and children know best how elusive our fine language can be. Like a poem that will not fall into form, a child's thoughts are often jumbled, stubborn, unappealing in expression despite their purest intent. How else can one explain why, sitting at the Seder table with her family in a time of great anxiety, my oldest sister Beylah would ask, "Is it true what the Russian girls are saying, that a boy in Dubossary was murdered by Jews? That Jews took his blood for their cooking?"
Father's face flashed red in his beard. He was not a man given to outbursts, but on this occasion he shouted. "How could you say such a thing! A disgrace!"
The other children erupted with related questions, finally giving voice to all they had endured at the hands of their Christian peers, hardships and slanders that, until then, they had hidden from their parents' notice. A full family brawl might have ensued had not Father's brother taken control. Uncle Leib was a quiet man with a gentle air and a perpetually earnest tone. The children often found him distant, but now he spoke directly to their concerns.
"Little Beylah, don't be ashamed for asking," he said. "What the Russian girls have told you they have heard from their parents, who heard it from their parents before them. It is a very old lie which some persist in telling about our people. An outrageous falsehood. Do you understand what I say?"
"Yes," Beylah said, "but "
"What 'but'? From babyhood you have helped your mama make the matzo, yes? Did you help her this year?"
"And did you add blood to the batter?"
Beylah looked away and said softly, "No."
"And have you ever seen anyone add blood to matzo batter?"
"No," Beylah said again. She studied her empty plate, not willing to meet her uncle's serious eyes. It was still early in the Seder, so by then her plate held only those watery symbols of the plague, the ten red wine drops she had placed there. She put a finger in the violet liquid and used it to paint the plate with spirals and flowers. Years later she would tell me that she felt as though she was being spoken to as if she were still a little girl, not a young woman of fourteen. She wanted to lash out in response to this indignity, so she gathered up all her courage and peevishness.
"But I've never seen anyone make our wine," she said, "and the Russian girls say things about that, too. Why shouldn't we believe them?"
Uncle Leib was about to continue, but Father held up his hand. The children braced for another showing of his temper, but he had regained his composure while his patient brother spoke. He now sensed that beneath her bluster his daughter wasn't searching for answers, only reassurance. What she wanted was some suggestion that, whatever her Russian playmates said, the family Malpesh could still control its destiny. That Jews could still live as they pleased.
With the whole family waiting to hear what wisdom he would convey, Father winked at Mama and asked in full voice, "Mama, would you please pass the Christian blood?"
Beylah looked up in shock. Uncle Leib's eyes narrowed to slits of confusion.
"Yes, of course, Father," Mama said and grinned. "A nice big glass of Christian blood. I've been reading in the Bessarabets that it is very nutritious!"
Her daughters could not believe their ears but giggled at the absurdity despite themselves. Across the table, Leib, too, got the joke. He laughed heartily "Yes, more Christian blood for me as well!" and at the sound of their earnest uncle joining the gag, the children felt free to burst.
"Some for me, Mama." Beylah laughed. "Pour some blood for me!"
Cousin Zishe reached for his father's glass and took a big gulp.
Freidl sang, "I want Christian blood! More Christian blood!"
At this Mama tsked-tsked, "No, no, baby. Maybe when you're older," and the family laughed together as it hadn't in months.
Not everyone was amused, however. Grandmother had remained silent through Beylah's troublemaking, but now slapped the table with such force that the candles shook until they flickered out. "Shah! Stop! Someone will hear you!"
"Who will hear us?" Father laughed.
"The Christians," Grandmother hissed. "They are always looking for an excuse! Better for us all if the murdered child had been Jewish!"
"Ach, Mother, please," Father said. "I am the manager of the largest goose down factory in the province. I am the inventor of the goosemoving machine that has put feathers in every bed in Kishinev! Am I not safe in my own house?"
"Is the Malpesh family not permitted "
" to have some holiday fun around its own table!"
"More Christian blood for everyone!" Father cheered.
Grandmother stood abruptly, knocking the table as she made for the stairs. Her plate crashed into her knife and her knife stabbed against her glass, and before anyone could reach it, the fine crystal goblet toppled forward and met the Seder plate with a smash. A red stain spread across the tablecloth like a rising tide.
Father tried for levity once more, forcing a final chuckle as he called after her, "Pity! All that blood will go to waste!"
But the horror on Grandmother's face coupled with the sight of the broken glass told the children that the joke wasn't funny anymore. Copyright © 2008 by Peter Manseau
Reading Group Guide
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?
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I thoroughly enjoyed this first novel by Peter Manseau (author of non0fictional work "Vows"). The research that went into this must have been extensive. I enjoyed Manseau's style of writing and character development. It received rave reviews at my recent book club meeting, I would highly recommend!
Novel is about a Christian translator of Yiddish material. One of the Yiddish writers has a memoir that intrigues the translator. Translator weaves his translation issues with the facts of the Yiddish writer. Some great descriptive scenes of a print shop and NY for immigrants...not as good in painting pictures of characters. My book club liked the book more than I did.
I didn't like the ending, there is a horrific act by one of the main characters, lots of terrible things happen. And yet I know people who love the book.On page 45, the narrator explains, "This word is tehilah. Prayer." Is a Psalm a prayer? OK, maybe I'm just being cranky.
I liked the plot line and the artifice of translator's comments...but I didn't feel the character development/s of Itsak, our narrator, the Butcher's Daughter or the girl friend kept up with the story...The two collections of books appealed...but possibly a smaller canvas would have given more space for character nuance...the business of the action precluded this...and I don't think Itsak is his action
This book is a superlative tale of two intersecting lives that takes place amid a swirl of words and languages and the alphabets that produce them. The result is such a melodious harmony of coincidences that you will feel as if you are at a transcendent orchestral performance of literature. I was thrilled to discover an author with such an ability to capture the essence of characters and culture and memories in motion.Songs for the Butcher¿s Daughter has two interwoven stories: one is a fictitious autobiography of nonagenarian Itsik Malpesh, the self-described ¿last and greatest Yiddish poet in America,¿ who was originally from Kishinev in the Russian Empire. The second consists of ¿translators notes¿ by a young man ¿ a recent college graduate never named ¿ who purportedly has translated Malpesh¿s life story into English. [In real life, troubadour Itzik Manger is often referred to as the ¿last and greatest¿ of Yiddish poets. One wonders if the similarity between the two names was intentional.]In alternating voices, we learn the story of Malpesh and the story of the translator, with amazing correspondences between the two. This perhaps reflects the theme of bashert in the story, or fate, which all the characters seem to repudiate, even as it binds them all tightly together.Malpesh was born in 1903 literally in the midst of a pogrom. [These were sometimes spontaneous and sometimes officially organized massacres directed toward Jews. Even spontaneous riots were ignored by government officials.] Hiding in a bedroom upstairs during the pogrom were Itsik¿s mother, grandmother and sisters as well as the butcher¿s small daughter, Sasha. The butcher had left Sasha there to go help guard the synagogue and his butchering shed. Itzik¿s mother unexpectedly went into labor, and her screams alerted the Russian marauders to their location. According to family legend, everyone froze except for little Sasha, who raised her tiny fist against the intruders. From the time he could write verse, Malpesh composed poems dedicated to Sasha, who, he felt, gave him life and was his bashert. He called the collection ¿Songs for the Butcher¿s Daughter.¿As a young boy, while supposedly studying Jewish law in a Yeshiva, Itzik surreptitiously discovers the world of Russian language as well, and becomes fascinated with words. He works as an apprentice printer for many years, all the while hoping one day to have his poems published. On the cusp of manhood, his employer and benefactor sends him to America hidden in a trunk of printers blocks, each of which features a Hebrew letter. Inside, Itzik traced the shapes, ¿naming the letters with which God had made the world.¿ After being released from the trunk by a crewman, he still could not escape its hold on him:¿Yet in my mind I remained locked among the printing blocks. As I wandered the decks and breathed the salted air, my fellow passengers ¿ speaking languages I had never heard, wearing costumes I had never imagined ¿ seemed to me so many jumbled letters, all waiting to be assembled into stories, poems, songs; moving together across the wordless ocean, empty as a waiting page.¿He lands in New York, and gets a job with a printer recommended back in Kishinev. He still dreams of Sasha, and finally one day, reading his poems aloud in a bar, she is there.When Itzik finally meets Sasha, he is amazed that the reality of her is different than his verse, and also, that she was something else to him than she was to anyone else:¿How is it that we are to others what we are not to ourselves? Does a word know its own meaning? Does a letter know the sound that it signifies? How then can we pretend to know what our lives are for?¿Their involvement with one another is echoed far in the future, with the translator and a girl, Clara Feld, who works with him at the Jewish Cultural Organization, which is devoted to rescuing Yiddish books. In a rather humorously ironic twist, the tra
Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau was mesmerizingly wonderful. I am so thankful to other bloggers who reviewed it which encouraged me to pick it up. The story is told in two voices and two time periods. It is a story of love and loss, beauty and truth, and faith. It is an old man's memoirs and a young man's thoughts and dreams. The voices and stories are alternated between an old Jewish man, Itsik Malpesh, who has written his life story via the Yiddish alphabet and a young Catholic man who, through translator's notes written as he translates Malpesh's story from Yiddish to English, interjects his own story and problems. Malpesh's story begins in 1903 in Bessarabia, follows him through the two world wars, and to Baltimore where the collaboration begins between the two men. The younger man is a college graduate with a degree in religions and languages. He has recently learned to read Yiddish and comes to meet with Malpesh. This is the great coincidence of the book and holds the wonder of both men's stories.
The reader receives Songs for the Butcher's Daughter as the translated memoir of Itzik Malpesh, the self-proclaimed greatest Yiddish poet in America (having outlived the rest of them). Malpesh is now in his nineties, and trying to preserve Yiddish and Jewish history as best he can in a world that's not especially interested in either.Itzik's life begins with strife and tragedy as the Russians attack his house in a pogrom on the night of his birth; the tensions between religion and society and Jewish identity only get worse as he grows up and sees more of the world. In New York, he finds only a half-hearted Yiddish press, and nowhere interested in publishing Yiddish poetry. We see Itsik struggle against this - how does one react when a language or culture has been made obsolete?This is a bittersweet and sincere novel, a seemingly simple and clean story that focuses on so many issues and does it so well. Its pitch is both Jewish and American, figuring out how to reconcile the culture gap just as Itsik tries to navigate it.
How did a Catholic boy write this?I am a secular Jew. Like myself, this novel is far more ethnic than religious. It¿s incredibly Jewish, but at the same time wonderfully inclusive. What I mean is, you do NOT have to be Jewish to read and enjoy this novel. In fact, it is a tale literally being told by an outsider.Songs for the Butcher¿s Daughter is a story within a story. On the surface, it is the fictionalized autobiography of Itsik Malpesh, ¿the last Yiddish poet in America.¿ Born in 1903 in the middle of a Russian pogrom, Malpesh leads a picaresque life that takes him from the town of his birth to Odessa, from Odessa to New York, and eventually to Baltimore, Maryland. It¿s a long, eventful, tragic, dramatic, funny, and occasionally joyful life. In the course of its telling, Malpesh documents anti-Semitism in the old world, the birth of Israel, the death of Yiddish, the American immigrant experience, and a saga of star-crossed love. But it¿s so much more. Itsik¿s is such a human story! It¿s beautiful and compelling and grabbed me right from the opening pages.The story within this story comes in the form of copious ¿translator¿s notes.¿ Itsik¿s memoir was written in his native tongue, Yiddish. His story is being filtered through an unlikely translator, a young, non-Jewish, college grad with an all-but-useless theology degree. The most marketable of his skills is his knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet. It¿s enough to get him a job in a warehouse of Yiddish literature run by a Jewish organization. Bored beyond belief, this nameless narrator teaches himself the language and embarks on his own journey which eventually leads to nonagenarian Itsik Malpesh.Amazingly, Itsik¿s story and the narrator¿s story have strange little connections that reminded me of the subtle connections between the stories in David Mitchell¿s Cloud Atlas. However, these coincidental connections shouldn¿t have surprised, as the past never really seemed to stay the past in Itsik¿s long life. People came and went and reappeared when and where you least expected them. Or perhaps where you most expected them. Call backs and foreshadowing were used to good effect, and overall the writing of this debut was impressive. The story started to drag just a bit late in the novel, but the ending was so satisfying that it hardly seems worth mentioning. This is a truly auspicious debut, and I will be waiting with considerable interest to see what Peter Manseau writes next.
This wonderful book tells the tale of a young Catholic graduate with a love of language who finds himself the custodian of a library of Yiddish texts. He finds himself drawn into the story of Itsik Malpesh, the self-proclaimed greatest Yiddish poet in America. The book unfolds along two timelines, gradually merging together at the end into one seamless story. Itsik's love for Sasha, the butcher's daughter he believes is his bashert provides the main thread to both the narrative and his entire life. I was drawn completely into this novel that traces the often dark experiences of an Eastern European Jew who ultimately immigrates to the US. The story was compelling, the characters engaging, and the denouement exciting. Manseau's use of Yiddish was masterful and the language of the novel overall was lyrical. I highly recommend this book.
Fiction often provides a better feel for and understanding of history than do historical tomes. Peter Manceau's masterful book traces the journey of Itsik Malpesh from the shtetl to contemporary America with incredible flair. Chagall painted his recollections of his childhood home town, Vitebst. Manceau's canvas is the written word and is just as powerful as the paint brush, maybe even more so. I was sweating reading his depiction of the program during which little Itsik was born. His journey to America, the love story, the agonies all exude a Yiddishkeit not felt since Issac B. Singer. You may ask, how did a gentle develop such an understanding of the language and culture? A must read for those fascinated by our old-world culture and the journey to the new world of contemporary America.
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