Summer, sweltering, 1996. A book warehouse in western Massachusetts. 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, a ninetysomething Russian immigrant who claims to be the last Yiddish poet in America. When a set of accounting ledgers in which Malpesh has written his memoirs surfaces -- twenty-two volumes brimming with adventure, drama, deception, passion, and wit -- 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.
Moving from revolutionary Russia to New York's Depression-era Lower East Side to millennium's- \end Baltimore with drama, adventure, and boisterous, feisty charm to spare, the unpeeling of this friendship is a story of the entire twentieth century. For fans of Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Richard Powers, Amy Bloom, and Lore Segal, this book will amaze at every turn: narrated by two poets (one who doesn't know he is and one who doesn't know he isn't), it is a wise and warm look at the constant surprises and ineluctable ravages of time. It's a book about religion, love, and typesetting -- how one passion can be used to goad and thwart the other -- and most of all, about how faith in the power of words can survive even the death of a language.
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 for Jews and Gentiles alike, and a testament to Manseau's ambitious genius.
Known for Vows, his memoir of growing up the son of a former priest and nun, Manseau uses an alter ego to tell the story of fictional Yiddish poet Itsik Malpesh, born in the Moldovan city of Kishinev in 1903. Itsik's story is told through his Yiddish memoirs, which he helps a young American Catholic (working, like Manseau once did, as a Yiddish archivist) translate. Inspired by the image of Sasha, the brave butcher's daughter who was present at his birth, Itsik reaches America in young adulthood through haphazard luck, a taste for troublemaking and the inventiveness of a printer. Sasha continually inspires and confounds Itsik throughout his life, becoming an apt symbol for Yiddish humor, sorrow and idealism. As Itsik's darkly picaresque immigrant narrative unfolds, it competes with the translator's modern romance and with insights into the art of translation and the history of Yiddish. Occasional narrative missteps are not enough to undercut this rich, often ironic homage to Yiddish culture and language. (Sept.)
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September 07, 2008
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Excerpt from Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau
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.