An Interview with Peter Manseau, Author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter
By Jeremy Gillick
“Rise and go to the town of the killings,” Bialik wrote of Kishinev, the Moldovan city, formerly Russian, where a 1903 Easter Sunday blood libel famously escalated into a brutal three-day pogrom. A momentous event, the pogrom both expedited the Jewish exodus from Eastern Europe and helped usher Zionism into the 20th century. “Your feet will sink in feathers,” wrote Bialik forebodingly. “Half the buds will be feathers, and their smell the smell of blood.”
This image of blood and feathers in the heart of the Yiddish-speaking world is the backdrop of Peter Manseau’s new novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter. As the Kishinev pogrom begins and feathers flutter from Jewish windows, Itsik Malpesh, destined to become the last great Yiddish writer, is born. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter tells his story, from his days reading Dostoyevsky in the back of the cheder and sweeping up goose poop in his father’s down factory, to his search for the butcher’s daughter, Sasha, to his eventual emigration to New York, where he struggles to make a name for himself as a Yiddish poet. Throughout, Manseau interweaves Malpesh’s story with loosely autobiographical “translator’s notes” in which the narrator recounts how he stumbled upon Malpesh’s memoir.
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter reads like a thriller. Gracefully written, Manseau offers an exhilarating exploration of violence and religion, a glimpse of a dying culture being remade, and a look at what Yiddish means. If the book is flawed in the sense that the pieces all fit together a little bit too well, it is nonetheless a remarkable accomplishment for a first time novelist, and the son of a priest and former nun to boot. As the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Junot Diaz put it, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is “an extraordinary novel, and Itsik Malpesh is one of literature’s most stunning creations.”
Manseau, co-author of Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet and more recently Vows, studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University. He sat down with ITM to talk about his unique position as a non-Jewish, Jewish writer.
As the son of a priest and a former nun, how did you end up interested in Yiddish?
My first job after school was at this place called the National Yiddish Book Center. I was just graduating and I was looking for work and there was an internship at the Yiddish Book Center and I happened to apply for it and to get it. I’d studied religion at UMASS and along with it religious languages, mostly Greek and Hebrew. Having done that work with Hebrew gave me the ability to move into Yiddish earlier than I might have. I learned much later that my Hebrew teacher was one of the great friends of Aaron Lansky, who founded the Yiddish Book Center. I’m not sure if she smoothed the way, but she might have. Also, while I was at UMASS, my mentor as a writer was this novelist named Julius Lester. He was famous in the 80s because in the 60s he was a sort of civil rights figure and a black power radical guy, and in the 80s he converted to Judaism. He wrote this great book about it called “Love Song.” He introduced me to some of the story telling elements of the Jewish tradition.
Working at the Yiddish Book Center is one thing, but writing about Eastern European Jewish life requires a whole different degree of commitment. Why did you decide to write about it?
I didn’t know anything about Yiddish going into the Yiddish Book Center. Zero. What I was surprised to find when I got there was that, having been raised in a very strict religious tradition, and by that point pushing away from it, I found in the stories of Yiddish and particularly in the life stories of the people who made Yiddish literature, I found stories that were very similar to my own. All these guys who wrote Yiddish literature in the 19th and early part of the 20th century, they had all been given very strict religious educations, but as they came of age as writers and as they immigrated they didn’t want anything to do with it. So, they pushed away from it but they also found that they could never really escape. And that kind of tension is what I find exciting within Yiddish literature and so that’s what drew me to it.
That really comes through with both Chaim and Malpesh. There they are in a cheder in Kishinev in the early 1900s and they’re secretly reading Dostoyevsky in the back of the classroom, but both of them end up straight back in the middle of Jewish culture in one way or another.
Yeah. Those stories that I was writing in Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter were a definite homage to the stories I learned about IL Peretz or the other great writers of the early days of Yiddish literature, and how they learned. They moved very fluidly from being these religious prodigies to these very worldly prodigies, but never really left it all behind.
Your interest is religion, but at least on the surface in the book I felt like it was a subtext, that there was a lot more emphasis on Yiddish culture. Is there some way that Yiddish and these Yiddish writers serve as sort of an ideal of what a religion can become or produce?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if they’re an ideal, but I think they’re an example of how one can approach life religiously in a post-religious age. Their religious world is coming to an end in a way as the twentieth century began, because they weren’t in the shtetl anymore and even if they weren’t in the shtetl, they weren’t in the Jewish enclaves of the big European cities. I find that we are now entering into some kind of similar post-religious age, despite the fact that many people remain religious obviously, but I do find in the Yiddish writers and in Yiddish generally this kind of engagement with tradition. How do you make something new while recognizing that you come from something very old? So I find that part fascinating, and particularly with Yiddish the stakes are so high, because they knew all along that their language was dying. To me it’s just the stuff of great stories.
It’s also an historical novel. How did you decide to start with the Kishinev pogrom in 1903?
Geez, about eight or ten years ago, maybe six, I can’t remember how long, I wrote a review for the Forward of Martin’s Gilbert’s big coffee table Jewish history. It’s a really fascinating book and I think within that book—I had heard about the Kishinev pogrom—but I learned about it as this symbolic starting point of the twentieth century for Jews. It was also an endpoint—some people call the Kishinev pogrom the last medieval act of anti-Semitic violence and some people call it the first modern act and so based on the themes that I knew the book would explore it was hard to resist a story that starts with this religious violence on Easter Sunday. I read a book specifically about the pogrom and the images that the book passed on to me—I couldn’t not write about them. I’ve got these feathers on the cover of the book which I think if you don’t know the story they look really sweet, but when I read this book about the history of the Kishinev pogrom, this was a real fact that they actually had bedding coming out the windows and the feathers were floating in the air and settling down on the ground. I was really fixated on the loveliness of this image that is also very violent.
And that’s how you arrived at the idea of the down factory?
Yes, one thing just sort of followed the other. I knew there had to be feathers so where do the feathers come from?
Minkovsky’s Tavern is a fascinating place. It’s this sort of dingy, underground bar where all these Jews come to argue with each other about the issues of the time. Is that based on any particular research you did?
No, it was just based on the fact that I knew that the decisions made about whether Jews should speak Yiddish or Hebrew in the early part of the twentieth century were not polite. I write also later in the book that there’s fighting over this in what would then become Israel. I just wanted a venue where that could take place. And Odessa I’m really taken by as a place mainly because of Isaac Babel, because so many of his Jewish gangster stories were in Odessa, so it seemed a natural spot to have a bit of rough culture. And I also like the idea of journalists as thugs.
You don’t practice thuggery yourself do you?
I try not to but I’ve known some thuggish journalists.
Throughout the book there is an emphasis on Jewish-Christian interaction. Did the focus on proselytizing grow out of the fact that you weren’t Jewish and were approaching this all as an outsider?
Well, yes. When I was at the Yiddish book center there were occasional questions, you know, what does he want from us? As people got to know me they realized I didn’t want anything but whenever I would meet new people and they knew something about who I was and who I was not there’d be that question. When I was working there in my early 20s I of course thought I was the first goy ever to set foot into Yiddish and then I learned that I was not. As it turned out, the Moody Bible institute in Chicago was training missionaries in Yiddish in the early 20th century. I was really intrigued by that, that this most Jewish of languages was used by Christians at a very early point and even earlier than that actually, because some of the earliest Yiddish publishing was Christians publishing in Yiddish, proselytizing, I’m talking like the 17th century
How did you work that curiosity into the novel?
When I was at the Yiddish book center I’d come across these Yiddish translations of the New Testament and I was really intrigued by what sorts of people did this. So I knew I wanted to have that character, and I also knew—I’m a bad man—I knew I wanted to see him die. Not because I had anything against what he did but because I felt like his act needed to be answered in some way. One of the things I wanted to explore throughout was this idea of communal violence and this idea of whether the individual can answer for the community. I mean, we all do inevitably, but is it just?
Why is Malpesh the last Yiddish writer?
When I was at the Yiddish book center, I was a book collector like the translator is, and I would meet a lot of elderly Jews who had their notebooks and their poems and not a few of them believed they were the last, or the last great, the undiscovered Yiddish writer. One other thing I loved about the culture is that it was really a self-publishing culture. So many people were saving their nickels and dimes to publish their stories. At the book center we would have boxes of self-published books, you know, forty copies of a hardcover memoir that had never been opened.
As time passes and Yiddish culture starts fading away, you start writing more about Israel. Why the shift?
When I first graduated college and I had been studying Hebrew I wanted to go to Israel, I wanted to go do an ulpan, but then I got a job offer at the Yiddish Book Center. I could’ve learned about one path of Jewish culture and instead I learned about this other. I have this other non-fiction book coming out next year and so I took this long trip to the Middle East for that book and I ended up in Jerusalem just as I was finishing the book. I had a friend who was finishing his rabbinical studies and he was there so I stayed there with him and being there, that’s when I knew that the book had to end in Jerusalem. I got there at the end of a very long trip. I didn’t have a mystical experience or anything and I wasn’t really looking for that. There was just something about walking the streets and feeling the heat of the place that made me feel that Israel was the obvious place to end the story.
Its funny, my last book was so Catholic, in some ways it was too Catholic and so it’s a great irony that this is my book that’s too Jewish. I think it sort of explains to people who’ve known me and known that I’ve had this thing with Yiddish, it explains what I find fascinating about it.