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Songs for the Butcher's Daughter

A Novel



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About The Book

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.


Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter


THE COLLABORATION BETWEEN ITSIK MALPESH and myself is perhaps one of the more unlikely literary associations in recent memory. At the time of our first meeting, in the fall of 1996, he was already a nonagenarian, and I was just twenty-one years old. He was a Russian Jew reared in an era when the czar’s days were numbered; I was a Catholic boy from Boston born at the end of the Nixon administration. Having endured seventy tumultuous years in the United States, Malpesh had experienced far more of this nation’s history than I had, yet he nonetheless considered me the authority on our common culture, about which he was voraciously inquisitive. A five-minute conversation with Malpesh might include questions concerning public access television, North American birds, desktop publishing software, and subscription rates for Sports Illustrated, all delivered in a well-practiced English still thick with the Yiddish he preferred.

During one visit, he quizzed me on the price of season tickets to Camden Yards, assuming I would have an answer readily at hand.

“Mr. Malpesh, how could I possibly know that?” I asked.

Before responding he studied me with troubled eyes, as if at his age stating the obvious was almost too much to bear.

“Because you were born in this language,” he said.

In describing the circumstances through which our improbable partnership came about, it might be useful at the outset to provide some background. Certainly this will exceed the boundaries that most readers expect in a translator’s note, and to those who object I must first apologize and then agree: Yes, the work of Itsik Malpesh can and should be read on its own. As both historical document and the life’s work of a singular man, it deserves scrutiny on its own merits. In the chapters that follow I have rendered Malpesh’s manuscripts as fully and faithfully as I have been able, making them available for the first time to the wider public. Malpesh’s story hardly requires elaboration. “It is what it is,” as he liked to say. (Or more colorfully: “The rest is commentary, and commentary is shit.”) Purists may feel free to skip this translator’s note, as well as the others, wherever they appear.

That said, it bears mentioning that Malpesh was a peculiar fellow who made peculiar choices. In fact, the notion of choice (religious, linguistic, sexual, cultural), and its lack, was so central to his work that I believe the particulars of who Malpesh chose to be his translator (however limited his options may have been) might shed some light on the man himself. And so, admitting that this statement implies a wishful hubris that the poet himself would appreciate, I must insist that Malpesh’s story begins with me.

THOUGH IT WAS STILL six months before I would meet him, our connection began during the summer after my last semester of college in western Massachusetts. It was at this time that I took a job with an unusual organization. I wish it could be said that my employment resulted from careful consideration of many lucrative offers, but the more common truth is that I had borrowed my way through school and, newly graduated, found myself suddenly burdened with debt.

I had been a religion major, with a focus on scriptural languages, and upon receiving my degree felt qualified to do—nothing. Early on, I’d considered attending seminary after graduation, but in the course of my studies with the religion faculty I had somehow lost my faith. Worse, I started to wonder if I’d ever truly had it.

And so I looked for work. Hoping to apply what few marketable skills I’d acquired in school, I used my undergraduate’s Hebrew to check into options in Israel. I was eager to travel, open to adventure, but as a non-Jew, I found that my possible motives were a cause for concern. In more than one interview I was asked a question that I would eventually hear word for word from Malpesh himself: Are you some sort of missionary? To my prospective employers I tried to explain that if I was to convert anyone it would only be to a nebulous, wishy-washy agnosticism, but this honest answer did not earn me many callbacks.

I had no better luck finding a position closer to home. My degree was from a public university in a state overrun by Ivy League graduates. Assessing the competition I might come up against for jobs in Boston, a counselor at the university career center advised me to look into the telemarketing field.

It was with mounting desperation that I turned to the local want ads one day and discovered that the Jewish Cultural Organization, a small nonprofit located just down the road from my university, was looking for help. They needed someone to sort books in their warehouse; the only requirement was knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet. When I applied, no one asked if I was a missionary, but neither did they ask if I was a Jew. Because I was available immediately, I was offered the job.

The next week, I saw right away the reason they were in such a rush to fill the position. The primary mission of the JCO was collecting books; they received donations of used Judaica from all over the world. Walking into the warehouse, I realized they had succeeded themselves nearly into submission. Boxes of books blocked the entrance and towered over the windows, keeping out all natural light. And, I was told, more books were arriving every day. Hundreds of them. It would be my responsibility to unpack the boxes and get the place in order.

It was not quite what I’d expected. I’d been boning up on my Hebrew, supposing that increased facility with the language would help me catalog or otherwise familiarize myself with a warehouse full of Jewish books. I had told myself the work might be not so different from graduate school, which interested me as a potential religion scholar but remained beyond my financial reach. Working with books all day, I imagined, could be a way of continuing my education while getting a paycheck.

As I discovered my first day on the job, however, the books weren’t in Hebrew. They were in Yiddish, a language that has about as much in common with its ancient cousin as English does with Latin. Sharing an alphabet and a small common vocabulary, Hebrew and Yiddish appear identical to the untrained eye, but they are entirely distinct. My job, I realized, was to organize books I could not understand.

Standing among miles of gray metal shelves, I saw that the books in my charge might as well have been cartons of cigarettes or bars of soap. I’d become a warehouse clerk, nothing more.

Nevertheless it was a job. And if the work was sometimes tedious—open boxes, sort books, shelve books—it did allow a fair amount of autonomy. The cultural organization’s business offices, where most of its twenty or so employees worked, were located in another building across town, which meant that, day after day, I was mostly on my own.

And yet I soon realized I was not on my own at all. I was surrounded by boxes of stories. Opening them, I never knew what I would find. There would be books, of course: some in excellent condition, others worth less than the postage that had brought them. But that wasn’t all. Hiding under layers of cardboard and packing tape, cushioned with rolled-up grocery bags, there were also mezuzahs and yarmulkes, tefillin and prayer shawls, kiddush cups and Seder plates. One morning I discovered a tiny plastic bar mitzvah boy, the kind that might stand atop a kosher cake. I found all manner of discarded religious items, the presence of which suggested that their owners had either died or given up on God. Judging from the age of the books with which this spiritual bric-a-brac usually arrived—most had been printed in the 1920s and ’30s, the years of Malpesh’s prime—both possibilities seemed likely.

Before long, I got a sense of the kinds of people whose books were dropped on the warehouse’s doorstep each day. They were, as Malpesh once described his contemporaries, “bastards of history, New World spawn of the Old World’s dotage, lovers of ghosts, bards of forgotten tongues.” And I began to like them.

It took longer to get a sense of the books themselves. To find each volume its proper place in the collection, I only had to read the first few letters of its title. Beyond that, what was contained between the covers, or who had created it, didn’t matter much as far as the operations of the warehouse were concerned.

One grasps for meaning in the face of monotony, however. As I picked books from boxes hour after hour, I attempted to pronounce the names of their authors. Some, I would later learn, were the great masters of Yiddish literature: I. L. Peretz, Chaim Grade, Mendele Mocher Sforim. Once or twice I must have handled Lider fun der shoykhets tochter, the one published work of Malpesh himself. Yet I knew nothing of him then, nor of his peers. Their names were only sounds in a foreign tongue; the books they adorned seemed impenetrable.

But then I set my mind to it. Each day I spent a couple of hours opening boxes and finding the right places for the books in the maze of shelves. The rest of my time I devoted to puzzling over what was inside their covers.

By the month’s end, while I had unpacked far fewer boxes than my employer hoped I would, I’d begun to learn the language.

Thereafter, making sense of the books in my care became for me an obsessive preoccupation; not least of all because, as I learned to read, I was learning also about a culture immensely appealing to a fallen Catholic like myself. For if Yiddish writers had one thing in common, I discovered, it was the kind of passionate irreligiosity that can only be found among those who’d been born, raised, and sickened by spiritual tradition. In a poem by Malpesh’s contemporary Jacob Glatshteyn, a line struck me as few ever have: The God of my unbelief is magnificent.

Like so much of what I would find in the warehouse’s holdings, these words spoke to me as if they’d come from a catechism for those whom faith had failed.

DESPITE MALPESH’S LIFELONG INTEREST in the process of translation, he often lamented the fact that rendering his poems and stories in another tongue might transform not just his work, but his soul. “When a writer becomes unreadable to himself,” he wrote, “who is to say that he remains who he was? Where is the evidence? His words are like a donkey born to a dog.”

He never gave a thought, however, at least not one he recorded or shared with me, to the inevitable change that occurs not just in the writer who is translated, but in the one who translates him as well.

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. If he had not thought I was something other than what I am when we met, would he have shown his work to me at all? Did the fact that I was hiding who I was influence my understanding of the life—and crimes—I discovered in his writings? And if it influenced my understanding, has it also influenced my translation? How could it not?

These questions will have to wait, however. Let us turn now to the writings themselves, and to the day I first encountered them.

Not long after first learning his name, I found myself standing in the third-floor Baltimore apartment that Itsik Malpesh had occupied for fifty years. For the duration of this initial visit, he sat all but ignoring me, peering out his kitchen window. A neighboring building was scheduled for demolition, and he—a small man in a cardigan sweater, wearing glasses, as he described them, “as thick as toilet lids”—sat by the window waiting to watch the show.

He pulled himself away just long enough to shuffle to a closet and retrieve a stack of hardback accounting ledgers. When he dropped them before me, I saw that their pages were filled not with numbers but meticulous Yiddish script. Twenty-two notebooks, each labeled with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, they amounted to a handwritten encyclopedia of his days.

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.

That day, though, sitting in a nonagenarian’s kitchen, watching him gaze out over a demolition site to pass the time, who would have guessed that a life so full had been withstood by the frail frame enveloped by his sweater’s tattered wool? Who could have imagined that the eyes behind those toilet-lid lenses had seen so much?

“Here you will find the untold story of the greatest Yiddish poet in America,” Malpesh said as I examined his notebooks.

I had not been a reader of the language very long at that point, but I’d read enough to wonder at his boast.

“That’s saying quite a lot,” I said. “How do you think your contemporaries would have responded to such a claim?”

Malpesh sat down once again, pulled his chair closer to the window, and watched the machinery in the lot below. For what seemed an endless moment he said nothing, and I wondered if he had heard me.

“To be the greatest,” he said finally, “one needs only to be the last.”

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
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:
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 to begin your search for your ancestors. You may want to compare notes with your fellow book club members about your findings.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Peter Manseau is the author of Vows and coauthor of Killing the Buddha. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. A founding editor of the award-winning webzine, he is now the editor of Search, The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Washington, D.C., where he studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (June 9, 2009)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416538714

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Raves and Reviews

"An extraordinary novel, and Itsik Malpesh is one of literature's most stunning achievements." -- Junot Díaz

"Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a completely original and exciting novel that, from its first few lines, holds the reader mesmerised. We are in the hands of a supreme storyteller, an author of wit and charm, one who has a breathtaking flair for language. This is a seriously impressive and accomplished work for a debut novel, identifying Manseau as a writer of great and exciting potential, one able to see the world vividly, even through other people's eyes." -- Weekend Australian

"In his debut novel, [Manseau] reaches across cultures to compose a living, breathing portrait of a bad-tempered but charmingly eloquent poet and the young man chosen to bring his words forward in time...The translator's inexperience puts [poet] Malpesh's cynical voice into perspective, as the young man's clumsy first experiences with modern-day romance stand in stark, sometimes poignant contrast to Malpesh...who remembers his 90-something years with equal parts impish humor and profound melancholy...A terrific book with a believable protagonist who's given ample room to tell his tale." -- Kirkus Reviews

"Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a book about writing, a warm, funny, and fascinating testament to the power of words, a power that outlives a dying language and transcends love." -- Jewish Book World

"Seductive and playful, the novel, with many unforgettable scenes, is also a serious meditation on language, love, loyalty and memory." -- New York Jewish Week

"Ranging from pogroms to poetry, from the purity of sex to the impurity of translation, from the Pale of Settlement to the Lower East Side to Eretz Yisroael, [and] written with utmost integrity as well as dramatic momentum, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a delicious read." -- Melvin Jules Bukiet, author of Sign and Wonders

"One of the most original and gripping novels I've read in a long time. From the very first page, I knew I was in the hands of a mesmerizing storyteller and born writer. Blessed with a biting wit, a huge heart, and a dazzling flair for language -- how we use it and how it defines us -- Manseau is the real thing. This is a gorgeous debut novel." -- Ellen Feldman, author of The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank

"Huge in scope and soul, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is a sweeping, lyrical, utterly consuming epic. Peter Manseau is a writer with the heart of a mystic, and his novel is an extraordinary gift." -- Elisa Albert, author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different

"Songs for the Butcher's Daughter explores with profound insight the treacherous territory of language: its elusive, inconstant and enigmatic character and its fundamental role in how we define ourselves as human beings." -- Linda Olsson, author of Astrid and Veronika

"Peter Manseau has created a rich tapestry of European and American Jewish life at the turn of the twentieth century. This beautifully written novel of love and tragedy is a magic-realist tale filled with wonderful detail. We join Mr. Manseau on a hundred-year journey that weaves together the Old and New Worlds." -- Martin Lemelman, author of Mendel's Daughter

Awards and Honors

  • National Jewish Book Award

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