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 translator is a Catholic passing for Jewish. He falls for Clara, and she for him, partly because he is “so Jewish!” But their relationship, like that of Itsik and Sasha, is built on a shaky scaffold of idealization, omissions, and half-truths. And yet, maybe it too is bashert.
There are at least three important debates taking place in this book.
One is the place of Yiddish in Jewish life. The Yiddish language is about a thousand years old. Elements of Yiddish even predated Hebrew, which became the language used strictly for religious purposes. But it was Yiddish that was always associated with Jewish culture. When the time came to settle Israel, passionate debates arose; this was the language identified with illiterates, with women, and with the abysmal status of Jews in society: shouldn’t it be abandoned? But wouldn’t that be equivalent to rejecting Jewish cultural history? These debates are waged intermittently throughout the book.
A second debate is the distinction between the semiotic (symbol, or word) and the semantic (meaning). An alphabetically-written word, of course, does not indicate “the real thing” – it is simply a linguistic symbol that corresponds to a real thing. It is therefore natural that it is represented differently in different languages. But in the process of changing the word from one language to another, the meaning invariably shifts through shades of difference also. Thus, in order to try to stay true to the “real thing” represented by the symbols, a translator must be an active participant in the process. In this book, one way that the translator becomes an active participant is by virtue of living a very parallel life to that of Malpesh.
The translator’s active participation is also inherent on a meta level because of the very nature of his charge. The author evinces awareness that the whole idea of translation is central to the Jewish faith. The lack of “pure” or objective meaning in text was recognized by early Jewish sages, and viewed as positive: one must come to faith by active engagement. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures contain only consonants, not vowels, so that the possibility of plural understandings above and beyond the contingency of text forces the worshipper into a creative process. Furthermore, the Talmud, which is the Jewish commentary on the law, reflects this dialogic understanding. The main text is centered on the page, surrounded by annotations from scholars in different ages. This encourages the students of the Talmud to participate in the making of meaning as well, and to see in media as well as message that “truth” depends on interpretation.
Somewhat amusingly, the Talmud holds that even God has no authority in the interpretation of the Scriptures, because in Exodus (supposedly the word of God) it is said “One must incline after the majority.” Moreover, the fact that He created a myriad of people with a myriad of opinions meant that all of these opinions were ipso facto words of God! And thus “truth” can reside in any person.
This leads us to the third debate, which interrogates the nature of truth about history: because memories are mediated by time, language, and interpretation, do we ever really know what happened? And how much does what we think happened influence who we become?
As the translator goes through Malpesh’s notebooks chronicling his life (each labeled consecutively with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet), he finds that memories are constantly renegotiated; the shadowboxes of old events are filled in over time, until finally we get something fairly close to a fully furnished memory about which all agree. Words are magic, Itsik tells Sasha, and she scoffs. But in the end it is words that finally brings out something approximating the truth, and leads them all to their true bashert.
Evaluation: The autobiography of Malpesh is rich with unforgettable characters; a more or less accurate portrayal of what it was like for Jews at the beginning of the 20th Century in Russia and during one of the peaks of immigration in New York; and a portrait of a man you come to understand as well as you can understand any man. The translator, too, is a wonderfully sympathetic character that you want to know, and feel that you do know. With excellent writing, an imaginative plot, a bit of Isaac Bashevis Singer and a bit of Richard Powers, this is a beautifully-crafted piece of literature. It has romance, it has history, but above-all, it has intelligence and introspection. Highly recommended.