Peter Manseau’s “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter” incorporates an intricate sweep of feelings, but especially—how love and destiny ricochet between the perception of fate, and what is really meant to be. Or, in Yiddish parlance: bashert.
In the mid-1990s an unnamed non-Jew obtains a position at Boston’s Jewish Cultural Organization (JCO), a non-profit in the business of retrieving collections of Jewish books and “donations of used Judaica from all over the world.” The young employee’s responsibility is “to sort books in their warehouse…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.”
In the process of grouping volumes—“…Hundreds of them…”– he starts perusing Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and becomes enamored with it.
Then, he receives a telephone call from the nonagenarian Itsik Malpesh of Baltimore, who claims to be the last, great, but still– untranslated-Yiddish poet. He also has knowledge of a large repository of books inside an about-to-be-razed building.
Because of poet’s insistence, the staff member drives from Massachusetts to Maryland to rescue the cache, but the trip is unsuccessful, and none of the books are preserved.
The truly dark side of “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter” is Itsik’s tale. He has a past besmirched by pogroms, kidnapping, bad luck, near death, and distorted family folklore.
At the age of four, the Butcher’s daughter, Sasha Bimko, allegedly saved the Malpesh family. Russian police penetrated their house in the midst of Itsik’s birth. Anticipating another successful mass murder, they were unexpectedly intimidated—and stopped–according to legend, by a little girl with a determined fist.
That story is carried along in Itsik’s mind, in the form of heroine worship, inspiration, and Technicolor fantasy. Dreams and verses about Sasha travel with him from Kishinev to New York City; and between his factory job to his tenement.
After several years in the City, Sasha and Malpesh are re-joined at a reading of Malpesh’s poetry. On their first night, Itsik cancels his wedding engagement to his employer’s sister, and takes up with Sasha. Though their lives become intricately intertwined by love, conflict and pregnancy, Malpesh remains convinced it is bashert they are together; she does not, and flees.
Manseau presents the Malpesh/Translator stories separately, but they eventually link. There is a lovely cadence to “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter” that compels the prose to flow, suspensefully.
And, though Malpesh and the youth are on opposite ends of life and cultural focus, a mutual admiration of Judaism configures a comfortable middle territory for them. Later, Malpesh’s work is translated by his new friend, and the poet achieves his lifelong wish of immortality.
When the Malpesh and his Sasha are reconciled many years later, it is at the proper time. That is their bashert; to be together—forever.
Not just now.
Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter
By Peter Manseau
370 pp. Free Press $14.00 (paper)