Songs for the Butcher's Daughter
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.
Reading Group Guide
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 Malpes see more