Letters Dying in the Hudson

Lilach Nethanel
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Lilach Nethanel

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter

Jewish immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York

by Peter Manseau Free Press, 400 pages, $14 (paperback ) (Hebrew edition: Shirim Lebat Hashohet, translated by Gil Shemer; Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan Publishing, 366 pages, NIS 89 )

In spite of what I write here, you will like this book. After reading 20, 30, 40 pages, you'll be smiling with pleasure. The truth is, I smiled too. And after you delve a bit into the life story of Itsik Malpesh, you'll internalize in advance the last sentence of the book: "It is time to sing." I also internalized it. Yes. In the great yahrzeit celebration that literature sometimes organizes for history, you can look back and sing, just as in one of the sentimental plays of Sholem Aleichem: There was once a Jewish shtetl, a Jewish language, and new Jews were born there, and they have an abundance of childhood memories.

In spite of what I write here, you will think: With humor and rare talent, this book skips among the various stations of modern Jewish history, from pogroms and poverty to immigration and sweatshops and laundry lines hanging between apartment buildings. And I say: It feels as if this book was written in a Hollywood studio. That is, outside history, outside time, with the actors reciting their lines in turn, the camera at the most convenient angle and the editing perfect. No unexpected event, no object suddenly jutting out in the background, none of the delicious fear of the old silent films, watched with the constant worry that the film would tear in the middle of a scene. Unlike those damaged films, "Songs to the Butcher's Daughter," which won the National Jewish Book Award when it came out in English in 2008, is almost frightening in its polish, sophistication and professionalism.

Itsik Malpesh, the last Yiddish poet, was born during a pogrom. Naturally. When else would he be born if not precisely then? That is the formula that American author Peter Manseau offers for the past 100 years of Yiddish, through the fictional character of Malpesh the minor poet, who was born in Kishinev in 1903. In a way somewhat reminiscent of the credible fiction of the modern novel in its early forms, but perhaps hinting at the role of Mendele Mocher Sforim, who brought the stories of the shtetl to print, the life story of Itsik Malpesh is presented by way of an American Catholic student who works as a temporary employee in an organization that collects Yiddish books from various estates in the United States, and meets Malpesh and his notebooks of memoirs by chance.

In his youth, Itzik Malpesh sailed as a stowaway from Odessa to Ellis Island inside a trunk of Yiddish printing blocks. The old and ink-stained blocks were sent with Malpesh from the fading center of Yiddish literary life in Odessa to the printing houses of a burgeoning new literary center in America. That, at least, is how literature would like to imagine the arrival of the Yiddish writers in America at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, who, as they crossed the ocean on the way to the Goldeneh Medineh, were accompanied by the very letters of the Yiddish in which they wrote. Unfortunately for Itsik Malpesh, at the moment he arrived on the shores of the new homeland, his trunk of letters was stolen from him, rolled down the streets and finally sank in the river as a harbinger of what was to come: "The waves rolled in and dragged back out, and I watched the blocks move farther and farther away. They floated eastward in loose formation, like a defiant Yiddish armada on its way out to sea. Tiny. Absurd. Unsinkable."

In America, Malpesh learns English slowly, if at all. There's time. Meanwhile he's busy writing poems that tell the story of his life. Poems dedicated to the butcher's daughter in his city, who was present at his birth, who bears a scar on her forehead from the days of the pogrom, who in time became a pioneer and traveled to Palestine, and later escaped from there to the United States and encountered him again.

The chapters of Malpesh's life and of the lives of his lover and of the Jewish world he left behind are compressed so as to allow them to be tidily arranged according to the 22 letters of the Yiddish alphabet in wooden printing blocks of the old presses, sinking into the depths. After he was miraculously saved from the pogrom during which he was born, and after living in Odessa, which was split between Zionists and Yiddishists arguing volubly in the bar that also housed a secret printing press, Malpesh was privileged to reach America and see the brief glory days of the empire of expatriate Jews on the Lower East Side.

Itsik Malpesh is supposedly the last of the Yiddish poets, not necessarily because of his poems, but mainly because biographically he is the youngest in a generation of poets who left their parents' homes in Europe in the early 20th century and arrived alone in the United States. Malpesh, growing old alone in Baltimore in the 1990s, is supposedly a contemporary of the real-life Jacob Glatstein, Aaron Glantz-Leyeles and Moshe Leib Halpern, whose world shifted under their feet, but who remained standing, pen in hand.

"Malpe" in Yiddish means monkey, and "malpesh" means imitator. Malpesh the fictional poet does not match up to those revolutionary authors, but he can certainly spin a tale about them, and his story flows.

You will like this book. And you know what? I enjoyed it a bit too, because it's actually easy to read. Unlike Halpern's poems, for example, its descriptions do not set your stomach on edge; the sidewalk is always below and the upper edges of the buildings are always on top, and not the other way around. The storyteller's abbreviated discussions of the nature of translation from Yiddish to English, like the book's philosophical sections, in which Malpesh dabbles with his own historical fate, gives it small touches of depth without its becoming too demanding.

But still, if Malpesh would have become a bit of a malerish, if the imitator would have become a bit of a painter, if we could have found in this literature of the early 21st century just a little of the poetic revolutionism of the Yiddish poets in America at the start of the last century - if the scar of 1903 was really etched in the face of the daughter of the butcher, if the letters sinking in the river really looked like a drowning man with his mouth wide open, and in general, if it were possible once and for all to avoid these cute requiems for modern Jewish history, then I certainly would have written a completely different essay.

Lilach Nethanel is working on a study of the Yiddish and Hebrew prose works of David Vogel.