Jewish Journal

Non-Jew wins Jewish book award for fiction

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 3, 2009 | 5:08 pm

I’ve been meaning to congratulate Peter Manseau. His first novel, “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,” received the National Jewish Book Award for fiction. He told me this was the first time in more than 50 years that the award has gone to non-Jewish writer. Manseau can now be mentioned in the same sentence as Malamud, Ozick and Roth and gives hope to the rest of us. I think the appropriate expression here is: Mazal tov!

The official description from Simon & Schuster:

Summer, sweltering, 1996. A book warehouse in western Massachusetts. A man at the beginning of his adult life—and the end of his career rope—becomes involved with a woman, a language, and a great lie that will define his future. Most auspiciously of all, he runs across Itsik Malpesh, a ninetysomething Russian immigrant who claims to be the last Yiddish poet in America. When a set of accounting ledgers in which Malpesh has written his memoirs surfaces—twenty-two volumes brimming with adventure, drama, deception, passion, and wit—the young man is compelled to translate them, telling Malpesh’s story as his own life unfolds, and bringing together two paths that coincide in shocking and unexpected ways.

Moving from revolutionary Russia to New York’s Depression-era Lower East Side to millennium’s-end Baltimore with drama, adventure, and boisterous, feisty charm to spare, the unpeeling of this friendship is a story of the entire twentieth century.

Jeff Sharlet, Manseau’s co-author on “Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible,” reviewed his friends book when it came out in September. (I had intended to but couldn’t foster enough of an L.A. connection.) Here’s what Sharlet had to say:

Peter, the outsider as insider, the son of a Catholic priest and a nun—an abomination in his own tradition!—a Gentile who has written of passing as a Jew, of lying to little old Jewish ladies to make them better when he came to take their Yiddish books away (he was the book collector for the Yiddish Book Center), a novelist who writes in English, speaks Yiddish, and, he once explained, dreams in Catholic whether he wants to or not, has produced the real thing. Or, rather, produced is not the word: he has manufactured it. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter flows so fast you may read it in a sitting or two, but it’s not an organic creation. It’s assembled. The narrator of the novel is a writer much like Peter, who intersperses his translation of a Yiddish memoir with “Translator’s Notes” that tell us more about his own love affair with a young, secular Jew who is busy reinventing herself as an Orthodox woman. The bulk of the novel is the memoir, and that Peter has drawn from the dust of the Yiddish Book Center’s warehouse, borrowing parts and pieces from the Sweatshop Poets and Di Khaliastre, the Gang, Yiddish experimentalists in Warsaw between the wars, and the Big Three—Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, and I.L. Peretz—and the author of the first play banned on Broadway, Sholem Asch, and the darker, even more forgotten writers, Lamed Shapiro and Yankev Glatshteyn and the writer who went by “Der Nister,” the hidden one. Peter, once a Yiddish book collector, has become a Yiddish book thief, snatching stories from limbo and resurrecting them as Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter.

Nextbook previously published a revealing excerpt from the book. And you can hear Manseau talk about his book on NPR or in the video after the jump:

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