It’s not every day that Jewish literary prizes go to a gentile. The last outsider recipient of the US National Jewish Book award for fiction was John Hersey (for The Wall), back in 1950. So it is quite something that 34-year-old Peter Manseau, self-styled “non-Jewish, Jewish novelist” has just won the same award plus the Sophie Brody medal for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature.
It is something else again that Manseau — whose debut novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is a homage to Yiddish poetry — also happens to be the son of a former Catholic priest who wed a nun.
“It’s not that uncommon, you know,” says Manseau, a preppy young father from Washington, who reveals that, since his parents’ wedding in the 1960s, “about 100,000 priests have left to marry”. His novel is an epic love story, picaresque, spiritual and wildly imaginative. Where there is violence from antisemitic slaughterers, there is also exquisite imagery — ten thousand feathers fluttering from household windows where Jewish bedding has been ripped open.
It is 1903, the day of the Kishinev pogrom, when Manseau’s versifying hero, Itsik Malpesh, is born and saved, so he comes to believe, by the butcher’s daughter, little Sasha Bimko. She becomes his muse, his lifelong lost princess. From this unforgettable opening, Manseau’s plot sweeps down the 20th century via Odessa through 1940s New York to millennial Jerusalem.
“Malpesh seems kind of cranky,” owns Manseau “but he has a sunny outlook on a very difficult life. He is mostly caught up with the idea of himself as the last Yiddish poet in America.” The book comprises Malpesh’s memoir, interspersed with musings and delicious deconstruction by his translator, a young gentile who met the poet by chance, when working for a Jewish organisation dedicated to collecting Yiddish books throughout America.
Reader, you guessed it. Such an organisation really exists and, 10 years ago, Manseau, freshly graduated from Amherst, took a job there. He had taken some Jewish studies, knew a little Yiddish and shared our people’s sense of “inherited exile”. Many seeds of Songs were germinated then. Asked to create an exhibit of books translated into, not out of Yiddish, Manseau gathered up Hemingway, Dickens and Shakespeare. He also intended to include that historical curiosity, the “Yiddish New Testament”.
“There was some resistance,” he recalls. “It seemed a bit of a scandal that anyone should want to read it.” Der Bris Hadash — as the New Testament translates — clearly intrigues him: “There really was for a while a phenomenon known as ‘missionary Yiddish’ used to convert Jews arriving at Ellis Island. A couple of translations were considered great from a literary standpoint, so the question is, should we turn away from them because they were linked with the Ministry of Christians to Jews? I am drawn to that ambivalence, to the fact that Yiddish was used as a language of crossing boundaries…”
Entering the Yiddish world, Manseau was also struck by the many fragments of family history — photos, letters and age-old anecdotes that Jewish elders carried with them from the past. “Just as a small example, I heard many tales about ancestors being taken by khappers or Russian army conscriptions gangs, and I would be told with absolute conviction that this happened to an uncle or grandfather. Yet on reflection these events were much further in the past than people imagined, and must have befallen a great- or great-great relative…”
Manseau says he was struck by the will to preserve Yiddish after the Holocaust, though it was relegated to a decidedly second language with the creation of Israel..
“The element of religion,” he says, “and stories that seem like lost causes have really led to my career as a writer. I’m taken with my own story, the idea that my parents have spent their lives trying to be this thing that doesn’t really exist: married Catholic clergy.”
At his home on a shelf somewhere is the first, unpublished novel Manseau wrote at 21. It’s about a 14th-century convent. What chance then, that the next novel by this Jewish literary prizewinner could be strictly secular? None: “For better or worse, these themes are my obsession.”