Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama awarded the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. Accepting the honor alongside the center’s founder and president, Aaron Lansky, was author Peter Manseau, whose National Jewish Book Award-winning 2008 novel Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter was inspired by his summer internship at the Yiddish Book Center after college.
Manseau, who was raised Irish Catholic, is perhaps an unlikely scholar of the historically Jewish language. But he has become one of the most steadfast champions of Yiddish literature. “You might saying seeing Yiddish at the White House last week was bashert,” Manseau told me.
“For more than thirty years the Yiddish Book Center has been bringing together creative people interested in Jewish literature and culture.” he added. “For the Book Center to be honored in Washington was probably inevitable, too. A language lost through immigration and catastrophe only to be reclaimed decades later is a quintessentially American story.”
I spoke with Manseau–whose newest book, One Nation, Under Gods, a history of the experience of religious minorities in America, will be published next year—about his fortuitous summer internship, his favorite Yiddish phrase, and having “a strange name for a Jew.”
You started working at the Yiddish Book Center in 1996 during the summer after graduating from Amherst College, MA. What are your memories from the internship?
I like to describe that internship as my foreign exchange experience. That’s how little I knew about Jewish American culture. My only previous exposure to Judaism was a bar mitzvah I attended at age 13. Many students have the chance to go study abroad—well, instead I got thrown into the thick of Yiddish culture with no background. After college (I studied religion and literature), I wasn’t sure what to do and I had seen signs around on my way to class publicizing about events at the Yiddish Book Center. I figured, why not apply? After being accepted, I was quickly taken by the books and, more importantly, by the people who valued them. It was an immersive experience.
How did your Irish Catholic upbringing influence your interest in Yiddish literature?
Interestingly, my thoroughly religious upbringing is actually what attracted me to Yiddish literature. My religious upbringing didn’t quite take for me as I got older, but I could never fully turn my back. Many Yiddish writers who came to America and began to assimilate had a similar experience with religion. Though many of them tried to Americanize, they couldn’t divorce themselves completely from their strong religious roots. Their struggle spoke to my experience even though they came from a completely different culture. That bond sealed my connection to Yiddish literature.
What inspired your 2008 book, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter?
Before writing this book, I had written a personal memoir, mainly about my parents. After reading it, people asked me why I hadn’t included anything about my experience learning Yiddish. I felt I couldn’t go back and write another memoir at this point in my life, but I wanted to write a novel that paid tribute to the people I met while working at the Yiddish Book Center. I came up with Itsik Malpesh—a man who thought himself the last Yiddish poet in America. Through Itsik, I was able to give voice to my own memories, experiences and struggles. Itsik asks big questions about what it means to outlive one’s own language—what does it mean for a language to become unspoken? These are questions any Yiddish devotee must ask.
Do you have a favorite Yiddish author?
I would say Lamed Shapiro. He is a tragic American figure who never fully received the attention he deserved.
Do your children have a favorite Jewish author?
(Laughs.) They have a copy of Curious George in Yiddish.
And finally, do you have a favorite Yiddish phrase?
I definitely do. Shicker via goy—drunk as a goy, or non-Jew. I think this phrase perfectly captures how Yiddish serves as a cultural dividing line.
When I used to go pick up Yiddish books for the Book Center, I would try out my Yiddish on the people I would meet. They would always think I was a nice Jewish man—after all, who else would be speaking Yiddish. After some interchange in Yiddish, one man asked me my name. I responded, “Peter Manseau.” He looked at me, befuddled, and said, “That’s a strange name for a Jew.” To which I responded, in Yiddish, “I’m not a Jew.”