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10 minutes with … Peter Manseau

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Two years ago, Peter Manseau wowed audiences with “Vows,” a searing account of growing up the son of a not-quite-excommunicated Catholic priest and a former nun in the heady days of 1960s Catholic America. Now Manseau, 33, is back with his debut novel, “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,” which […]

c. 2008 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Two years ago, Peter Manseau wowed audiences with “Vows,” a searing account of growing up the son of a not-quite-excommunicated Catholic priest and a former nun in the heady days of 1960s Catholic America. Now Manseau, 33, is back with his debut novel, “Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter,” which follows the fictional life of Itsik Malpesh, who believes he’s the world’s last living Yiddish poet. The book has made Manseau a finalist for the prestigious John Sargent First Novel Prize. So why does a self-professed “fallen Catholic” get so verklempt about Yiddish? Some answers have been edited for length and clarity. Q: You’re the son of a priest and a nun. What’s a nice Catholic boy like you doing writing a book on Yiddish poetry? A: As a result of my upbringing, I became interested in the idea of being religious but in a transgressive way. Yiddish literature was written by people doing the very same thing. All these writers had very traditional religious upbringings, but when they encountered the outside world, they pushed against it. So it didn’t feel that foreign for me. Q: Given your Catholic background, did you ever feel like a stranger in the Yiddish world? A: After college, I worked for three years at the National Yiddish Book Center, and I was the only non-Jew among them. The idea that someone with no previous ethnic, religious or cultural connection to the language was suspicious to some, like, “What does this guy want from us?” But just by being open to the culture and curious without any other motivation, there was no opposition. Sometimes I just allowed myself to be whatever they wanted me to me _ if they thought I was a nice young Jewish man, that was fine. Q: What is it about Yiddish that gets you so verklempt? A: The idea of a language, a culture and a whole world of literature that is basically gone because of the torments of the 20th century; it’s almost extinct. I was interested in the idea of exploring the ways in which this culture continued to exist in the minds and hearts of people who lived through its last days. Q: If Yiddish is essentially a dead or dying language, why should anyone care? A: This idea of a death of a particular language _ we’re going to encounter that more and more as we become a global environment. You lose something in the loss of the specifics, of the particulars. Each loss of a particular _ whether a language or a literature _ is dangerous to all of us. The loss of a language, to me, is saddening because it’s how we know ourselves and how we engage with the world. The idea of a language passing away and being replaced by a one-size-fits-all approach is sad to me, because that leads to a loss of stories. Q: Related to that, why should the goyim, or non-Jews, care about what’s basically a Jewish language? A: The extent to which Yiddish culture has become American culture is often overlooked. It’s not an entirely separate language. We all read novels by Philip Roth and we all like Woody Allen films, and they were all influenced by Yiddish culture. We should all be concerned about the death of a language and what it all means to us. Q: Do you have to be Jewish to relate to this story? A: No. I’m not Jewish. There’s something broadening about entering into a life that’s entirely separate from our own. What’s most important is finding the ways in which those stories are common to us. The story of Itsik Malpesh is a very particular story set in a particular time and place, yet his experience is very similar to my own, and I think a lot of readers will feel the same way. Q: If history could be undone, and the Holocaust had never happened, would Yiddish still be alive? A: It’s an interesting question. Probably much more so than it is now. It would have suffered from the same type of assimilation and attrition that a lot of European languages in the New World have. But even if the Holocaust didn’t happen, there probably would not have been a European homeland into which this language could have existed forever. That’s my guess, but it’s a who knows, and a big what if. Q: What’s your favorite Yiddish expression? A: Shiker vi a goy. Q: And that means? A: Basically, drunk as a goy. DSB/RB END ECKSTROM A photo of Peter Manseau is available via https://religionnews.com.