Though I began writing Songs for the Butcher's Daughter just three years ago, the story it tells had been following me around for more than a decade. It began just after college, when I — newly graduated with a degree in religion and so totally unemployable — stumbled into a job working with an organization that collected used Yiddish books.
A few times a month, my colleagues and I would leave our warehouse in Western Massachusetts and drive north, to Montreal, or south, often to New Jersey, mainly to New York: Brooklyn, Williamsburg, Co-op City. Wherever Jews grew old, they were afraid of leaving their books as orphans.
So they called us, and we came. Most of the books we collected were saved only to die among their own; destined not to be distributed to a university (as was our goal), but to crumble on our bookshelves. But still the books' owners always seemed gladdened by our efforts. At least once every trip I heard the same grateful sentiment: The very fact that we cared enough to come for their books proved that Hitler hadn't won; that young Jews came for the memories of the old and the lonely guaranteed the future of the Jewish people.
Trouble was, I'm not Jewish. I had studied religion as an undergrad, picked up some Hebrew, fell in love with the shtetl gothic stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and generally developed a Judaic literacy totally alien to my French-Canadian/Irish-American upbringing. I found in the stories of Yiddish something strangely familiar. Singer's universe of folktale demons and hasidic rabbis was not so far from the world in which I was raised, filled with priests and nuns and statues of saints. For us both, it seemed, another reality was always close at hand. With Singer goading me on, I had ended up a Catholic moving through a Yiddish-speaking world.
Early on I made no effort to conceal myself. One old man laughed when I told him my name, saying "S'iz a modne yidishe nomen..." You have a strange name for a Jew, he told me. To which I shrugged and answered, "Ober bin ikh nisht keyn yid." Well, I'm not a Jew, I said, which is so unlikely a sentence to hear in Yiddish that he stared at me, blinking for a full minute, before he switched to English and told me which books to take and which to leave behind.
What to do in the face of such a bizarre accusation? What else could I do? Following the time-honored American tradition, I learned to pass.
Just as in my high-school French class I was not Peter but Pierre, in the Yiddish class I was then taking I was known as Pesach. It didn't take much to begin using this name on all my book collecting trips. "Vi heystu?" the books' owners would ask. What's your name? "Ikh heys Pesach," I'd answer. Beyond that, I said very little. It was assumed I was a Jew and so, in a way, I was.
I began to wonder if my charade had worked too well when I was invited to a Hasidic wedding on Eastern Parkway. Not a scene for Catholic eyes: concentric circles of black-clad hasidim, dancing madly, a mosh pit of piety. Each man's hands on another's shoulders. Even I — Pesach — joined in, circling with the rest, drinking a l'chaim of schnapps when offered.
"Mazel tov! Mazel tov!" the hasidim shouted to no one in particular. They — we — were Jews at a Jewish wedding, another victory over death; everyone was to be congratulated.
As the dancing continued, its fervor increased — then exploded. Fists pumped in the air. Grown men locked arms, hands to wrists, and spun each other round and round the way girls did at junior high dances. The well-wishing shouts grew louder and louder until they seemed a collective battle cry.
"We want the Rebbe!" the hasidim shouted. "We want the Rebbe now! We want moshiach" — the messiah — "we want moshiach now!" Lubavitch Hasidim believe that their late Rebbe, or leader, was and is in fact the messiah, and they await his return.
Schnapps, it turned out, was not my drink in any language. I collapsed onto a folding chair next to the dance floor, watching as two hasidim who seemed to step from the pages of a Singer story approached. One was about four feet tall, dressed like all the rest but in miniature. The other, also dressed in full hasidic regalia, seemed to have Downs' Syndrome. The midget hasid took off his fedora and swatted at a chair.
"Have a seat right there, rabbi," he said, and the other hasid sat down beside me.
Pesach knew to keep silent, but Peter was baffled and had had a bit too much to drink.
"Excuse me," I said "He's a rabbi?"
"Of course he's a rabbi," the smaller hasid said. "A teacher. I learn something new from him every day. Isn't that right?"
Is there more to being than belonging? I wondered. Could saying nothing about who we are, where we come from, sometimes be the closest to truth we can get?
Just then the hasidim engulfed us. Rather than ask us to move they simply surrounded and lifted us into the dance. Chairs and all, the three of us floated over the sea of black, as if we all had been married, each drawn into a new reality that was always close at hand.
A kernel of a novel lodged itself inside me that day. I soon left the Yiddish world and didn't think about it for years, but the memory of the moments when I seemed a part of a Singer story stayed with me. I wanted to convey something of what it felt like to be an outsider allowed in. Looking back, it was only a matter of time before I sat down to write the story of what it felt like to be caught up in the current of a faith, history, and language so far from my own.
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Peter Manseau is the author of Vows and coauthor of Killing the Buddha. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." A founding editor of the award-winning webzine KillingTheBuddha.com, he is now the editor of Search: The Magazine of Science, Religion, and Culture. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Washington, D.C., where he studies religion and teaches writing at Georgetown University.
Books mentioned in this post
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter