Tag Archives: Jewish Assimilation

Review: Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, by Peter Manseau, is a novel that is quite an accomplishment in many aspects, but especially in Maseau’s ability to convey the adversities and horrors of the Russian pogroms at the turn of the twentieth century.

Itsik Malpesh was born in Kishinev during the the Russian pogroms, to a well off family. The events of his birth, as told to him by his mother, are what has shaped his life, and shaped his perception on love. This novel is Itsik’s story, although it reads like a memoir that could be based on an actual person. That is due to the fact that the format includes a novel-within-the-novel, which is part of Manseau’s writing brilliance and creative edge.

Itsik is a poet, and he has considered himself one since he was a young boy. In 1996, he gave his poems, written in Yiddish, to a translator, to be translated into English. The translator is not Jewish. He works at a warehouse that is storing Yiddish books, books of a dying language, a language that is becoming lost within the modern world of the mid 1990s. He reads and speaks Yiddish. He is not Jewish, but has been assumed to be so, and does not reveal the truth about himself in order to try to win the affections of a co-worker named Clara.

Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter has an unusual format, with chapters alternating between “Translator’s Notes”, and Malpesh’s notebooks, “The Memoirs of Itsik Malpesh”. Malpesh’s notebooks details his life story, his love for Sasha, and the people and events that played a major role in his life’s quest towards his bashert, his destiny. He believes that his poems are a masterpiece, and his arrogance shines through the pages. His determination to publish his works, and his steadfastness in keeping the memory of Sasha alive, is the only thing that motivates him. From shoveling goose feathers and excrement from the floor of the down factory, to his learning to read Russian through the tutoring of a fellow yeshiva student, the novel takes Malpesh to Odessa, takes him penniless to New York, and eventually to Baltimore, and with each step, Sasha is at his side, through his poetry.

Manseau has given the reader much to ponder as far as bashert/destiny is concerned. What about the ramifications of believing in bashert or destiny? It isn’t always the romantic vision that one replays in their mind. It can imprison individuals, can hold them back from moving forward with their lives, unmotivated and not choosing to exercise their free will. What about the events and tragedies that can lead up to that moment when a person meets their soul mate, their bashert or destiny? Does it then signify that it is fine for others to possibly die or be involved in horrific situations all in the name of bashert? I asked myself these questions while reading the book. I asked myself many other questions, such as what is the meaning and the depth of language as far as our identities are concerned?

The heightened images also include some humor, and the book isn’t entirely depressing or dark. The Eastern European Jewish immigrant and their experiences are portrayed with extreme illumination, and nothing is left to the imagination. We experience Malpesh’s frustrations, his heartbreaks, the tragedies, etc., through his eyes, and through the compelling and creative imagery of Manseau.

In my opinion, Peter Manseau has written a classic novel, and one that will be considered such for decades to come. He touches on the very core elements of life, such as ethics, responsibility, language, and our roots. Both happiness and sadness fill the pages. Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter is masterfully written, and the pages evoke an extremely strong sense of time and place, immigration and assimilation, love and longing, and language and identity. I highly recommend Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter to everyone.

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The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell

The English Disease, by Joseph Skibell, is a story revolving around Charles Belski, a learned man who is a musicologist (one who studies the history and science of music). He has what is known as English Disease, which in today’s environment is known as depression or melancholia. The dilemmas in his life seem to stem inwardly from within himself, and are often self-imposed. He is a difficult, obnoxious, middle-aged man, with depression, and is extremely manipulative when interacting with those around him. He is a protagonist unlike any I have read, filled with a cynical perspective, yet wickedly funny. He is a depressed, non-practicing Jew, and is filled with guilt over the fact that he married a Catholic, a Gentile.

The differences between Belski and his wife, interplay throughout the novel. There is disagreement on how to raise their daughter, Franny. His wife and daughter try to open his eyes to the joy around him. He is a man in crisis, lost in faith, relying on medication to get him through the hours and days. Belski’s life appears to be a series of reluctant events, which do not include one small spark of happiness. Belski is schlepping through life struggling with his emotional being and his academic side. He is fixated with the past, yet at the same time it eventually evolves into a healing element for him.

“English melancholiacs used to tour the ruins of Antiquity as a cure for their depression, which was, in fact, at the time called the English Disease. It was thought that somehow the contemplation of actual ruins would make one’s own ruined life seem less hateful, and that these dilapidated but still beautiful structures might suggest to the sensitive melancholic the possibility of finding beauty in his own misery, indeed as essential to it.”

He travels to Poland on a conference with a colleague named Liebowitz, a person, who is almost like a sidekick of Belski’s. They visit Auschwitz. Belski’s constant reflections on the Holocaust, anti-semitism, the current social climate in Poland, and on his life overtake his thoughts. They feed his melancholic state.

It gives him power over others, the only form of power he has. Seemingly that depressive state is something that he enjoys being in, although he will tell you otherwise.

Skibell is brilliant in his writing and assessment of Jews, assimilated Jews, Jews marrying Gentiles, the Holocaust, Poland, and depression and melancholia. Skibell’s amazing descriptive observations make it seem as if he is inside the heads of others. He does it all with a dry wit, and you find yourself laughing out loud while reading the book. Who could perceive that writing a novel about a depressed person could be so humorous, and so poignant at the same time. Who knew?

He writes comically, on the neurotic struggle for assimilation, which really isn’t a struggle unique to Jews, but a struggle for all immigrants and first-generation Americans. Skibell incorporates those struggles and burdens within Belski’s journey to self-discovery. Skibell’s book is an excellent psychological character study. The English Disease is bizarrely funny with quirky characters, yet has strong serious undertones, and at times is heart-breaking. It is a metaphor for redemption, and for spiritual and marital contentment in an ever changing world.

The end is a surprise, and fulfilling. I wouldn’t have missed reading The English Disease for anything, as it is that good! Bravo to Joseph Skibell.

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The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, by Lucette Lagnado

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus From Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado is a vividly written book, descriptive of the plight of the Egyptian Jews from Cairo during the 1940s through the early 1970s. Lagnado writes from the perspective of her childhood memories, memories of a loving daughter, one who adored her “boulevardier” father, Leon, who she felt gave her more attention than her mother, Edith.

Leon was much older than Edith, and expected Edith to wait on him hand and foot, leaving her more like a doormat. She was a wife who was not viewed as an equal in any aspect, and was a compliant, passive, demure, tragic figure in their lives. Edith hardly had time for herself. Lagnado’s father, Leon, was in his own mind, a legend in his own time, while living in Cairo, demanding respect and devotion wherever he went. The man who liked to be known as a “boulevardier” (repeated many times throughout the book, as if it was a title fitting a king, rather than that of a man who walked the streets of Cairo wheeling and dealing) felt he was a worldly man, although he never did travel the world (other than to flee with his family to Paris, before emigrating to the U.S). He didn’t actually work to earn a living, but gambled daily, and also played the stock market, and even kept that a secret from his wife, until he was hospitalized and she needed to access funds to pay rent, etc. Lagnado said that gambling was Leon’s passion, not really understanding it was much more than a passion, and it was an interference in his family life. He enjoyed his nickname “The Captain”, and dressed sharply in white sharkskin suits, staying out until dawn.

Leon considered himself a devout Jew, going to Synagogue early in the morning, afternoon and evening to pray. Yet, the patriarchal man who prayed, also strayed on his wife, often returning home in the middle of the night, after frequenting the gambling houses and bars, thriving within the fast, night life of Cairo. To him, religion, prayer, drinking, gambling, and other external pleasures outside the marriage could coexist. This behavior continued, even after they lost a daughter, and Edith was in mourning. Nothing could keep him home.

The first half of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit deals with their lives in Cairo and is well-written with its historical content. Lagnado writes with reverence for her father, but much of that adulation is from the point of view of a child, aged five through eleven. She doesn’t display the same sense of adoration for her mother.

The second half of the book deals with their emigration from Cairo to Paris, and eventually to their final destination in Brooklyn, New York. The family had to sell off all their furniture and belongings, and could only leave Cairo with a little over $200, due to Egypt law. We see Leon and the family go from riches to rags, immediately upon leaving Cairo. They were a family in transit, no country, and living off of the handouts of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in both Paris and Brooklyn. Leon sold ties, not earning much, and the “silk” ties he sold were not actually made of silk, and not made where the tags stated they were made. They were made in New York with phony labels, and not sewn in the exotic countries he claimed they were made in. He often took Lagnado with him when selling ties, introducing her as his granddaughter, not his daughter, in order to gain sympathy so he could sell a tie or two.

Lagnado writes of their difficult times in Brooklyn, and her father’s inability and/or refusal to assimilate into his new environment, causing stress on her mother and the rest of the family, who protested his attitude. Her father wanted to borrow $2000 to start a business, and was refused the loan. He complained to no end, and continually blamed his dire circumstances on everyone but where the blame belonged, on himself. There were medical issues, also.

Lagnado had been misdiagnosed with “cat scratch fever” in Cairo. This diagnosis lasted through the years. After moving to Brooklyn, and going to medical hospitals, she was finally diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease by one Dr. Lee, a specialist, and she was given a course of treatment. The family never failed to demean the hospital staff, the resident medical doctors, etc. Other than Lagnado, herself (she remains close friends to this day with Dr. Lee), the rest of the family never seemed grateful for the fact that Lagnado’s Hodgkins Disease had finally been diagnosed correctly and was given a treatment program (unlike the misdiagnosis in Cairo). It almost seemed as if they wanted to believe the doctors in Cairo. The family was, seemingly, in denial, unable to comprehend and cope with the situation.

The Lagnado family’s difficulty in assimilating, and Leon’s refusal to heed the HIAS’s instructions left me with no sympathy for them and their situation. They expected that everyone but themselves should pay for their wants and needs. They were a family in crisis who could not, or would not, help themselves. Their indecisiveness was often the root of their problems. They helped to create much of the chaos and emotional distress in their depressive lives.

When Lagnado returned to the old neighborhood in Cairo in 2005 for a sojourn, she realized how well off they actually would not have been, had they stayed, or if they had returned to live there, again. The same street today, now called Ramses Street is by no means the Malaka Nazli of her remembered childhood. Of course she initially wrote about their lives in Cairo from the perspective of a child, her formative years. And, she wrote from her father’s own stories. As an adult she viewed things differently, with the clarity of a grown woman.

The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit was well-written, descriptive, vivid with word visuals, describing life in Cairo, and their lives in Brooklyn. Lagnado has a sense of time and place, and her research proved effective in conveying it to the reader. It is an excellent family historical accounting. Although the last half of the book left me feeling a bit empty towards the family and their circumstances, it was just as descriptive and well-written as the first half. Lagnado does illuminate the pages of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit with excellent word-paintings of the history of Jewish Cairo, of Jews in transit and stateless…Jews with no country, and Jewish immigration and assimilation.

I personally own and have read this book.

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