Religion & Beliefs

How a Priest’s Kid Won a Jewish Book Award

Peter Manseau, author of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, is guest blogging this week as one Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers. Peter’s book is about a fictional Yiddish poet born in Moldova at the turn of the 20th Century. If there … Read More

By / January 20, 2009

Peter Manseau, author of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, is guest blogging this week as one Jewcy‘s Lit Klatsch bloggers. Peter’s book is about a fictional Yiddish poet born in Moldova at the turn of the 20th Century.

If there is anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where anything can happen, let this be your answer: Last week the National Jewish Book Award for fiction was awarded to a French-Irish son of a former priest and nun. In other words: me. I won the prize for my first novel, Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, and I am all at once pleased for my little book, grateful to those who chose it, and humbled to join a list of past winners that includes names like Roth, Roth, and Roth. (That’s three wins and counting for the Bard of Newark.)

At first I thought I might be the only non-Jew who has captured this particular piece of the Jewish literary world, but a quick glance at the previous recipients proved me wrong. In only its second year, 1950, the award went to a blueblood son of English-American missionaries, John Hersey. Most famous for Hiroshima, which still sells by the boxful to high school English classes around the U.S., Hersey won for The Wall, his novel about the Warsaw Ghetto. With fifty-eight years between one goy and the next, I wondered if Hersey and I might have anything else in common that would shed some light on how two such conspicuously Jewish books could flow from a pair of conspicuously gentile pens. The books themselves could be cousins: Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter tells the story of a man who believes he is the last Yiddish poet in America. It’s love story, a tragedy, a rereading of recent world history, and ultimately an epic about the stubborn persistence of a way of life that refuses to pass from the world. Hersey’s book is about a man much like Emanuel Ringelblum, the historian-hero of Jewish Warsaw who recorded endless notes on the ghetto and saved them from Nazi discovery by burying them in milkcans. It’s a love story, a tragedy, a rereading of recent world history, and ultimately an epic about the stubborn persistence of a way of life that refuses to pass from the world. Other than our apparent preoccupations, it’s hard to find much of a resemblance between us: Hersey lived a life of wandering, following his parents across China before moving to the US; I live in the same city where I was born. At the end of adolescence, Hersey was a big man on campus in the Ivy League; I went to a state school and still proudly wear the chip on my shoulder. After college, Hersey moved easily into one high status journalism gig after another; I’ve worked as a carpenter, a truck driver, a Yiddish typesetter, and a dozen other odd jobs that would make any Yalie blush. Roll the clock back before we both were born, however, and things get interestingly familiar: Both his parents and mine, it seems, thought they were on a mission from God.

My parents are former Catholic clergy who met in a storefront church in a riot torn city in the late 1960s. When they married against the rules of their religious vocations, they did so with the conviction that they were called to convert their church into a new way of living the faith. As a result, they have spent most of their lives in a kind of Catholic exile, outsiders and insiders as the same time. Hersey’s parents were Protestant evangelists sent to Asia early in the 20th century. Far from home in a country inhospitable to their faith, they thought it was a great place to start a family. They all were, that is, true believers; people who allowed their beliefs to lead them beyond the comforts of being part of a dominant culture, into places far from the worlds in which they were raised. Aside from having read Hiroshima almost twenty years ago, I have never given Hersey a thought until now. I don’t what he believed, or what, in his case, prompted a Christian minister’s kid to write a very Jewish book. For me, though, it had something to do with an inherited sense of exile, and with the notion that if there are no risks associated with belonging to a religious community, then maybe it’s not worth belonging after all. Peter Manseau, author of Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter, is guest blogging on Jewcy, and he’ll be here all week.  Stay tuned.