The collaboration between Itsik Malpesh and myself is perhaps one of the more unlikely literary associations in recent memory. At the time of our first meeting, in the fall of 1996, he was already a nonagenarian, I was just 21 years old. He was a Russian Jew reared in an era when the czar’s days were numbered; I was a Catholic boy from Boston born at the end of the Nixon administration. Having endured seventy tumultuous years in the United States, Malpesh had experienced far more of this nation’s history than I had, yet he nonetheless considered me the authority on our common culture, about which he was voraciously inquisitive. A five-minute conversation with Malpesh might include questions concerning public access television, North American birds, desktop publishing software, and subscription rates for Sports Illustrated, all delivered in a well-practiced English still thick with the Yiddish he preferred.
During one visit, he quizzed me on the price of season tickets to Camden Yards, assuming I would have an answer readily at hand.
“Mr. Malpesh, how could I possibly know that?” I asked.
Before responding he studied me with troubled eyes, as if at his age stating the obvious was almost too much to bear.
“Because you were born in this language,” he said.
In describing the circumstances through which our improbable partnership came about, it might be useful at the outset to provide some background. Certainly this will exceed the boundaries that most readers expect in a translator’s note, and to those who object I must first apologize and then agree: Yes, the work of Itsik Malpesh can and should be read on its own. As both historical document and the life’s work of a singular man, it deserves scrutiny on its own merits. In the chapters that follow I have rendered Malpesh’s manuscripts as fully and faithfully as I have been able, making them available for the first time to the wider public. Malpesh’s story hardly requires elaboration. “It is what it is,” as he liked to say. (Or more colorfully: “The rest is commentary, and commentary is shit.”) Purists may feel free to skip this translator’s note, as well as the others, wherever they appear.
That said, it bears mentioning that Malpesh was a peculiar fellow who made peculiar choices. In fact, the notion of choice (religious, linguistic, sexual, cultural), and its lack, was so central to his work that I believe the particulars of who Malpesh chose to be his translator (however limited his options may have been) might shed some light on the man himself. And so, admitting that this statement implies a wishful hubris that the poet himself would appreciate, I must insist that Malpesh’s story begins with me.
Though it was still six months before I would meet him, our connection began during the summer after my last semester of college in western Massachusetts. It was at this time that I took a job with an unusual organization. I wish it could be said that my employment resulted from careful consideration of many lucrative offers, but the more common truth is that I had borrowed my way through school and, newly graduated, found myself suddenly burdened with debt.
I had been a religion major, with a focus on scriptural languages, and upon receiving my degree felt qualified to do – nothing. Early on, I’d considered attending seminary after graduation, but in the course of my studies with the religion faculty I had somehow lost my faith. Worse, I started to wonder if I’d ever truly had it. The priesthood, I had decided, was not for me.
And so I looked for work. Hoping to apply what few marketable skills I’d acquired in school, I used my undergraduate’s Hebrew to check into options in Israel. I was eager to travel, open to adventure, but as a non-Jew, I found that my possible motives were a cause for concern. In more than one interview I was asked a question which I would eventually hear word for word from Malpesh himself: Are you some sort of missionary? To my prospective employers I tried to explain that if I was to convert anyone it would only be to a nebulous, wishy-washy agnosticism, but this honest answer did not earn me many callbacks.
I had no better luck finding a position closer to home. My degree was from a public university in a state overrun by Ivy League graduates. Assessing the competition I might come up against for jobs in Boston, a counselor at the university career center advised me to look into the telemarketing field.
It was with mounting desperation that I turned to the local want ads one day and discovered that the Jewish Cultural Organization, a small non-profit located just down the road from my university, was looking for help. They needed someone to sort books in their warehouse; the only requirement was knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet. When I applied, no one asked if I was a missionary, but neither did they ask if I was a Jew. Because I was available immediately, I was offered the job.
The next week, I saw right away the reason they were in such a rush to fill the position. The primary mission of the JCO was collecting books; they received donations of used Judaica from all over the world. Walking into the warehouse, I realized they had succeeded themselves nearly into submission. Boxes of books blocked the entrance and towered over the windows, keeping out all natural light. And, I was told, more books were arriving every day. Hundreds of them. It would be my responsibility to unpack the boxes and get the place in order.
It was not quite what I’d expected. I’d been boning up on my Hebrew, supposing that increased facility with the language would help me catalogue or otherwise familiarize myself with a warehouse full of Jewish books. I had told myself the work might be not so different from graduate school, which interested me as a potential religion scholar but remained beyond my financial reach. Working with books all day, I imagined, could be a way of continuing my education while getting a paycheck.
As I discovered my first day on the job, however, the books weren’t in Hebrew. They were in Yiddish, a language that has about as much in common with its ancient cousin as English does with Latin. Sharing an alphabet and a small common vocabulary, Hebrew and Yiddish appear identical to the untrained eye, but they are entirely distinct. My job, I realized, was to organize books I could not understand.
Standing among miles of gray metal shelves, I saw that the books in my charge might as well have been cartons of cigarettes or bars of soap. I’d become a warehouse clerk, nothing more.
Nevertheless it was a job. And if the work was sometimes tedious – open boxes, sort books, shelve books – it did allow a fair amount of autonomy. The cultural organization’s business offices, where most of its twenty or so employees worked, were located in another building across town, which meant that, day after day, I was mostly on my own.
And yet I soon realized I was not on my own at all. I was surrounded by boxes of stories. Opening them, I never knew what I would find. There would be books, of course: some in excellent condition, others worth less than the postage that had brought them. But that wasn’t all. Hiding under layers of cardboard and packing tape, cushioned with rolled-up grocery bags, there were also mezuzahs and yarmulkes, tefillin and prayer shawls, Kiddush cups and Seder plates. One morning I discovered a tiny plastic bar mitzvah boy, the kind that might stand atop a kosher cake. I found all manner of discarded religious items, the presence of which suggested that their owners had either died or given up on God. Judging from the age of the books with which this spiritual bric-a-brac usually arrived – most had been printed in the 1920s and ’30s, the years of Malpesh’s prime – both possibilities seemed likely.
Before long, I got a sense of the kinds of people whose books were dropped on the warehouse’s doorstep each day. They were, as Malpesh once described his contemporaries, “bastards of history, New World spawn of the Old World’s dotage, lovers of ghosts, bards of forgotten tongues…” And I began to like them.
It took longer to get a sense of the books themselves. To find each volume its proper place in the collection, I only had to read the first few letters of its title. Beyond that, what was contained between the covers, or who had created it, didn’t matter much as far as the operations of the warehouse were concerned.
One grasps for meaning in the face of monotony, however. As I picked books from boxes hour after hour, I attempted to pronounce the names of their authors. Some, I would later learn, were the great masters of Yiddish literature: I.L. Peretz, Chaim Grade, Mendele Moykher Sforim. Once or twice I must have handled Lider fun dem shoykhets tochter, the one published work of Malpesh himself. Yet I knew nothing of him then, nor of his peers. Their names were only sounds in a foreign tongue; the books they adorned seemed impenetrable.
But then I set my mind to it. Each day I spent a couple of hours opening boxes and finding the right places for the books in the maze of shelves. The rest of my time I devoted to puzzling over what was inside their covers.
By the month’s end, while I had unpacked far fewer boxes than my employer hoped I would, I’d begun to learn the language.
Thereafter, making sense of the books in my care became for me an obsessive preoccupation; not least of all because, as I learned to read, I was learning also about a culture immensely appealing to a fallen Catholic like myself. For if Yiddish writers had one thing in common, I discovered, it was the kind of passionate irreligiosity that can only be found among those who’d been born, raised, and sickened by spiritual tradition. In a poem by Malpesh’s contemporary Jacob Glatshteyn, a line struck me as few had ever have: The God of my unbelief is magnificent.
Like so much of what I would find in the warehouse’s holdings, these words spoke to me as if they’d come from a catechism for those whom faith had failed.
Despite Malpesh’s lifelong interest in the process of translation, he often lamented the fact that rendering his poems and stories in another tongue might transform not just his work, but his soul. When a writer becomes unreadable to himself, he wrote, who is to say that he remains who he was? Where is the evidence? His words are like a donkey born to a dog.
He never gave a thought, however, at least not one he recorded or shared with me, to the inevitable change that occurs not just in the writer who is translated, but in the one who translates him as well.
There is more to tell about how I came to be the translator of Itsik Malpesh, and about the great joke of the fates this arrangement would come to seem. If he had not thought I was something other than what I am when we met, would he have shown his work to me at all? Did the fact that I was hiding who I was influence my understanding of the life – and crimes – I discovered in his writings? And if it influenced my understanding, has it also influenced my translation? How could it not?
These questions will have to wait, however. Let us turn now to the writings themselves, and to the day I first encountered them.
Not long after first learning his name, I found myself standing in the third-floor Baltimore apartment which Itsik Malpesh had occupied for fifty years. For the duration of this initial visit, he sat all but ignoring me, peering out his kitchen window. A neighboring building was scheduled for demolition and he – a small man in a cardigan sweater, wearing glasses, as he described them, “as thick as toilet lids” – sat by the window waiting to watch the show.
He pulled himself away just long enough to shuffle to a closet and retrieve a stack of hard-backed accounting ledgers. When he dropped them before me, I saw that their pages were filled not with numbers but meticulous Yiddish script. Twenty-two notebooks, each labeled with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, they amounted to a handwritten encyclopedia of his days.
Now that I have read them all, I know the many ways in which the tale of Malpesh’s life resonates with the events that led me to his door: A failed love affair, lies of faith, threat of scandal and, most important, the promise of deliverance through the translation of words.
That day, though, sitting in a nonagenarian’s kitchen, watching him gaze out over a demolition site to pass the time, who would have guessed that a life so full had been withstood by the frail frame enveloped by his sweater’s tattered wool? Who could have imagined that the eyes behind those toilet-lid lenses had seen so much?
“Here you will find the untold story of the greatest Yiddish poet in America,” Malpesh said as I examined his notebooks.
I had not been a reader of the language very long at that point, but I’d read enough to wonder at his boast.
“That’s saying quite a lot,” I said. “How do you think your contemporaries would have responded to such a claim?”
Malpesh sat down once again, pulled his chair closer to the window and watched the machinery in the lot below. For what seemed an endless moment he said nothing, and I wondered if he had heard me.
“To be the greatest,” he said finally, “one needs only to be the last.”
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.