Pho­to­graph of Yaniv Iczkovits by Eric Sultan

Tip­ping its streimel to the likes of Sholem Ale­ichem and I. L. Peretz, The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter could almost be mis­tak­en for a lost Yid­dish clas­sic. Hilar­i­ous, wise, and fre­net­ic, this nov­el by Israeli author Yaniv Iczkovits harkens back to a bygone era while bring­ing a thor­ough­ly mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ty informed by the likes of the Coen Broth­ers and Quentin Tarantino.

At the heart of the nov­el lies Fan­ny Keis­mann, the daugh­ter of the local shochet, who sets off from the small town of Motal to hunt down her sister’s way­ward hus­band. She doesn’t get far before a gang of brig­ands, sens­ing easy prey, set upon her. With her trusty knife, Fan­ny makes short work of them and con­tin­ues on her way, leav­ing the local author­i­ties stumped. What fol­lows is a bril­liant­ly mad­cap game of cat and mouse, involv­ing the Russ­ian Army, the Tsar’s secret police, all man­ner of eccentrics and ingrates, and one very jovial chaz­zan.

Epic in scope and rich in exe­cu­tion, The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter is a con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish mas­ter­piece. Lit­tle sur­prise that it recent­ly won the high­ly pres­ti­gious Wingate Prize, and pre­vi­ous­ly won both the Ramat Gan and Agnon prizes. It was also short­list­ed for Israel’s pre­mier lit­er­ary award, the Sapir Prize.

Bram Press­er: What does the mod­ern lens bring to a sto­ry like this? I’m think­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly of your knowl­edge of what came after for the peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties that once thrived in the Pale of Settlement.

Yaniv Iczkovits: I think that this ques­tion is extreme­ly impor­tant, because it informed my entire moti­va­tion for writ­ing this book. After all, when the great nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Yid­dish writ­ers wrote, they depict­ed the present, their present. They didn’t know what was going to hap­pen to the peo­ple like those they wrote about. But I wrote about them in ret­ro­spect, know­ing the hor­ri­ble fate that would await them. To what end?

I believe that my mod­ern-day per­spec­tive is essen­tial to the nov­el in two respects: first, I want­ed to bring those for­got­ten mem­o­ries and char­ac­ters of a lost world — an entire sphere that has been com­plete­ly demol­ished — into the present. I want­ed to show the rich­ness of a cul­ture that is now gone but is still a major part of who we are, or at least of who I am. Grow­ing up in Israel, you learn a lot about the his­to­ry of Jew­ish life, and the awful sto­ries always take over. But since my fam­i­ly came from East­ern Europe, I also heard a lot of inter­est­ing sto­ries about Jew­ish life before World War II. Some of them were quite fun­ny; oth­er anec­dotes were col­or­ful and intrigu­ing. I start­ed to ask myself: what do I actu­al­ly know about Jew­ish life of the past? What was the dai­ly rou­tine? I want­ed to go deep­er into this lost world that nobody talks about. I felt that it is impor­tant for us to real­ize how dif­fer­ent each per­son was from one anoth­er, each one a world in them­self: one per­son devout­ly Ortho­dox, anoth­er a sec­u­lar Zion­ist; one a sports­man, anoth­er a bak­er. They went to dif­fer­ent syn­a­gogues and fol­lowed dif­fer­ent rab­bis. It’s just a shame that all we remem­ber from them is their hor­ri­ble fate.

Sec­ond, such a sto­ry will inevitably raise poignant ques­tions for a present-day read­er, and I like poignant ques­tions. For exam­ple, has much real­ly changed since then? Just to give a short exam­ple (but obvi­ous­ly there are many more): the mis­er­able sta­tus of agu­na [a mar­ried woman whose hus­band refus­es to grant a Jew­ish divorce, there­by pre­vent­ing her from remar­ry­ing] still exists nowa­days and a lot of women are suf­fer­ing from being con­trolled by these laws. In fact, Fanny’s jour­ney could eas­i­ly hap­pen in con­tem­po­rary cir­cum­stances, so I advise all those way­ward hus­bands to be aware! And on a dif­fer­ent note, do we, in Israel, treat minori­ties with the same grace with which we wish oth­er nations would treat us?

BP: Read­ers of clas­sic Yid­dish and Russ­ian lit­er­a­ture will feel right at home in Motal and its sur­round­ings, but they will nev­er have encoun­tered a char­ac­ter like Fan­ny Keis­mann. What drew you to writ­ing such a strong­ly fem­i­nist take on those lit­er­ary tra­di­tions, and how does Fanny’s quest to find her sister’s way­ward hus­band both build on and chal­lenge what has come before?

YI: From the out­set, it was pret­ty clear to me that the pro­tag­o­nist should be a woman. It was impor­tant for me that Fan­ny would be active, respond to injus­tices, and yes, some­times be vio­lent. I couldn’t even imag­ine a man tak­ing on such a mis­sion. The world of men has been a bit lazy in chang­ing rules that are con­ve­nient to them. But I think that not only Fan­ny, but also the rest of the char­ac­ters as well — men or women — are real­ly strug­gling to move, even one inch, from the harsh dic­tates of soci­ety. Take Zizek for exam­ple, who was a sol­dier in the Russ­ian empire for so many years. When he retired, he should have gone to Min­sk, bought a house, set­tled down, and that’s it. But no, he went to his fam­i­ly’s shtetl, where every­one want­ed to for­get about him, and set­tled by the riv­er, so that every­one would be dis­tressed by his appear­ance. Today, if you want to be a human­ist, you can­not sim­ply do it in a com­fort­able way. You have to resist, and some­times even fight for it.

What is fun­ny about Fan­ny is that most of the oth­er char­ac­ters don’t expect her to be the source of all these dis­tur­bances.” They expect her to be gen­tle and to stay at home, like most Jew­ish women in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry East­ern Europe. And when they become famil­iar with her char­ac­ter, they don’t know how to frame her. She is un-frame­able”, as I believe most peo­ple are. When you don’t know how to frame some­one, that is when you have no choice but to rec­og­nize the com­plex­i­ty of human life.

BP:The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter is also play­ful and exper­i­men­tal in ways that the clas­sics are not. It engages with very mod­ern lit­er­ary tra­di­tions. I’ve heard you men­tion Taran­ti­no as a ref­er­ence point, and there is no ques­tion about the cin­e­mat­ic air of the nov­el. What did post­war lit­er­a­ture and more mod­ern forms of media bring to the writ­ing of this novel?

YI: The hard­est thing about writ­ing this book was find­ing the cor­rect lan­guage. I did­n’t want to imi­tate the great Yid­dish writ­ers of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, and I did­n’t want to write in a con­tem­po­rary style. So I had to do a lot of exper­i­ments, play­ing with the sen­tences and the form, until I felt that I’d reached a rhythm that is a bit play­ful, with a touch of Yid­dish, but also a touch of mod­ern Amer­i­can ref­er­ences such as Cor­mac McCarthy, Taran­ti­no, and the Coen broth­ers. I guess I was look­ing for a way to meld the old with the new, and in this sense I allowed myself to be influ­enced by cin­e­ma and tele­vi­sion. I lat­er real­ized that when we are in the shtetl the lan­guage is clos­er to Shalom Aleichem’s or Isaac Bashe­vis Singer’s and when Fan­ny arrives at a mil­i­tary camp the lan­guage echoes some of Isaac Babel’s writ­ings, and when the rob­bers appear we are caught in a Taran­ti­no scene. Some­times I did­n’t write for four months because I could­n’t find the right lan­guage for a cer­tain char­ac­ter, but it was clear to me that the book had to be ground­ed in an inter­play between the old and the new, the lit­er­ary and the cin­e­mat­ic, the heavy and the humorous.

Lit­er­a­ture invites us to tell our­selves a dif­fer­ent sto­ry to the one we are used to. While the forces of real­i­ty usu­al­ly tempt us to jus­ti­fy our views and actions, lit­er­a­ture and imag­i­na­tion demand a dif­fer­ent response.

In gen­er­al, my view is that lit­er­a­ture can­not ignore the glob­al trends and the mod­ern forms of media. That doesn’t mean, of course, that books should be writ­ten like a TV series. We have to remem­ber that the visu­al form will always win the first bat­tle. But lit­er­a­ture is not about win­ning bat­tles. It’s not about shout­ing for atten­tion. There is a very nice phrase by Wittgen­stein that says that in phi­los­o­phy the win­ner is the one who fin­ish­es last. I think that some­thing sim­i­lar can be said about lit­er­a­ture. But com­ing in last only means that you are already aware of oth­er forms of media and can con­tain them. There­fore, you can dis­cuss them, play with them, echo them — and not only them but with the his­to­ry of lit­er­a­ture itself. For exam­ple, when the Russ­ian greats wrote about Jew­ish char­ac­ters they always depict­ed them in a stereo­typ­ic way, and when the Yid­dish greats wrote about the local Russ­ian or Pol­ish peo­ple they also failed to over­come those type­casts. This is why Novak, the secret police offi­cer, was very impor­tant for me. I want­ed to cor­rect these fail­ures in my book. Do a tikkun. Novak is trans­formed through­out the nov­el. Even­tu­al­ly he dress­es like a Jew­ish Hasidic and gets car­ried away in a Tish.”

BP: There seems to be a philo­soph­i­cal bat­tle at the heart of The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter; a bat­tle of best inten­tions. Almost every char­ac­ter is dri­ven by a desire to do right, to make things bet­ter. And yet they are fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds. I was inter­est­ed to learn that the trans­la­tion of the Hebrew title is Tikkun after Mid­night.”. What role does tikkun play in the nov­el and how can these com­pet­ing good inten­tions” be reconciled?

YI: Tikkun olam is an ancient Hebrew term that basi­cal­ly means cor­rect­ing the world” or world repair,” which can be achieved by obey­ing cer­tain reli­gious rules. But it also has a per­son­al mean­ing — some­thing like cor­rect­ing” or repair­ing” one­self. Cor­rec­tion always requires good inten­tions, but these will not be enough if you are not will­ing to tran­scend your per­son­al lim­i­ta­tions and bound­aries, and those of your com­mu­ni­ty. There­fore, tikkun tru­ly requires you to step out of your­self and become aware of oth­er intentions.

And this, by the way, is the ulti­mate pow­er of lit­er­a­ture. Lit­er­a­ture invites us to tell our­selves a dif­fer­ent sto­ry to the one we are used to. While the forces of real­i­ty usu­al­ly tempt us to jus­ti­fy our views and actions, lit­er­a­ture and imag­i­na­tion demand a dif­fer­ent response. Each of the char­ac­ters is chal­leng­ing oth­er char­ac­ters to see dimen­sions of real­i­ty that, until now, they were blind to. But the resis­tance to these new per­spec­tives is not easy to break, and this is why every­thing goes wrong for every­one in this novel.

BP: Does fate or serendip­i­ty also play into that? After all, it is Fan­ny and Zizek’s chance encounter with the rob­bers that brings them to the atten­tion of the Tsar’s police. Some char­ac­ters seem to be the prod­ucts of hap­pen­stance in their ear­ly lives, while oth­ers are the authors of their own fates.

YI: Well, there is always an inter­play between fate and chance, and there is a ques­tion as to how much of Fan­ny and Zizek’s encoun­ters are not pre­dict­ed. When a Jew­ish woman sets out into such a wild jour­ney, she can assume it won’t go unno­ticed. And I real­ly believe that Fan­ny knows that she is going to use that knife. Adams­ki also knows that any encounter with his old friend Zizek will lead to trou­ble, espe­cial­ly since Zizek is want­ed by the secret police. So I think that although it might seem as if a lot of events hap­pen by chance, the char­ac­ters enter into them with open eyes.

BP: I thor­ough­ly enjoyed the inter­play of doc­trine and dog­ma — both polit­i­cal and reli­gious — that is woven through­out The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter. How impor­tant are the rules” ver­sus the com­pul­sion, or even the neces­si­ty, to break them?

YI: That is hon­est­ly the main ques­tion in the nov­el, and it’s not only a polit­i­cal or reli­gious ques­tion, but also a per­son­al one. Two of the most promi­nent thinkers of recent times, Freud and Kaf­ka, grew up with dom­i­nant fathers and strict rules. But where­as Freud tried to ana­lyze those rules and lat­er define their struc­ture, Kaf­ka showed that the rules are always hid­den. You can­not touch them. You can­not see them. You can­not define them. But they are still there. Fan­ny, Zizek, and Piotr grew up with rules. Those rules are not only polit­i­cal or reli­gious; they are inter­twined with their inner­most feel­ings. Break­ing that kind of rule will always make you feel as if some­thing inter­nal is bro­ken, too. It will always mean tran­scend­ing your­self, rein­vent­ing your­self, see­ing in your ene­my the oppo­site of what you learned to believe. This is why most peo­ple are so afraid of changes. It’s why tikkun is so difficult.

BP: When Fan­ny final­ly finds Zvi Meir, he is a piti­ful char­ac­ter rather than a mali­cious one. How does this change the way we view her quest?

YI: When I first pub­lished this book, a lot of read­ers told me they dis­liked Zvi Meir. He is the one who caused all the trou­ble, and for what? For the world to rec­og­nize his self-assumed genius? I was actu­al­ly sur­prised by that, because for me, Zvi Meir is not evil. On the con­trary. Zvi Meir, just like Fan­ny and Zizek, want­ed to rede­fine his own exis­tence. In fact, Fan­ny also leaves her hus­band and five chil­dren with­out ever know­ing if she is going to return. So, after all, Zvi Meir and Fan­ny are not that dif­fer­ent in terms of their motives, and Fan­ny real­izes that when they final­ly meet. I think that the meet­ing between them, which is sup­posed to be the peak of the sto­ry, is also a cru­cial anticlimax.

BP: Despite its many dark recess­es, there’s a won­der­ful under­ly­ing opti­mism to The Slaughterman’s Daugh­ter. How impor­tant is the belief that good­ness will ulti­mate­ly prevail?

YI: Actu­al­ly, I rewrote the end of the book after ini­tial­ly writ­ing a pes­simistic end­ing. Fan­ny resist­ed that end­ing and I didn’t want to get into trou­ble with her. She was right. She didn’t want to end like Anna Karen­i­na or Madame Bovary, even though that might very well have been the case for a woman like Fan­ny at that time. But since I’m not con­strained by the bound­aries of real­i­ty or his­to­ry, I want­ed her to suc­ceed in her crazy jour­ney, and this is where the term his­tor­i­cal nov­el” is mis­lead­ing. Not because my aim was just to present an unre­al­is­tic fable or to inspire our imag­i­na­tion. My aim was to show how real­i­ty could be — how his­to­ry could take a dif­fer­ent course, and not only in the form of a mag­i­cal romance. I think that these are the roots of my infi­nite opti­mism, which is essen­tial­ly relat­ed to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of writ­ing, of play­ing with what is real, of rethink­ing the factual.

For ten years, Bram Press­er schlepped around the world as the singer of icon­ic Jew­ish punk band Yid­core before turn­ing to writ­ing. His debut nov­el, The Book of Dirt, was released in Aus­tralia to great acclaim and won numer­ous major lit­er­ary prizes. It was recent­ly pub­lished in the USA where it won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Debut Fiction.