Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

Overview

"Call It English identifies the distinctive voice of Jewish American literature by recovering the multilingual Jewish culture that Jews brought to the United States in their creative encounter with English. In transnational readings of works from the late-nineteenth century to the present by both immigrant and postimmigrant generations, Hana Wirth-Nesher traces the evolution of Yiddish and Hebrew in modern Jewish American prose writing through dialect and accent, cross-cultural translations, and bilingual wordplay." "Call It English tells a story ...
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Overview

"Call It English identifies the distinctive voice of Jewish American literature by recovering the multilingual Jewish culture that Jews brought to the United States in their creative encounter with English. In transnational readings of works from the late-nineteenth century to the present by both immigrant and postimmigrant generations, Hana Wirth-Nesher traces the evolution of Yiddish and Hebrew in modern Jewish American prose writing through dialect and accent, cross-cultural translations, and bilingual wordplay." "Call It English tells a story of preoccupation with pronunciation, diction, translation, the figurality of Hebrew letters, and the linguistic dimension of home and exile in a culture constituted of sacred, secular, familial, and ancestral languages. Through readings of works by Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, Henry Roth, Delmore Schwartz, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, Grace Paley, Philip Roth, Aryeh Lev Stollman, and other writers, it demonstrates how inventive literary strategies are sites of loss and gain, evasion and invention." An exploration of bilingual aesthetics and cross-cultural translation, Call It English resounds also with pertinence to other minority and ethnic literatures in the United States.
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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
[An] invigorating book about the multilingual sensibility which Jews who emigrated to the United States brought to their grappling with English. . . . This is not just a book about the Jewish American experience, but about how and why we all relate to language.
— Samantha Ellis
American Jewish History
Call It English is a deeply informed and provocative attempt to explain the uniqueness of Jewish American multilingualism, and as such, it should be required reading for anyone teaching a course on Jewish American literature.
— Steven Fink
Pesach
Her work opens new doors for a reconsideration of the national and linguistic boundaries of American literature, long a literature of immigrants—immigrants who continue to bring their languages and literary traditions to bear on the history of American letters.
— Dr. Allison Schachter
Contemporary Literature
Call It English . . . [is an] important book for scholars of both American literatures and American Jewish literature, and . . . [is] so especially at this particular point in history. . . . [T]he ever-increasing passage of time that separates us from the events of the Holocaust and the inevitable if not deeply regrettable failures of memory make it all the more imperative that we bear witness to the past.
Choice
No book traces the stories of Jewish sound, voice, tone, pun, metaphor, name, prayer, and sacred syllable with such consistency and brilliance.
Times Literary Supplement - Samantha Ellis
[An] invigorating book about the multilingual sensibility which Jews who emigrated to the United States brought to their grappling with English. . . . This is not just a book about the Jewish American experience, but about how and why we all relate to language.
American Jewish History - Steven Fink
Call It English is a deeply informed and provocative attempt to explain the uniqueness of Jewish American multilingualism, and as such, it should be required reading for anyone teaching a course on Jewish American literature.
Doctor; Pesach - Allison Schachter
Her work opens new doors for a reconsideration of the national and linguistic boundaries of American literature, long a literature of immigrants—immigrants who continue to bring their languages and literary traditions to bear on the history of American letters.
Pesach - Dr. Allison Schachter
Her work opens new doors for a reconsideration of the national and linguistic boundaries of American literature, long a literature of immigrants—immigrants who continue to bring their languages and literary traditions to bear on the history of American letters.
From the Publisher

Runner-Up for the 2006 National Jewish Book Award in Modern Jewish Thought

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2007

"[An] invigorating book about the multilingual sensibility which Jews who emigrated to the United States brought to their grappling with English. . . . This is not just a book about the Jewish American experience, but about how and why we all relate to language."--Samantha Ellis, Times Literary Supplement

"No book traces the stories of Jewish sound, voice, tone, pun, metaphor, name, prayer, and sacred syllable with such consistency and brilliance."--Choice

"Call It English is a deeply informed and provocative attempt to explain the uniqueness of Jewish American multilingualism, and as such, it should be required reading for anyone teaching a course on Jewish American literature."--Steven Fink, American Jewish History

"Call It English . . . [is an] important book for scholars of both American literatures and American Jewish literature, and . . . [is] so especially at this particular point in history. . . . [T]he ever-increasing passage of time that separates us from the events of the Holocaust and the inevitable if not deeply regrettable failures of memory make it all the more imperative that we bear witness to the past."--Contemporary Literature

"Her work opens new doors for a reconsideration of the national and linguistic boundaries of American literature, long a literature of immigrants--immigrants who continue to bring their languages and literary traditions to bear on the history of American letters."--Dr. Allison Schachter, Pesach

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691138442
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/20/2008
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Hana Wirth-Nesher is the Samuel L. and Perry Haber Chair on the Study of the Jewish Experience in the United States, Professor of English, and head of the Goldreich Family Institute for Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of "City Codes: Reading the Modern Urban Novel" and the editor of "What is Jewish Literature?", and coeditor of "The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature".

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Read an Excerpt

Call It English The Languages of Jewish American Literature
By Hana Wirth-Nesher Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2005
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13844-2


Chapter One ACCENT MARKS: WRITING AND PRONOUNCING JEWISH AMERICA

PRONOUNCING AMERICA, WRITING JEWISH: ABRAHAM CAHAN, DELMORE SCHWARTZ, GRACE PALEY, BERNARD MALAMUD

Far beyond the lights of Jersey, Jerusalem still beckons us, in tongues. -Linda Pastan, "Passover" (1971)

Contrary to some stereotypical misunderstanding, there is no New Jersey accent. -Philip Roth "Interview" (2002)

FOR DECADES, a New York-based radio station whose multilingual broadcasts served the needs of immigrant communities would identify itself in the following words: "This is WEVD, the station that speaks your language." For most of the Jewish listeners, this meant Yiddish. During the first half of the twentieth century, Yiddish fueled the immigrant and second generation community, with daily newspapers, theaters, novels, poetry, folksongs, and radio programs such as those on WEVD. All of this has been well documented, and all of this is history. In recent years, New York City subways have displayed bold posters of the American flag in the shape of an Aleph (first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), sporting a banner with the words "Read Hebrew America." By dialing a simple toll-free number, 1-800-444-HEBRE(W), anyone can acquire information at any time about freeclasses in "the language of our people" (see Figure 1). But what does "speaking your language" mean in these two advertisements, or in American Jewish culture more generally over the past century? In one case, Yiddish is a sign of the Old World, of an immigrant community tuning in to WEVD as a form of nostalgia. In the other, Hebrew is a sign of an even older identity, not of family history but of ancient history, not of relatives but of ancestors. One is listening, the other is reading; one is remembering, the other is re-enacting; one is "Yiddishkeit," the other is Judaism. WEVD caters to an audience for whom Yiddish is palpably present; "Read Hebrew" addresses a public for whom Hebrew is conspicuously absent. One community's linguistic home is still Yiddish, the other's home is English, and only a moral or ideological imperative-"Read Hebrew America"-proposes to alter that.

Nowadays, the primary language of American Jewry is neither Yiddish nor Hebrew. Despite impressive bodies of literature in both of these languages produced in the United States, the language of American Jewry has become English, so much so that Cynthia Ozick has at one time suggested that English be referred to as the New Yiddish. Still, it would be misleading to talk about American Jewry as entirely monolingual. Jewish American literature offers testimony of multilingual awareness not only among immigrant writers where we would expect this to be the case but also among their descendants who have retained attachments to languages other than English, at times despite their meager knowledge of them. In fact, the mere sound of the language or the sight of a letter from the Hebrew alphabet has often been sufficient to trigger powerful feelings of belonging or alienation. The works that I will be discussing in this book are captivating not necessarily because the authors have mastered more than one language but because they are negotiating between languages that they evade, repress, transgress, mourn, resist, deny, translate, romanticize, or reify. They are works of American literature with a Jewish accent.

A short excerpt from Henry Roth's Call It Sleep illustrates how both Yiddish and Hebrew leave their traces in Jewish American writing. Two small boys are accusing a third of having committed a double sin by tearing a page of a Yiddish newspaper for use as toilet paper. "'So w'y is id a double sin?' he asks. 'cause it's Shabis,' one of the boys calls out, 'An dat's one sin. Yuh can't tear on Shabis. And because it's a Jewish noospaper wid Jewish on id, dat's two sins. Dere!' 'Yes', the other chimed in. 'You'd a only god one sin if you tord a Englitch noospaper.'" Roth renders Yiddish accent in carefully designed phonetic transcription where English orthography and Yiddish sound intersect to produce interlingual puns that comment on this scene of transgression, as in "noospaper," "god," "tord" (close to "turd"), and "Englitch." Since phonetic transcription is always a matter of what we see as much as what we hear, and always a matter of artistic choice rather than some illusory accuracy, the Yiddish accent marks in these expressions gesture both toward the English words that we read and the Hebrew alphabet without whose presence this passage would make no sense. Insofar as the commandment to rest on the Sabbath day has been interpreted in traditional Judaism as avoiding any labor that parallels God's labor of creating the world, namely altering the state of matter, tearing a sheet of paper violates "shabis," the Sabbath. The second sin, however, is the one that invokes one of the special features of Hebrew, namely the sacredness of the alphabet. Although the boys are obviously talking about a Yiddish newspaper, the Hebrew letters always have the potential of being combined into God's name, the sacred tetragrammaton, and therefore they must not be defaced or desecrated. The linguistic story of Jewish American writing has been in large part a passage out of Yiddish, the language of immigrants, and a passage into Hebrew, the language of religious rites of passage so formative in Jewish identity. As the child of immigrants and as modernist American writer, Roth is poised between these two, as exemplified in this passage. On one hand, Yiddish-inflected speech affords him an opportunity for both social realism and artistic word play, while on the other hand, it gives him a venue for commenting on the holy or liturgical dimension of Hebrew, a continuous feature of Jewish culture on either side of the Atlantic. Moreover, the very word "Englitch" testifies to the Yiddish components in American English, as "glitch" is now standard usage for a slip, lapse, or malfunction. Jewish American writing is marked by numerous linguistic slips and lapses such as Roth's, traces of Yiddish and Hebrew in English.

Despite this compact illustration of my subject and despite the echo of Roth's novel in my own title, I am not claiming that his work is representative in the sense that all Jewish American writers treat these languages uniformly. On the contrary, I am arguing that while the linguistic heritage for the majority of Jewish writers in English has been Yiddish and Hebrew, they have negotiated these languages in diverse ways. Representation of accented speech, for example, has ranged from the strident Yiddish American dialect in Abraham Cahan's work to accented speech restricted to non-Jewish American characters in Saul Bellow's novels. And the spectrum is as wide for Hebraic and liturgical inscriptions as well, from the blasphemy of Henry Roth to the reverence of Cynthia Ozick. The two New Jersey epigraphs to this chapter from contemporary writers attest to the hold of Hebrew and Yiddish on the imaginations of Jewish American authors. Linda Pastan begins her poem "Passover" with "I set my table with metaphor" and then surveys the display of Jewish ceremonial dishes-"Down the long table, past fresh shoots of a root / they have been hacking at for centuries, / you hold up the unleavened bread-a baked scroll / whose wavy lines are indecipherable." Each item of food on the poet's Passover table signifies more than its traditional role according to the Haggadah, the narrative and ritual of the seder, such as the root that symbolizes the bitterness of slavery (maror) or the unleavened bread that symbolizes the haste of the divine deliverance from bondage (matzah). For Pastan, the root that has been hacked at for centuries is also the tenacity of the Jewish people to survive persecution, while the serrated lines across the matzah appear as indecipherable Hebrew script. The inseparability of the ritualistic items and the language of their origin, of what is eaten and what is spoken, awakens a longing in her "this one night a year" for a distant origin, where "far beyond the lights of Jersey / Jerusalem still beckons, in tongues." In contrast to this exilic yearning for the ancient mother tongue, Hebrew, Philip Roth shakes off any vestige of immigrant Yiddish by insisting that New Jersey is a miraculous terrain of accentless speech-"there is no New Jersey accent"-by which he means that he does not speak like a Jew. In a recent interview, he admits that "there is a New York accent," but "there was only one language in my neighborhood, American English." Roth's repeated disavowal of accent marks in his speech leaves its trace on his writing, as I will discuss in this introduction and in the final chapter. His linguistic situation is proof enough that not knowing a language is not an indicator of its influence, since it may be harder to abandon what cannot be grasped. As a second generation American, Roth "never learned Yiddish," and as a result, communication with his grandmother was confined to "the language of emotion, which is powerful but not very informative." As for Hebrew, "I ceased being smart in Hebrew school." Given that he found himself "dumb" with respect to both the passage away from Yiddish and the rite of passage toward Hebrew, it is not surprising that muteness, stammering, and accent will haunt his writing, not because he has no command of these languages but because he is disturbed by the notion that he should know them.

Those writers whose works reveal traces of Yiddish and Hebrew (or Aramaic), whether they are immigrant or native-born Americans, have either strongly identified with, even celebrated, this continuity in their writings, or they have kept their distance by ironic treatment of characters' speech or by self-conscious declarations of English exclusivity. My contention is that for many Jewish American writers subsequent to the immigrant generation, Hebrew and Yiddish are sources of self-expression and identity even if the authors cannot "remember" them in the sense of ever having possessed them as a means of communication. Their understanding of what these languages signify is always the result, borrowing from Werner Sollors, of both descent, a continuous cultural legacy, and consent, an embrace of American English that also structures their sense of those Jewish languages and accents. Their remembering, therefore, is not the result of an essential Jewishness that hearkens back to some racial memory but the result of socialization where practices, expectations, and assumptions about the entanglement of language and identity linger in their consciousness. Immigrant authors and their literary descendants will either weave these languages into their English writing as they emphasize the particular, which is the case for most of the writers in Call It English, or they will profess their forgetting in their insistence on the universal, as in the case of Mary Antin and Philip Roth.

"ONE LANGUAGE HAS NEVER BEEN ENOUGH FOR THE JEWISH PEOPLE": SHMUEL NIGER (1941)

Knowledge of more than one language has always characterized Jewish civilization, whether the Jews were dispersed among the nations or residing in their homeland. In Warsaw at the turn of the century, a Jew might have spoken Yiddish at home, prayed and studied holy books in the Beit Midrash in Hebrew and Aramaic, transacted business in Polish, and read world literature in Russian or in German. In Alexandria in the same period, a Jew might have spoken French at home, prayed and studied in Hebrew and Aramaic, read a Ladino newspaper (also known as Judeo-Spanish or Judezmo), and conducted his professional life in Arabic. Even the shtetl dweller with little formal secular education, such as Sholem Aleichem's Tevye, negotiated between the mame-loshen (mother tongue) of domestic and worldly Yiddish and loshn-koydesh, the holy tongue of Hebrew-Aramaic. By necessity, he would also have acquired enough Ukrainian to secure his income as a dairyman. European Jewish culture was constituted of the rich symbiosis of these languages, of their complementary and hierarchical relation to each other. Insofar as Hebrew tended to define the sphere of prayer, ritual, study, and law, it occupied a "masculine" position in diasporic Jewish culture; insofar as Yiddish was generally confined to the more mundane spheres of the home and the marketplace, it was often defined as a "feminine" world. But there were many exceptions to this polarization, particularly in the emergence of a flourishing and wide-ranging modernist Yiddish literature whose themes and readership cut across gender lines. The extent to which bilingualism is rooted in European Jewish life is expressed by Max Weinreich in his History of the Yiddish Language: "a Jew of some scholarly attainment, born around 1870, certainly did not express only his personal opinion when he declared that the Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch had been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai." Before Shmuel Niger made the case for bilingualism as a constant feature of Jewish writing-"one language has never been enough for the Jewish people"-in his Yiddish Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature, published in America in 1941, Baal-Makhshoves had already made this claim in eastern Europe at the turn of the century. As early as 1918, he observed that the mark of Jewish literature had always been its bilingualism. Although he was taking this position within the ideological wars of the Czernowitz conference and the antagonism between Hebrew and Yiddish, he traced the bilingual status of Jewish literature back to the Bible. In every text that is part of the Jewish tradition, Baal-Makhshoves wrote, there existed implicitly or explicitly another language, whether it be Chaldean in the Book of Daniel, Aramaic in the Pentateuch and the prayer book, Arabic in medieval Jewish philosophical writings, and, in his own day, Yiddish. "Bilingualism accompanied the Jews even in ancient times, even when they had their own land, and they were not as yet wanderers as they are now," he wrote. "We have two languages and a dozen echoes from other foreign languages, but we have only one literature." When Baal-Makhshoves refers to bilingualism, he means not only the literal presence of two languages but also the echoes of another language and culture detected in so-called monolingual prose. "Don't our finer critics carry within them the spirit of the German language? And among our younger writers, who were educated in the Russian language, isn't it possible to discern the spirit of Russian?" (Continues...)



Excerpted from Call It English by Hana Wirth-Nesher
Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Accent marks : writing and pronouncing Jewish America 1
Ch. 2 "I like to speak plain, shee? Dot'sh a kin' a man I am!" 32
Ch. 3 "I learned at least to think in English without an accent" 52
Ch. 4 "Christ, it's a kid!" - Chad Godya 76
Ch. 5 "Here I am!" - Hineni 100
Ch. 6 "Aloud she uttered it" - own - Hashem 127
Ch. 7 Sounding letters 149
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