Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

By Hana Wirth-Nesher | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
“Here I am!”—Hineni
PARTIAL AND PARTISAN TRANSLATIONS: SAUL BELLOW

How difficult for me is Hebrew:
Even the Hebrew for mother, for bread, for sun
Is foreign. How far have I been exiled, Zion.

I have learnt the Hebrew blessing before eating bread;
Is there no blessing before reading Hebrew?

—Charles Reznikoff, “Building Boom” (1927)

“Tobit, in exile, cannot forget that he is a Jew. It is possible to
compare him with Joyce's Leopold Bloom.”

—Saul Bellow, Introduction to “Tobit” (1963)

ALL THREE OF THE IMMIGRANT WRITERS I have discussed have translated words and concepts from their native tongues into English for their American readers. The exceptional word or phrase that is left untranslated serves as a reminder not only that the characters' experiences are taking place in a language other than that of the written text but also that at certain moments the book's readers are divided into insiders and outsiders linguistically. Yet sometimes the very act of translation may be as divisive as the refusal to do so. When Aunt Bertha's suitor Nathan Sternowitz in Call It Sleep provides the requisite information about his family in Europe to his prospective in-laws, Albert and Genya Schearl, he describes his father as a servant. Bertha promptly chastises him for not mentioning his mother's cousin the doctor rather than his father's low status, adding in a barbed tone, “And in rainy weather he carried two children on his back to cheder. Didn't he Nathan?” (181). In the manuscript, Roth used the Yiddish word for this unique task, “belfer.” Far from being a servant to a wealthy family, the “belfer” carried to and from cheder children too small to walk but considered old enough to master the Hebrew alphabet. No image could capture the paramount importance of Hebrew literacy in Jewish culture more than this one of male assistant teachers fetching toddlers from their homes and toting them on their backs and in their arms for their lessons. As David's cheder episodes reenact this shift from mother to Jewish textuality, a dominant theme of the novel, the substitution of “servant” for “belfer” is an admission that aspects

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