Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

By Hana Wirth-Nesher | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Sounding Letters
“AND A RIVER WENT OUT OF EDEN”—PHILIP ROTH, ARYEH LEV STOLLMAN
“MAGNIFIED AND SANCTIFIED”—THE KADDISH AS FIRST AND LAST WORDS

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my tongue cleave to the roof
of my mouth.

—Psalm 137

Even when I'm doing fine, I can't stop thinking, “How soon
is it going to be before he knows that I'm a stutterer.”

—Merry Levov in Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997)

IN BOTH The Shawl and The Puttermesser Papers, pronunciation concerns addressing both a particular social other and a transcendent or mysterious other. At Puttermesser's blue-blood Wall Street law firm, “the young Jews were indistinguishable from the others” except for their accents, “the 'a' a shade too far into the nose, the 'i' with its telltale elongation, had long ago spread from Brooklyn to Great Neck, from Puttermesser's Bronx to Scarsdale. These two influential vowels had the uncanny faculty of disqualifying them for promotion.”1 The fact that Puttermesser was herself treated like “a fellow aristocrat” she attributes to the drilling of her fanatical high school teachers, “elocutionary missionaries hired by the Midwest” to prevent prize students from dentalizing their “t,” “d,” or “l” (7).2 In The Shawl, Persky succeeds in engaging Rosa in conversation only when he appeals to their shared immigrant status—“You speak with an accent”—despite her social snobbery that is also based on language performance. But prior to the humiliations suffered by the immigrant is the overshadowing trauma of the first story where speech “over there” in the concentration camp universe is another symptom of how everything is cruelly turned on its head: in Celan's poem, milk is black and graves are in the air, and in Ozick's story, the first speech utterance results in the murder of the child speaker. Rosa's subsequent written messages to her phantom daughter, however, and Ruth Puttermesser's pronouncing the Name of Names are both addressed to an Other outside the realm of social interaction, to a mysterious and divine force. Although speech in the social arena is distinct from speech aimed at a transcendent hearer, which borders on prayer, once the Hebrew language and its alphabet come into the picture, we know from Antin's copybooks and Henry Roth's wordplay, to name only two examples, that there is often a vestige of the latter in the former. In this chapter, I would like to trace

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