Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature


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.

The first part of the book examines immigrant writing that enacts the drama of acquiring and relinquishing language in an America marked by language debates, local color writing, and nativism. The second part addresses multilingual writing by native-born authors in response to Jewish America's postwar social transformation and to the Holocaust.

A profound and eloquently written 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.


It has always been difficult for me to pronounce the surname on my birth certificate, Wroclawski, the last official vestige of my father's prewar life in Poland and bestowed upon me in Germany where we were displaced persons waiting for a visa that would eventually make us refugees in Pennsylvania. I could never reproduce the trill in that Polish “r”, but I didn't have to struggle with it for long, because once we became naturalized United States citizens, my parents cast off this lingering mark of their European past, Americanizing their name to Wirth, which neither of them could ever pronounce due to that formidable “th.” Since German was my mother's native language, she also gave up on the “w”, so that her American name, “Virt,” may have been well suited to her Austro-Hungarian tongue, but the irony was not lost on us that it was also in the language of those who had murdered their families and turned survivors into refugees in need of a new name. I grew up “Hana Wirth,” except when kindly schoolteachers and camp counselors Americanized it further by calling me Annie. When they did call me Hana, it was always in the broad nasal twang that rhymed with banana, a sound I detested so much that I found myself willing to settle for Annie.

My mother always spoke to me in German and my father always read to me in Yiddish, alternating between fiction—Sholem Aleichem and Chekhov among his favorites—and columns of the Yiddish daily Der Tog Morgen Journal. in Hebrew School I learned Ashkenazi pronunciation for prayer and Bible study; at home I had a weekly Hebrew tutor who taught me modern pronunciation from work pages with pen and ink drawings of animals and children. I could recite the blessing for bread as if I were a heder child in Lodz (at least that was the intent), and I could recite “The birds chirp” as if I were in a Tarbut School in Vilna. Although I was being plied with English books to make sure that I would succeed in school, I was also spoken to or read to in the languages of my parents' European past, and simultaneously I was being taught the Hebrew of transnational Jewish religious life along with, for a short time, the Hebrew of modern Israel, so that I could participate, even from a distance, in the rebirth of their ancient homeland.

When I immigrated to Israel later in life, “Wirth” was impossible to transliterate, and therefore it reverted to its Germanic origins, while Hana reverted to its Hebrew origins, by reinstating the gutteral first letter in “Chana.” My husband's surname, Nesher, was the result of his father's Hebraizing the German name Adler, an act more akin to the phoenix (being the sole survivor of his family) than the eagle, which it means in both languages. Whenever I pronounce my own name in Hebrew, my personal history becomes transparent . . .

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