Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

Article excerpt

Hana Wirth-Nesher. Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006. 240 pp. $46.00/$22.95.

This is a wide-ranging, subtle study of how three Jewish languages - Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic - inform the writing of Abraham Cahan, Mary Antin, Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick, and Philip Roth, among others. Wirth-Nesher stresses not only the presence within these American writers' works of languages other than English (most masterfully in her analysis of Call It Sleep, justly foregrounded in her title), but also the traces left by the absence of these languages (as in her consideration of a completely American, monolingually-raised suburbanite in American Pastoral, whose speech impediment "turns [. . .] what used to be accent into stuttering" [154]).

Indeed, Wirth-Nesher is fascinating when she studies die trajectory of such metamorphoses; when she exposes, for example, how Cahan exploited accent to gain entry into an American literature then fascinated by dialect writing "from Twain and Crane to Creole and vaudeville dialectics" (84); how Antin instrumentalized writing as a way out of accent (one contemporary critic, we learn from Wirth-Nesher, saw Amins abandonment of Yiddish language and Jewish folkways for American speech and behavior as analogous to Helen Keller's movement out of darkness and silence into a world of communication!); how Henry Roth goes beyond accent to incorporate multiple layers of interlingual play, thereby forging a modernist linguistic monument akin to Joyce's Ulysses. The portmanteau word Englitch in Call It Sleep serves WirthNesher as a trope for the functioning of the text, as it overcomes the notion of mistake (or glitch), fashioning it into a (Freudian) slip, or a glissando (Yiddish glitshn - slip, slide). But more than Englitch, the presence in Henry Roth's novel of the enigmatic Aramaic seder song Chad Gadyo ("One Kid," transcribed significantly there as Chad Godya), about the slaughter of a baby goat, and of the slaughterers slaughtered - itself a kind of mise en abyme - gives Wirth-Nesher the occasion to show of what mettle she is made, as she interprets meanings the recurrent title of the song takes. She analyzes it as a kind of triple name for the Jewish God - Chad-God-Ya: Chad harks back to the Sh'ma, where "Adonai Echad" refers to the oneness of God; the syllable God is obvious; and Ya we find in Yahweh and Ha\\e\ujah. Yet the sacrificial theme of the song allows it to segue into Christianity, and so Wirth-Nesher links it to an apparently innocuous comment made by a witness to the child protagonist's near-suicide as he tries to make streetcar tracks give off nitsotsot, divine sparks: "Christ, it's a kid!" (86-91).

Wirth-Nesher is no less impressive when she analyzes the onomastic play in Seize the Day, where the protagonist, renaming himself Tommy Wilhelm, proves to be an avatar of the eponymous character in the story written by Bashevis Singer and translated by Bellow, Gimpel the Fool. In Yiddish, the title and character are Gimpl Tarn, where Tarn is pronounced like the English "Tom," as Wirth-Nesher notes; she could have added another dimension of similarity between Gimpel and Wilhelm, insofar as g and w alternate in such etymologically-related pairs as guard-warden, war-guerre, and Guillaume-William. Wirth-Nesher reads Seize the Day as no less than a "translation" (108) of Gimpel the Fool, explaining how carpe them gives way to traditional morality.

As already noted with respect to Chad Godya, Wirth-Nesher exploits well what she refers to as "eye dialect" (83), the actual (and often impressionistic, and definitely unscholarly) transcriptions of Yiddish, Aramaic and Hebrew in the texts she studies. For example, Wirth-Nesher shares with us a gleaning from her consultation of Henry Roth's manuscript: the echad or echaud of the Sh'ma is corrected into ehod, apparently to make the rhyme with God clearer (91). …

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