Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

By Hana Wirth-Nesher | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
“Christ, it's a Kid!”—Chad Godya
JEWISH WRITING AND MODERNISM: HENRY ROTH

The letters of the Jews are black and clean
And lie in chain-line over Christian pages.

The letters of the Jews are dancing knives
That carve the heart of darkness seven ways.

—Karl Shapiro, “The Alphabet” (1958)

A fiery figure sat astride a fish. “G-e-e-e o-o-o d-e-e-e-!” The
voice spelled out.

—Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)

ON A LATE FRIDAY AFTERNOON, an old woman in a black satin dress covered by a striped blue and white apron approaches eight-year-old David Shearl on a street on New York's Lower East Side. He is returning from cheder lost in thought. She has just lit the Sabbath candles before lighting her gas stove, and needs someone to do it for her, preferably a Gentile. “Little boy,” she says. He vaguely hears her address to him, but he can identify the language, “The words were in Yiddish.” “'Little boy.' She repeated in a quavering treble … 'Are you a Jew?' For a fleeting instant, David wondered how he could have understood her if he hadn't been a Jew.”1 It is a simple equation for him in his New York neighborhood in the early decades of the century: she speaks Jewish, he understands Jewish. They are Jews. Yet speaking Jewish in David's world is not limited to the Yiddish language. Several years earlier he loses his way in Brownsville because the Yiddish pronunciation of his street address as “Boddeh Stritt” is unintelligible to passersby as well as to the policeman who corrects him with an Irish inflection, “Bahrdee Street!” David insists on “Boddeh Stritt” until “the helmeted one barked good-naturedly, 'Be-gob he'll be havin' me talk like a Jew, Sure!'” Talking like a Jew, then, is both talking the language of Jews, Yiddish, and talking English the way Jews talk it, as heard by Gentile American ears.

Moreover, the language of the Jews is also marked by another feature that Roth inscribes into Call It Sleep, the special relation to the written Jewish word, highlighted in this novel by another Sabbath prohibition. Just as the old woman in the previous scene does not light her gas stove once she has ushered in the Sabbath by speaking the benediction over the candles, one of the boys

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