Call It English

Call It English: The Languages of Jewish American Literature

Hana Wirth-Nesher
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 240
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7rjdp
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  • Book Info
    Call It English
    Book Description:

    Call It Englishidentifies 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 Englishtells 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 Englishresounds also with pertinence to other minority and ethnic literatures in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2953-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Accent Marks: Writing and Pronouncing Jewish America PRONOUNCING AMERICA, WRITING JEWISH: ABRAHAM CAHAN, DELMORE SCHWARTZ, GRACE PALEY, BERNARD MALAMUD
    (pp. 1-31)

    For decades, a New York–based radio station whose multilingual broadcasts served the needs of immigrant communities would identify itself in the following words: “This is WEVD, the station that speaksyourlanguage.” For most of the Jewish listeners, this meant Yiddish. During the first half of the twentieth century, Yiddish fueled the immigrant and second generation community, with daily newspapers, theaters, novels, poetry, folksongs, and radio programs such as those on WEVD. All of this has been well documented, and all of this is history. In recent years, New York City subways have displayed bold posters of the American...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “I like to shpeak plain, shee? Dot’sh a kin’ a man I am!” SPEECH, DIALECT, AND REALISM: ABRAHAM CAHAN
    (pp. 32-51)

    In Abraham Cahan’s first English novel, a Russian Jewish immigrant renames himself Jake, a common practice among immigrants bent on Americanization. On the opening pages ofYekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, one of his fellow sweatshop operators addresses Yekl by his chosen name—“‘SayDzake’”¹— so that the very first words of dialogue on the printed page call attention to the accented speech of these immigrants in their newly acquired language. Neither the presser, nor Jake himself, can pronounce the proud sign of his American identity. “Dzake,” the sign of Yekl’s efforts to enter English-speaking America, is...

  7. CHAPTER 3 “I learned at least to think in English without an accent” LINGUISTIC PASSING: MARY ANTIN
    (pp. 52-75)

    Few sentences in the repertoire of Jewish American literature have resounded as much as the opening line from the prologue to theThe Promised Land, published in 1912. “I was born, I have lived, and I have been made over . . . I am as much out of the way as if I were dead, for I am absolutely other than the person whose story I have to tell.”¹ Having immigrated to the United States from Russia at the age of twelve, Mary Antin claims from the very outset that her autobiography is a story of death and rebirth....

  8. CHAPTER 4 “Christ, it’s a Kid!”—Chad Godya. JEWISH WRITING AND MODERNISM: HENRY ROTH
    (pp. 76-99)

    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 fromchederlost 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...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “Here I am!”—Hineni PARTIAL AND PARTISAN TRANSLATIONS: SAUL BELLOW
    (pp. 100-126)

    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 inCall It Sleepprovides...

  10. CHAPTER 6 “Aloud she uttered it”—השם—Hashem PRONOUNCING THE SACRED: CYNTHIA OZICK
    (pp. 127-148)

    As we have seen, Bellow’s work preserves traces of both Yiddish and Hebrew as markers of ethnicity and collective memory, the former a sociohistorical marker of the world of his grandparents, eastern European Jewish culture, and the latter as a transhistorical marker of Jewish civilization embedded in ancient texts and in ritual. What Cynthia Ozick shares with Bellow is the experience of being a native-born American from an immigrant household with Yiddish as the language of home. Like Bellow, she has also translated Yiddish literature into English. But Ozick has sustained an intense interest in the process of translation, so...

  11. 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
    (pp. 149-176)

    In bothThe ShawlandThe 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...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 177-202)
  13. Works Cited
    (pp. 203-214)
  14. Index
    (pp. 215-224)