In Call It English, Israel-based literary scholar Hana Wirth-Nesher reveals how an allusion-rich swirl of Jewish languages— including Hebrew, Aramaic, Polish, German, English, and, above all, Yiddish— marks a range of Jewish American literature with what she calls “accents” — “multilingual overtones” that an alert reader needs to be attuned to. In chapters on early immigrant writers Abraham Cahan and Mary Antin, as well as those on later figures like Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick, Wirth-Nesher displays an often astonishing talent as a close reader of literary texts, showing how even a single word or phrase can conjure an alternate aural-linguistic landscape, sounding a zone of meaning expressive of what she calls “the interface between race and culture.”
To be sure, with its intense interpretive pressure on specific literary works — for example the deeper meanings of the soulful Yiddish “Ach!” in Grace Paley’s wonderful short story “The Loudest Voice,” or the various allusions to the Bible and the Haggadah in a “modernist” text like Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (about which Wirth- Nesher makes the grand statement that Roth’s “rich interlingual word play…opens up a new cultural and linguistic space, bringing Jewish American literature into being”) or the implied liturgical dimension of Ozick’s morally Jewish fiction—Call It English is a book designed primarily for scholars in the field.
Still, for those readers who wish to sharpen their ears to the linguistic resonances to be (over)heard in the “accents” that appear everywhere in the major Jewish American writers, Call It English offers a challenging— and richly rewarding — exercise in close, culturally- attuned reading.
Dina Weinstein is a Richmond, Virginia-based writer.