Call it Eng­lish: The Lan­guages of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Literature

Hana Wirth-Nesh­er
  • Review
By – June 25, 2012
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.

Discussion Questions