Category Archives: Jewish-American Literature and Culture

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (02 December 2010)

****SPOILER WARNING*****READ NO FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE NOVEL AND PLAN TO READ IT.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is like no other book I have read to date. Foer transcends the boundaries of his medium by including unusual narrative devices such as images, blank pages, different type sets, absence of punctuation, circling of words in red, codes, items from the story such as business cards and receipts, and an ingenius, 12-page flip book at the end of the book. Although some critics would disagree, I think all these visual stimuli contribute to what is written in the book and in some instances they substitue what cannot be said or expressed in words. Foer’s literary artistry and ingenuity is one of the many reasons why I adore this book and why I struggled to put it down once I commenced reading it. I read this book from cover to cover in one sitting, which is something I normally don’t do, and as I approached the end of the book I didn’t want it to end because I had become fully sutured into Oskar Schell’s world.

Oskar Schell is a unique, humorous and gifted nine year old boy from New York whose father, Thomas Schell, died in the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The treasure hunt expedition game that Oskar and his Dad used to play when he was alive continues after his death as Oskar embarks on a mission to find the lock for the key he discovers inside a vase, sealed in an envelope with the word ‘Black’ written on it. Oskar is convenced his father has left him this clue to solve, but in reality this game is a figement of Oskar’s infantile imagination, which becomes a journey of self-exploration and discovery as he attempts to accept and come to terms with the trauma of lossing his father. This game his imagination constructs becomes a means of transcending grief and maintaining a connection with his father, whose death haunts his consciousness. Oskar keeps a journal and the pictures he takes and adds to it are included in the novel.

However, the trauma of 9/11 and Thomas Schell’s death is not the only trama in the novel. Oskar’s grandparents are both survivors of the Dresden Bombings of WWII and their love affair is reunited when they meet in America. These two alternate story lines run parallel throughout the course of the novel but they eventually merge at the end, with a startling revelation that Oskar’s grandfather hadn’t left and had been present in his grandmother’s house all along. Oskar’s grandfather’s withdrawal from the world, and his psychosomatic speech loss are symptoms of his trauma. His inability to communicate implies the inability to express trauma which is a contentious topic among critics of trauma fiction.

Some scholars of trauma studies consider trauma fiction to be a paradox because if the experience of a traumatic event cannot be expressed in language or representation then how can it be narrativized in fiction? (Whitehead 3). This is where critics of Foer’s novel come down hardest on his work. However, Anne Whitehead in her book, Trauma Fiction contends that trauma theory provides new methods of conceptualizing trauma, and suggests that the focus is shifted to why the past is remembered.

Consequently, Trauma studies is an area of research I am interested in. I think Foer conveys Oskar and his grandparents’ trauma well through the utilisation of narrative devices like the few pages of code that represent what Oskar’s grandfather has dialed into the phone dial in an attempt to comunicate without language. The difficulties with representing trauma with language is suggested by the blank pages in the novel that Oskar’s grandmother creates by forgetting to put the typewriter ribbon in before she commences typing. As well as that, I think Foer’s amalgamation of humour and sadness counterbalances each other to create an emotional engaging novel that takes the reader on a memorable, roller coster journey with a unexpected, cathartic climax.

Works Cited

Whitehead, Anne. Trauma Fiction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBkvw6LGxSo.%5D


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Gold by Name but None by Nature: Michael Gold’s Jews Without Money.

Although Jews Without Money (1930) is classed as a proletarian novel, I think its admirability is not due to its proletarian nature. This novel is a tribute to the ability of people, in this case especially Jews, who transcend their circumstances in order to create a life for themselves.

Jews Without Money is a pseudo-autobiographical, fictionalized account of Michael Gold’s growing up in the Lower East Side, his conversion to communism that ends with a temporal leap to his present vision of how to liberate oneself from social injustice and poverty. The novel does not contain a coherent narrative, but rather a series of impressionistic snapshots or vignettes of the Jewish immigrant experience, their daily struggle for survival in the inhospitable environment of America. Although their is an absence of subsistence, there is not an absence of community as they band together in order triumph over their conditions, which suggests that materiality does not define their humanity, but rather their spirit.

What is most remarkable about Gold’s novel is his lurid depiction of the conditions of poverty and the underbelly of New York City’s ethnic neighbourhood. Gold captures it all from the criminals, prostitues and gangs to the vile, infestation of bed bugs in the tenements of the Lower East Side. Subsequently, the vivid picture Gold paints has attracted accusations of sensationalism from critics of the novel.

As the tile of the novel suggests, Gold’s objective is to deconstruct the stereotypical image of the rich Jew by narrativizing the poverty-stricken conditions that the majority of Jewish immigrants grew up in.


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Call It Spectacular: Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (16 November 2010)

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is a remarkable book, depicting a realistic chronicle of the Jewish immigrant experience in America, through the infantile eyes and stream-of-consciousness of David Schearl. With two intertwining stories, the novel immerses the reader deep in the world of New York’s immigrant ghettos, and David and his family’s daily struggle with attempting to acclimatize to their harsh and foreign milieu.

David’s first experience of America becomes a microcosmic specular reflection of every immigrants’ experience, which we as readers become part of. Reading this book is a willful, submission of one’s mind to the literary mediumship of David’s consciousness, which at first feels peculiar as one readjusts to a puerile perception of the world, but the further one reads the more one becomes enveloped in his state of consciousness. David’s struggle with America, its streets, languages and people become our struggle because as readers we are immigrants or tourists in the foreign world of David’s consciousness. We are reading this novel in our familiar tongue of English, but it is narrated from the perspective of a foreign narrator, who is attempting to comprehend the foreign language and world of America, in Yiddish. Roth turns the scales, by positioning the English-speaking reader in the role of a foreigner, akin to David.

The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is poetic English, while spoken English is portrayed with a Yiddish inflection. In the Introduction to Call It Sleep, Alfred Kazin claims that “Roth caricatures the terrible English […] in order to bring out the necessary contrast with the Yiddish spoken at home” (xv). This is true to a certain extent, but if we analyse Roth’s use of English closely then an alternative reading may be formed. The language of David’s stream-of-consciousness is Yiddish, but it is translated and written for the reader in English. Therefore, it could be interpreted as not legitimate English or David’s English because he is not communicating his thoughts in English. They are translated into English for us, while the English dialogue in the text is not translated and is spoken in English with a Yiddish lint.

This interplay with language provides a glimpse of the struggle Roth and many other writers of immigrant texts face when attempting to convey a multi-lingual world with a mono- or bi-lingual means of expression. The difficulties of this is also implied further from the semantic ambiguity of the bilingual punning of David’s name, which means different things in Yiddish and Hebrew. In Hebrew, David means ‘beloved’, while in Yiddish David means ‘scissors’.

This role-reversal of native and foreigner is one of the outstanding accomplishments of Roth’s novel, which also evokes the use of these two binaries in American society. Can an American be considered a true native of America, if they are merely descendants of European immigrants who invaded the native land of the indigenous people? Are Americans not all in the same boat (pardon the immigration-connoting pun), with regards being foreigners and immigrants? I find this concept particularly interesting because my research interests include Native American literature and culture, colonialism and post-colonialism.

What is also worth noting about Call it Sleep, in comparison to other immigrant stories, is the juxtaposition of the old world with the new world. David’s infantile amnesia prevents him from fully remembering his country of birth and he is left with only vague memories. His experience of the new world, however, is still foreign, which situates him in the immigrant status as his parents. David’s conceptualisation of the old world is shaped by his parents’ and family’s recollections of it. The subtle contrasts between the old and the new world reveals Roth’s attitudes towards them.

Since the majority of the novel is communicated from David’s perspective, there is an absence of an omniscient narrator to provide us with a total view of the immigrant ghetto of New York City. As readers, therefore, we are provided with a fragmented and restricted view of America and American society.

From the culmination of themes towards the end of the novel, however, critics interpret the railroad tracks scene as a moment of transformation, rebirth or redemption. Hana Wirth-Nesher claims that “David becomes a naturalized American by becoming a Christ symbol (460). This is plausible to the extent that David’s fascination with Christian symbolism and ritual objects that litter the novel. If David’s near-death experience on the railroad tracts could be read as similar to Jesus’s self-sacrifice then this reading could be interpreted negatively as condemning Jesus’s actions. David’s actions if fulfilled could have resulted in his death, which may be classed as suicide, but he failed to achieve divine communion. Therefore, his actions were in vain.

Consequently, Call It Sleep provides an insightful depiction of the immigrant experience, especially the Jewish immigrant experience, in America. Although there are certain scenes in the book that could be edited because they are protracted, overall it is a spectacularly vivid read.

Works Cited

Kazin, Alfred. Introduction. Roth Call It Sleep ix-xx.

Roth, Henry. Call It Sleep. New York: Picador, 1991. Print.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “Between Mother Tongue and Native Language in Call It Sleep.” Afterword. Roth Call It Sleep 443-462.


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Jewish American Literature and Culture 05 October 2010


Immigration, Jewish American culture and literature were the topics of discussion in the first class of the Strand A section of our course. Photographs of immigrants, immigrant conditions on board the ships and immigrants passing through Ellis Island’s quarantine provided a starting point for our discussion.


Figure 2 & 3: Photograph of immigrants on board ship and Ellis Island quarantine. Blackboard Lecture Slides.

The photographs in Figure 2 & 3 visually convey the hardship and degradation of immigration that is conveyed verbally through the words of Anzia Yezierska in Bread Givers.


Although Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky is classed as the primary Yiddish novel in America, I think Yezierska’s masterpiece is more deserving of the title. This is not simply because it provides a first-hand, personal observation of an immigrants lifestyle in the Lower East Side of New York from a semi-autobiographical, Jewish perspective, but also because of the reciprocal interplay of language. The languages shift from Yiddish to English is symptomatic of the process of progressive assimilation. The language in the novel is profoundly Jewish, even though it is written in English. Yezierska’s ability to express the rhythms of Yiddish syntax surpasses Jewish American novelists such as Bernard Malamud and Henry Roth. Yezierska’s first generation English is apparent from the domination of her mame-loshn (mother tongue) on her English sentence structure.

The characters in Bread Givers give the reader a taste of the language from the Yiddish inflection they speak with, but the narrative voice is also at times expressed with a Yiddish lilt. One example of this is when Sara says “exchange with them my thoughts, break with them bread at their tables” (…). Yezierska’s positioning of “with them” prior to the noun instead of after it may not only lead to syntactic ambiguity, but it also demonstrates the interaction of bilingualism on her writing.

Consequently, despite the numerous typographical errors littering the novel that the publishers claim have been amended, Bread Givers is a superb text recounting the immigrant experience with an emotionally, evocative style. It immerses its reader in the world of Sara’s struggles and her acclimatization to her harsh, foreign milieu.

Works Cited
Lazarus, Emma. “The New Colossus.” Xerox.
Yezierska, Anna. Bread Givers. New York: Peresa Books, 1999. Print.

Progressive Era (1890-1920)

 


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