I am that rare specimen among American Jews of my generation who are of Ashkenazi (Eastern European) descent: two of my grandparents were born in this country. Regaled as a child with stories of how my Amerikaner-geboren grandmother opened her home to the greenhorns from the old country, I nevertheless had little appreciation for the immigrant experience until I read the 1934 novel Call it Sleep, by Henry Roth. I stumbled across the book about twenty years ago, precisely at the point of being ready to open a chapter, if you will, of my own history. I’d become drawn to Jewish-American literature and was researching the subject to prepare myself to teach a course on it when I found a tattered paperback of this novel among the used books in the Friends of the Durham County Library annual sale. Stuck among the romances, with their provocative covers, the novel called out to me: Take me! Have I got a deal for you! (It was only a quarter.) Never was a book so alluring: it demanded my choosing, and I’ve been wedded to it ever since.
Call it Sleep engages me on many levels. I like to talk about the structure and the imagery, and about the Freudian undertones. But I like most to read the novel as a book about Jews in America, and about their (several) languages. Given the fact that the name Kitty O’Shea is written on the flyleaf of my dog-eared copy, I know that all kinds of people read and probably enjoy this book. But for me it served as a passage to a heritage. Call it Sleep? I call it Wonderful!