Call It Sleep, a novel about a Jewish immigrant, portrays in a striking manner the emotional turmoil of a 10-year-old in the slums of New York. David Scheart, the protagonist, represents the entire section of immigrant Jewish population left to survive in a totally alien environment. The novel, at the same time, speaks of despair and hope. The novel is more of an autobiography with Henry bringing out his own experience in the streets of New York.
David Scheart is lost in the streets of New York and faces the discrimination and exploitation, which is common to all immigrant Jews. David has problems not only adjusting to the American life but also from his abusive father. An early maturity is forced on him in that he has to fend for himself at an early age. The hardships faced by immigrants, both physical and emotional, are portrayed in a striking manner. David manages to go through the struggles of daily life as best as could be expected of him.
Another blow strikes him when he learns of his mother’s affair with one of his father’s friends. He is often haunted by the issue of his belonging. David’s yearning for freedom symbolically represents every Jew’s aspiration of freedom. Roth uses both Yiddish and English in this novel. The Yiddish phrases represent his religion and culture while his English symbolizes the loss of a cultural identity. The little English David speaks is picked up from the slums of New York. This novel depicts the problem of assimilation in New York’s Lower East Side.
Throughout the novel, Roth alludes to many well-known Jewish texts to emphasize the Jewish faith and at the same time it contrasts with the Christian setting which David is exposed to in the school. The use of Yiddish phrase had a great appeal. Roth focused more on the psychological aspect of his characters. He wanted to focus on his individual artistry rather than n the Zionist movement. Although, he did not have the liberty to express his thoughts the way he wanted, which prevented him from writing for many years.
Though Call It Sleep did well in spite of the Great Depression, not all American Jewish novels were that lucky. There was a time when publishers were apprehensive and avoided Jewish novels as being non-commercial. But later, a reversal of trend set in with the publishers on the hunt for novels with American Jewish plots. Many novels are being written by non-Jewish writers with their plots centered on a Jewish protagonist. Often, the plots are neutral bearing no prejudice to anything religious.
Though there might be elements of Zionism in the Jewish American novels, an average reader could easily make out that these aspects come as a part of the theme and not meant to be degradative. Even with Call It Sleep, there were some critics who felt the novel to be biased. All great works will be subject to severe criticism, but it is the overall opinion which counts, and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, with its symbolic references to the Jewish beliefs, is nothing short of a classic. Thus, American Jewish novels had all the elements of a good novel, purity, profanity, hope, despair, friendship, and religion.
So, religion was just another essential element of the novel. The Zionist movement though included in the novel was neutral to a very great degree. Of course, there are criticisms of the novels being biased, but the accusation is just minimal, with the overall view being positive.
Roth H. , Call It Sleep, Picador, 2005 Roth P. The Chosen, Ballantine, New York, 1967 Roth P. Operation Shylock, Simon&Schuster, New York 1993 Kurshan. I. , SparkNote on The Chosen [Electronic Version] Retrieved on May 6, 2007 from http://www.litencyc.com/