Traces of the past: Multilingual Jewish American writing

Hana Wirth-Nesher*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Take an old Jewish book – take the Bible, the most famous of all books – and you will see that one language has never been enough for the Jewish people. (Shmuel Niger, Bilingualism in the History of Jewish Literature, 11) Far beyond the lights of Jersey, Jerusalem still beckons us, in tongues. (Linda Pastan, “Passover,” Jewish-American Literature, 432) For decades, a New York-based radio station whose multilingual broadcasts served the needs of immigrant communities would identify itself in the following words: “This is WEVD, the station that speaks yourlanguage.” For most of the Jewish listeners, this meant Yiddish. During the first half of the twentieth century, Yiddish fueled the immigrant and second-generation community, with daily newspapers, theatres, novels, poetry, folksongs, and radio programs such as those on WEVD. All of this has been well documented, and all of this is history. In recent years, New York City subways have displayed bold posters of the American flag in the shape of an Aleph (first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), sporting a banner with the words, “Read Hebrew America.” By dialing a simple toll-free number, 1-800-444-HEBRE(W), anyone can acquire information at any time about free classes in “the language of our people.” But what does “speaking your language” mean in these two advertisements, or in Jewish American culture more generally over the past century? In one case, Yiddish is a sign of the Old World, of an immigrant community tuning in to WEVD as a form of nostalgia. In the other, Hebrew is a sign of an even older identity, not of family history but of ancient history, not of relatives but of ancestors. One is listening, the other is reading; one is remembering, the other is re-enacting; one is Yiddishkeit, the other is Judaism.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9780511998751
ISBN (Print)0521796997, 9780521792936
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2003


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