Henry Roth was born in what is now called Ukraine but moved to the US in 1908. Much of his early life was spent in the Jewish ghettos of New York. Call it Sleep was published in 1934 when it received mixed reviews. For the next sixty years, Roth published nothing, suffering from a massive writer’s block. In 1964, Call It Sleep appeared as a reprint. It received tremendous acclaim which had escaped it when it was first published. Roth became a celebrity writer though he did not like the loss of privacy it entailed. Today, Call It Sleep is considered a masterpiece of modern Jewish writing.
Relevance of the Title
The words “Call It Sleep” appear right at the end of the novel, hinting at a rapprochement between David and his father, Albert. Albert has often suspected that David was son of a Gentile with whom his wife had an affair before she married him. Though there is no basis for such an accusation, it was true that Genya did have an affair. David spends most of his childhood in fear of his father’s brutal temper; the great blessing in his life is the close bond between mother and son. At the end of the story, when David is brought back home from the hospital after receiving a near fatal electric shock, Albert is contrite. He wonders whether his cruelty towards David had driven him to attempt suicide. Genya tries to pacify him by saying that she is also perhaps responsible for what has happened. A great peace, akin to renewing sleep, descends upon David. He remarks, “he might as well call it sleep”
An individual’s identity is made up of several layers. Often, some of these are obscure or even conflicting. David is a Jew from Galicia and grows up in a close community where only Yiddish is spoken. When he begins school, he gets to hear and later speak English. When he begins religious teaching in the Jewish school, he becomes aware of his religion. Later influences like Catholic Church make their mark on David’s mind. David is receptive to apparatuses of faith like the rosary and the cross though they are not part of Judaism.
David’s parents travel all the way from Galicia, which was part of the present Ukraine, to the United States believing that the new country held opportunities lacking in their own. They did not know the language, had no friends, yet took that leap of faith. America did not disappoint then. Though they lived in a ghetto where only Yiddish was spoken and hardships were aplenty, there was no lack of opportunities for jobs. In spite of his temper and lack of polish, Albert is able to quit one job and find another with no time lost.
David arrives in New York leaving behind Russia. Accompanied by his mother, he joins his father who has been in America for a while. There is tension in the air as the family meet; David’s father is harsh with his son who he suspects to be the offspring of a man with whom his wife had an affair before she married him. David is very close to his mother who tries to be a buffer between the son and father. David is precocious and it is through his eyes and intellect that we learn about life in the Jewish ghetto. David begins schooling and it is not very long before he loses his innocence. Friends like Leo and the girl from the neighborhood teach Davis what life is all about. David learns about Catholicism and the harsh but exciting world of adolescence. When the story ends, David and his father Albert have made a tenuous peace.
Genya Schearl is David’s mother who dotes on her son. It is obvious from the beginning that she does not think much about her husband. She is submissive as that is the best way to protect the boy. Though she has no contact with the man she loved before she got married to Albert, she discusses those times with her sister. She tries to placate her husband but is not always successful. Genya deserved a better husband. Luter, her husband’s boss tries to seduce her but she will not have any of him.
There is nothing to like in Albert. He has had a hard time in the US, working and saving up for his family’s passage to New York. He is insecure and suspicious, his son, he believes, is the offspring of the man with whom his wife has had an affair before their marriage. There is no ground for this belief; people often remark on the strong physical resemblance between father and son. Albert insecurities come out in the form of violence that he unleashes on his son. It is only at the end when David is hurt that Albert realizes that he has not been a good father or a good husband.
Call It Sleep is all about the experiences of David Schearl, a young Jewish immigrant from Russia, newly arrived in New York. When he and his mother, Genya arrive in Ellis island, the landing point for all refugees, the cold welcome they receive from Albert, the man of the family is in sharp contrast from the love and joy that mark reunions all around them. Albert is a complex man; he is insecure and suspicious. He wonders whether David is indeed his son. Albert is quick to violence and Genya has to be extra protective of her son. The arrival of Bertha, his mother’s sister worsens the tension in the family. David overhears his mother and sister discussing an affair that Genya had before she married Albert. This information confuses David though he loves his mother with a fierce intensity.
David begins his religious education with Rabbi Yidel who identifies David as an exceptional student of Hebrew. David is curious to know more of the story of Isiah that was told in the school. During the holidays, he accompanies some children from the slum to the electrified railway tracks. Coaxed by them to drop a piece of zinc on to the tracks, David witnesses an explosion of light that, in his mind, becomes associated with the power of God.
He knows that his father is a violent man; but now he understands that at work too, he is vicious. His father’s co-workers relate about his murderous temper. Bertha gets married to Nathan who has two daughters, Polly and Esther. David is befriended by a young Catholic boy Leo, who has his eyes on the girls. On day taking advantage of the situation, Leo rapes Esther. David comes to know of this but is terrified of his father’s reaction. He tells the Rabbi a garbled story which the Rabbi takes to Albert and Genya. When David arrives home, Albert is at the height of his fury. When he begins thrashing David, though he has not helped Leo to commit the crime, David runs away from home. He arrives at the electrified railway tracks. He remembers the incident when he had dropped zinc on the tracks. I his mind, the light is associated with God. Now he wants that light to purify him. When he touches the tracks with a piece of wire, electricity surges through him fortunately knocking him off. Passers-by pick him up and take him home. Seeing him being carried home by strangers, Albert is contrite and a fragile peace descends on the household.