Alan Mintz, Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew Literature, joined the JTS faculty in 2001 after teaching at Brandeis University, University of Maryland, and Columbia University. His current research focuses on Hebrew literature in America and the history of the Hebraist movement during the first half of the 20th century. His most recent book, Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry, is being published by Stanford University Press in the fall of 2011. His current research focuses on the postwar fiction of S. Y. Agnon.
Dr. Mintz directs the Ivriyon Program, a summer Hebrew-immersion program for day school teachers, and is overseeing the implementation of the Hebrew Fellows Program, which encourages students with strong Hebrew skills to participate in programs and courses given in Hebrew, rewarding them with a notation on their diploma and a ticket to Israel. Before becoming a member of the faculty, he had already made an impact at JTS through PROOFTEXTS: A Journal of Jewish Literary History, which he cofounded with David Roskies, JTS professor of Jewish literature, in 1981.
Among his books are Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America (University of Washington Press, 2001), Translating Israel: The Reception of Hebrew Literature in America (Syracuse University Press, 2001), and "Banished From Their Father's Table": Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography (Indiana University Press, 1989). Dr. Mintz is also the editor of Reading Hebrew Literature (Brandeis University Press / University Press of New England, 2002).
Since Jews are the People of the Book, Jewish Studies is already concerned with both primary texts and centuries of commentary in Hebrew, but the academic field of Hebrew Literature is a specific discipline. Please tell us about what distinguishes it from the study of other literatures and from the broader field of Jewish Studies.
Modern Hebrew Literature is only about 200 years old, and the disciplined academic study of Hebrew Literature came along much more recently, in the second half of the 20th century. Yet this modern literature rests on a vast classical foundation, and all serious Jewish Studies scholars have a responsibility to a certain competence with those sources, even if they can never expect to have mastery of them. My doctorate was in English Literature (my first book was a study of the fiction of George Eliot). When I made the transition into Hebrew Literature I immediately felt the enormous burden of the classical tradition in a way I never did when I was studying English.
The English canon doesn't start until after Beowulf and Chaucer; by that time, we had the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, and Maimonides. When I went into Jewish Studies, I had to know how to navigate the entire classical tradition beginning from the Bible through the Rabbinic literature and into medieval. It makes you humble about where you stand in the chain of knowledge and tradition. Even though Hebrew Literature itself is recent, it's really based on everything that came before it.
What sets JTS apart as a place to teach Hebrew Literature?
In many places the teaching of Hebrew/Israeli literature is very much on the defensive. It has to justify its existence in a highly politicized atmosphere. The advantage of teaching Hebrew literature at JTS is that we believe it's important in and of itself. If I were teaching at Columbia, I think I would have to spend much of my time defending the legitimacy of what I'm doing. The study here at JTS of Jewish and Hebrew literature can present itself more organically because it doesn't have to bear that burden of political advocacy and defense.
What impact does your work have on JTS as a whole, beyond the immediate concerns of your field?
JTS is an institution in which Jewish Studies is essentially classical Jewish Studies. Talmud and Bible are the largest departments; they're the most distant from us, and therefore require the most help in understanding them. So modern literature is kind of a latecomer to the party of Jewish knowledge. And it's assumed to be a good thing for students to know Jewish literature, but it does not stand, and it shouldn't stand, in the place of the Bible, Talmud, and other essential texts. The role of Jewish literature is in some sense subversive because modern Jewish culture itself is rebellion against tradition: trying to find a mode of authentic Jewishness after the collapse of the structures of classical Jewish authority. There's an inherent tension between modern Jewish culture and the classical religious tradition. Modern Jewish Literature is a response to the revolutions of modernity and to the painful break from tradition.
One of my roles at JTS is trying to help the institution understand its relationship to Hebrew. A generation ago, when I first came here as a student, all courses in the Teachers Institute and Seminary College, the forerunner of today's List College, were taught in Hebrew. When Gershon Cohen made JTS into more of a university in the '60s and '70s, Hebrew as the language of the institution receded greatly.
When I arrived as a professor, the idea that students should study many of their academic subjects in Hebrew had lost a great deal of ground. So I'm trying to get us to think about what the role of Hebrew should be, how much we should bring back, and what is its educational function There's a great deal of esteem and honor given to Hebrew as a language and as a culture here at JTS, but it's been difficult to find ways to actualize that in the curriculum. I've been trying to make use of that good will and find ways to incorporate Hebrew that are appropriate to what JTS is in the 21st century.
What is the importance of Hebrew Literature beyond the walls of 3080 Broadway?
I think for American Jewry, Hebrew literature is a way of understanding Israel; it's a portal into the inner life of the country and its struggles that can't be gotten from the news. It's also a way of understanding this great moment in the history of the 20th century when most of the Hebrew institutions moved from Europe to Palestine. The sway of traditional Judaism and Jewish life in Europe fell apart and competing ideologies—socialism, Zionism, Bundism—rose. Hebrew literature is also the study of those intellectuals who felt that Hebrew could become a vehicle for modernization and renewal of the Jewish people even before Israel existed.
I think one of the difficult tests for my profession is the current drift away from knowledge of and identification with Israel, especially on the part of young people. For an educated Jew in America, to be able to read a novel in Hebrew, or even a lyric poem, requires a lot of linguistic knowledge, much more than the kind of synagogue skills that would make one a competent congregant or participant in the liturgy. The fact that life takes place in Hebrew in Israel and in English in America is a marker of how Israeli Jewry and American Jewry lead separate and diverging careers. So through the study of Hebrew and Israeli literature, we are trying to create these channels of communication between the two communities.
You're currently working on a couple different books—please tell us about them.
My current project is a study of an epic cycle of stories that S. Y. Agnon wrote about his Galician hometown of Buczacz. Instead of writing about the destruction of East European Jewry, he devoted the last decade of his life to reimagining it through his unique ironic lens.
I have recently completed a book titled Sanctuary and the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry, about Hebrew poets who came to America in the early 20th century, believing there could be a high Hebrew culture here. The movement got its greatest impetus during WWI because the Ottoman Turks had closed down Palestine and most of the leaders had left; many of them were here in New York—David Ben Gurion, Yitzhak Ben Svi, Eliezer Ben Yehuda. With the decimation of Jewish culture and productivity and revolutions and civil wars in the Soviet Union, it wasn't crazy to think New York might be the next place where Hebrew culture would take off because of the relative wealth of the community, the millions of Jews here, the museums and universities, and such.
This attempt to create a serious Hebrew culture in America is something that has been pushed to the margins. Because it stood outside of the Zionist center, there is very little knowledge of it in Israel, and it is also foreign to the many Israelis teaching Hebrew in American universities. Educated people in Jewish Studies know it exists but they think it's just some sort of quaint curiosity. But it was a major movement, and my goal with this book has been to try to bring it back into focus so that we as American Jews can understand that our relationship to Hebrew in America didn't begin with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 but from the beginning of the 20th century and even before.