By David Biale, University of California, Davis
The world of Jewish Studies lost one its most urbane and sensitive readers of Hebrew literature with the death of Alan Mintz due to an unexpected heart attack. Alan belonged to those American scholars of Jewish Studies, like Robert Alter and Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, whose Hebrew came initially from Camp Ramah rather than from primary immersion in Israeli culture (he was not ashamed to admit that he did not feel entirely at home in contemporary colloquial Hebrew). And, indeed, one of his key agendas was to make the breadth of Hebrew literature accessible and relevant to an American audience.
Those who met Alan for the first time formed an impression of an unassuming and modest intellectual devoid of academic pretensions. That impression was not mistaken but there was much more beneath the surface. He was deeply passionate about his scholarly and Jewish commitments and was also a principled activist. Already in the 1960s, he issued a clarion call for the Jewish community to oppose the Vietnam War. He was a leading voice in the Jewish counter-culture of that age and was one of the founders of the journal Response Magazine and of the New York Havurah. In 1971, he co-edited with Jim Sleeper the pathbreaking anthology, The New Jews. Like many of these “new Jews,” Alan’s involvement in the field of Jewish Studies, starting in the 1970s helped shape a field that was still in its infancy in North America.
But his academic path did not start out in Jewish Studies or Hebrew literature. Born in Worcester, MA and educated at Columbia University, he trained as a scholar of English literature. His first book, George Eliot and the Novel of Vocation (1978), based on his dissertation, established his reputation in that field. His shift into Hebrew literature was a kind of homecoming as he brought his newly forged scholarly tools to bear on the subject that was of passionate personal interest as an undergraduate. His training in literary studies stood him in excellent stead as he took up the corpus of Hebrew literature. His acutely attuned readings of this literature reflected both his knowledge of the Hebrew canon and his skills as a literary critic. With his older colleague in the field, Robert Alter, also trained in European literature, Alan created a singularly American way of reading Hebrew literature.
In fact, in 1993, Alan edited a collection of essays exploring different facets of Hebrew language and literature in America. His introduction insists that Hebrew in America had its own character and, even if eclipsed by Hebrew in the State of Israel, it still had and has a role to play in modern Jewish culture. Alan’s own scholarly agenda may be understood as playing that role. In 2011, he published Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry. And, in addition to his books and articles, with David Roskies, he co-founded Prooftexts, a flagship journal for the study of Jewish literature.
Alan’s first monograph after he turned to Hebrew literature was Ḥurban (1984) a sweeping and ambitious survey of Jewish responses to catastrophe over the whole range of Jewish literature. Clearly inspired by the new interest in the literature of the Holocaust, Alan insisted that the recent literature must be understood on the backdrop of a long history, going back to responses to the destruction of the two Temples, the Crusader massacres and the pogroms of the early twentieth century. Ḥurban, which deals deliberately only with Hebrew writings, appeared at approximately the same time as David Roskies’ study of Yiddish literature of catastrophe, Against the Apocalypse, and Alan recognized his friend and colleague’s work as the companion to his own. In his Stromm Lectures in 1996 (Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America, 2001), Alan would return to responses to the Holocaust in a series of meditations about how that event has been refracted in American popular culture.
In 1989, Alan retrained his sights on the nineteenth century and the literature, much of it autobiographical and semi-autobiographical, of generational revolt in Eastern European Hebrew literature. Banished from Their Father’s Table takes on a key theme in the literature of Haskalah and its nationalist successor and dissects the way the revolt of the sons against the fathers both caused and was shaped by the loss of religious faith. This was another of Alan’s preoccupations: how did Hebrew literature both reflect and give rise to a secular, even heretical, consciousness, even as it remained rooted in a language nourished by religion. As a person deeply committed to Jewish tradition as practice, Alan was fascinated by the many ways tradition could produce its own negation out of itself.
In the last decade, Alan returned again and again to Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the writer whose own works walk the fine line between tradition and heresy. Alan believed that Agnon had something to teach American Jews, quite apart from the way he is read in contemporary Israel. He became particularly fascinated with Agnon’s last major work, Ir u-Melo’a, stories about Agnon’s native Galicia. In the last year of his life, he published a critical translation with introduction of this massive work and, a scant few weeks before his death, his own critical study of Agnon’s book, Ancestral Tales: Reading the Buczacz Stories of S.Y. Agnon (2017). In this wonderfully rich work, Alan struck out in a new scholarly direction by situating Agnon’s stories in the actual history of Buczacz and Galicia. In order to do so, he participated in a working group at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies, traveled to do research on Buczacz, and, pointing ahead toward future work on Agnon, he had planned a trip to Leipzig, Germany to investigate Agnon’s stay in that city. Throughout this work, he remained fascinated by how Agnon’s decision to memorialize his home town with stories from its history had to be understood against the backdrop of the literature of catastrophe with which Alan himself started his career in Hebrew literature.
Alan Mintz taught in three institutions of higher education: the University of Maryland, Brandeis and, since 2001, Jewish Theological Seminary. Shortly after joining JTS, he gave a widely-attended address at the Association for Jewish Studies annual conference at which he confessed to his relief in leaving behind the culture wars of the American academy so that he could teach Hebrew literature without apology to those who cared deeply about it. The talk generated much controversy. Was he advocating a retreat into “the ghetto?” Yet such a reading would be deeply mistaken, for Alan’s whole career, indeed, his very life was shaped at one and the same time by Jewish culture and the culture of contemporary America. As such, he represented one of the finest models for all of us in the field.