Alan Mintz, one of America’s foremost scholars of modern Hebrew literature, died on Saturday at the age of sixty-nine. Last month, he published in Mosaic a personal essay on his career studying, teaching, and speaking the language that, as “the portable component of the Jewish national idea,” was to him a constant and sustaining “source of nourishment and delight”:
In my third year as a graduate student in English at Columbia University, I came to a life-changing conclusion: as much as I enjoyed studying Victorian literature, I couldn’t see myself devoting my life to it. My real passion lay instead with the study of Jewish and Hebraic culture. After finishing my Columbia doctorate in the late 1970s and sampling different sub-specialties in Jewish studies—midrash, medieval Hebrew poetry, and others—I settled on modern Hebrew literature.
By that time, my Hebrew was quite good, at least for someone who had never previously aspired to be a scholar in the field. In fact, it was a source of some pride. The Conservative movement’s Hebrew school I had attended as a child in Worcester, MA had been staffed by committed Hebraists; entering college, I saw my future role in life as a rabbi or a Jewish educator, and at the summer camp where I served as a counselor during my college years, Hebrew was the semi-official language. By then, I could not only read texts in Hebrew but speak the language confidently—or so I thought. But once I decided to profess Hebrew, the rules of the game changed demonstrably. The glass that had been half-full now seemed, in my own eyes, half-empty.
I say “in my own eyes” because much of the anxiety I would experience as an American Hebrew speaker, and to some degree still experience as a long-time professor of Hebrew literature, has come from my sense of exposure to the judgment of others. . . .