Lyrical Voices of Zion

Alan Mintz's New Book Examines Hebrew Poetry in America

By Jerome Chanes

Published May 12, 2012, issue of May 18, 2012.
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As well as providing notes on the styles and significance of the writers, their biographies and their milieu, the literary selections in “Sanctuary in the Wilderness” serve as a chrestomathy of American Hebrew literature. Deftly curated and lovingly translated by Mintz, selections from the poetry are what make these chapters work. Preil (1911–1993), as bearer of the romantic Hebraism of his Lithuanian ancestors, expresses these connections when he compares himself with his grandfather, the rabbi of Kovno, who embodied the traits associated with Eastern European intellectual Orthodoxy. In “His and Mine,” Preil calls upon the reader to “See grandfather as a young man in his Lithuanian shtetl. / His habit was to rise early every morning / and after prayers he would write down his Torah insights / … See me as a young man on American soil / Not exactly an exceptional creature / who writes his poems in Hebrew. A man/who prays from silence…” Mintz chooses precisely the right poem to invoke “time, place, writing, and the routine of everyday morning” as points of comparison between the two complex lives — the poet and the rabbinic scholar.

Two essays introduce the book, in which Mintz sets a context for the “wilderness” and the “sanctuary” that was provided by America for the writers, and he explores how and why the “apotheosis of Hebrew” happened. The book closes with five essays — each of which alone would be worth the price of admission — that collectively address the question, “Would American Hebrew literature truly be American?” Mintz’s introductory chapters and the closing essays serve as effective “bookends” for the profiles of the 12 authors.

Mintz offers his book as an “academic study,” and it is indeed broad — polymathic, in fact — and deep. But don’t be gulled. Serious, yes, is “Sanctuary in the Wilderness,” but it is wonderfully accessible. Mintz is incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence; the book is a pleasure to read, and the reader will even learn something!

Having said this, Mintz does trip over a few linguistic paperclips. Abraham Zvi Halevi’s marvelous “Hadarim Meruhatim” (“Furnished Rooms”) invokes the fate of Zion in the use of the biblical question “Eicha?” translated by Mintz as simply “How?” But “Eicha?” resonant through thousands of years of Jewish tragedy, means much more: “How could this have possibly happened?” This nuance, crucial to the understanding of Halevi’s poem, is missing. “Khayat Bereshit” (also from Halevi) may mean “prehistoric creature”; more likely it is a borrowing from the Yiddish b’reyshis-dik, which, invoking the biblical narrative of creation, means “primeval” — which, in Halevi’s poem, is suggested by Brooklyn’s hulking Williamsburg Bridge at night. Again, a nuance in translation is missing.

The value of “Sanctuary in the Wilderness” is not that it is a watershed discussion of a literary arena that was forgotten, of writers that we simply did not know we had. Mintz is planting the flag firmly in the soil of American Hebrew poetry; his lucid discussions, however, are but the first step. “Sanctuary in the Wilderness” paves the way for a critical discussion, long overdue, of the poets represented in the volume, and of others in the American Hebrew oeuvre. The process of evaluation of the poets represented in the volume may now begin, and Mintz is the enabler of this process. Mintz’s claim is that our writers need to be refracted through the prism of American Jewish history; they are part of the American story. The American Jewish evaluation, therefore, will necessarily be different from the Israeli, which by virtue of its history and ideological traditions stands by a profoundly different set of evaluative criteria. Literary standards will count for less than national narratives.

Mintz’s peroration to the reader is nuanced, and appropriately so. He disagrees with the monomaniacal view of the American Hebraists that Hebrew is the measure of all things Jewish. (Mintz is spot-on in noting that this monomania was one factor that contributed to the eclipse of the Hebrew literary enterprise.) But Mintz does share the view of the Hebraists that Hebrew is the “deep structure of Jewish civilization, its DNA.” Whatever literary evaluation of American Hebrew poets may transpire, Mintz has revealed their link in this deep chain to our past, and thereby to our future.

Jerome Chanes is a contributing editor to the Forward. He writes about Jewish history, public affairs, and arts and letters.


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