A Eulogy For Alan Mintz — A Person In His Fullness

Editor’s Note: The following is a eulogy that was delivered at Alan Mintz’s funeral on May 22, 2017.

Alan was my friend, my havér, my colleague, my confidant, my thought-partner, my fellow davener and fellow dreamer. His last great project, which he completed to perfection, was dedicated to Shay Agnon’s long-neglected masterpiece, Ir umelo’ah, A City in Its Fullness. He and Jeffrey Sacks published a 617-page English-language edition of these short stories and novellas, complete with a full-color map that he was so very proud of, followed by a 440-page companion volume called “Ancestral Tales: Reading the Búczacz Stories of S. Y. Agnon,” as only Alan, the consummate reader and consummate writer, could have produced.

Thanks to morenu verabenu, Shay Agnon, we may be able to find the right words to express what Alan Mintz has meant in our lives, and how we might go on without him. Alan, I should like to suggest, was the very embodiment of Ish umelo’o, a person-in-his fullness.

For fifty of his seventy years I had the privilege to share in that fullness. Robbed now of Alan’s physical presence — the office next to mine will be empty when I return in the Fall, as will the seat across from mine in the Minyan room — I am left with this awful and awesome task: to evidence the fullness of his life, even as I refuse to be reconciled to its inexplicable end.

The Ir umeloa’ah project about one small town along the Strippa River freed Alan up to acknowledge the profound role that Agnon played throughout his life and to take stock of his own life in the process. His next major project was to have been an American biography of Agnon. I remember how in a dead heat, Alan wrote a 40-page introductory essay called “Stalking Agnon,” unlike anything he had ever written before, which he shared with his closest friends.

“At the end of my first year [at Columbia],” he wrote, “I discovered the stories of the Hebrew writer S. Y. Agnon, who had just then visited New York after receiving the Nobel Prize in literature. It was a minor moment in my life at the time, but this first exposure to Agnon established a connection that would grow over the years. For much of my life, Agnon was present, even if in the background, as a writer whose works I returned to periodically for my own pleasure and replenishment. More recently, Agnon has become the center of my attention as a critic and scholar, and I have come to believe that much of the future of Jewish culture depends on openness to his work. No less. I am writing this book to explain how Agnon assumed this importance in my life and why his work is crucial to the future of the Jewish people.”

There is no mistaking the cultural self-confidence of Alan’s tone, even as the first-person singular allows him to measure how far he has traveled since that freshman year, when in addition to doing the Core Curriculum at Columbia, he took a course at JTS on modern Hebrew literature taught in Hebrew by Avraham Holtz and came across Agnon for the first time. When, a year later, Alan and a number of friends he had met as counselors at Camp Ramah each put in a hundred dollars to pay for the printing of the first issue of Response Magazine, a student journal that styled itself a “Contemporary Jewish Review,” the second of two articles that he published was titled “Agnon on the Individual and the Community,” a spinoff of the paper he had written for Holtz. With delicious self-irony, and in a breezy style that he never used before, Alan admits that he turned Hananya, the hero of Agnon’s novella In the Heart of the Seas, into a Sixties rebel intent upon defying the organized community. I quote:

In this the first published article of my life — well, self-published, but still — it was Agnon I was trying to present to my peers. Even if I had appropriated ”In the Heart of the Seas” for purposes Agnon could have hardly imagined, it was only as a result of reading the story closely that those purposes occurred to me. Whether or not my reading had any legitimacy, the Agnon text must have contained a sufficient “surplus of meaning” for me to hang my interpretation on it. As I catch a glimpse of myself over fifty years ago, it both astonishes me and reassures me that even at the very beginning of my relationship to Agnon I was trying to fathom the relevance of his work for American Jewry.

Agnon was the source of Alan’s audacity, of his momentous decision to reverse course, after completing a doctorate in Victorian literature at Columbia, to retool as a Judaic scholar and make Hebrew literature and civilization his calling. Agnon was to be the perfect guide, straddling as he did the Old Beit Midrash, Hasidism and Haskalah, Austro-Hungary and Weimar, the old Yishuv, the Zionist settlement and the establishment of the Jewish State. Every step along the way was for Alan a journey of self-discovery, as when he cast his glance backwards to the mid-nineteenth century, to what in Jewish shorthand is called the hurban beit hamidrash, the crisis of traditional faith once centered in the House of Study. That was his book, one of my favorites, “Banished from Their Father’s Table: Loss of Faith and Hebrew Autobiography.”

The deeper Alan immersed himself in modern Hebrew literature, the more he was able to situate himself on the cultural continuum. At first, he was struck by how, as an American Jew born to American parents, the circumstances of his life were so radically different from those of Brenner and Berdyczewski and how he had been shielded from the conditions of moral and spiritual extremity described in their work. In time, however, Alan began to own the critical role that was his to play in the unfolding drama.

Who is a person in his fullness? Someone who combines critical judgment and profound self-knowledge, scholarly dispassion and personal commitment. “I wanted to tell their story for ulterior motives,” he writes about his next book-length project, “Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry.” I quote:

By rendering a vivid account of the Hebraist movement and rearticulating its romantic ideals as well as the logic of its cultural arguments, I hoped to raise the fortunes of Hebrew in America. I wanted to make a persuasive case for Hebrew literacy as a necessary competence for American Jewish leaders. At the same time, I wanted to make my colleagues in Israel acknowledge the importance of the Hebrew literary center that was established here and to right the wrong of its exclusion from the story of modern Hebrew literature.

A person in his fullness is a cultural ambassador, shuttling between home and abroad—and also shuttling between time zones. Just as the European and American chapters of Hebrew drew to a close, a new chapter burst open, which Alan witnessed at close hand and was quick to celebrate in that elegant little book, “The Boom in Contemporary Israeli Fiction.” As a Zionist and lover of Hebrew literature in its fullness, however, he also was in a position to see that all was not well in the state of Israel. The inner drama of Israeli society as depicted in Hebrew fiction was becoming increasingly universal and therefore devoid of Jewish content. Good literature as literature could be read in any language. Why then bother with translations from Hebrew? Israeli literature could achieve greatness, he felt, if it exploited rather than renounced the resources of the Jewish imagination, and its failure to do so was for Alan a matter of profound disappointment.

Rather than despair, rather than engage in rearguard tactics, Alan turned back to Agnon, the writer who could never disappoint — began to explore his neglected masterpiece and went on a pilgrimage to Buczacz and environs. Next month he was hoping to visit Leipzig, in the footsteps of the young Agnon.

What a deep affinity there was between Alan’s intellectual odyssey and Ir umelo’ah, perhaps even deeper than he imagined, for what was Buczacz restored and Buczacz abandoned if not the bookends of Alan’s own lifelong search for community?

Alan spent most of his life on a narrow sliver of real estate that stretches along the Hudson River from 96th Street and West End Avenue and 123rd and Broadway. Upward mobility meant moving apartments from 96th to 101st and moving jobs from the bottom to the top of Morningside Heights. In square acreage, his stomping ground was probably no bigger than Greater Buczacz. But at no point along the way did Alan ever lose sight of his responsibility to serve the needs of his community in its fullness.

The first time we met was at a meeting in Boston between The New York Havurah and Havurat Shalom. Alan cut an imposing figure because he never dressed down, hardly cracked a smile, and spoke in paragraphs. (There is a mug shot of him on the inside back cover of vol. III of the “Jewish Catalog.” There we see a brooding intellectual who looks like Walter Benjamin’s kid brother.) I also remember a special meeting that Alan convened to confer the editorship of Response to a twenty-something named Bill Novak, who flew in especially from Toronto. It was in the pages of Response that Alan published not only “Agnon on the Individual and the Community,” his thinly veiled manifesto of communal engagement, but also a carefully worded discussion of “New Metaphors: Jewish Prayer and Our Situation.” The words of prayer must be parsed symbolically, existentially, he argued in this essay, if they are to yield any meaning at all. Just as communal prayer is impossible without an ongoing and ever-fluid process of interpretation, so the very nature of community, what makes community a community, is paying careful attention to one’s speech. Paraphrasing the Hafetz Hayim in what is arguably the best-written chapter in the aforementioned “Jewish Catalog,” Alan defines community as a collectivity of people who speak to each other about each other, and then lays out, precisely and methodically, the do’s and don’ts of “undesirable speech” and “permissible lashon ha-ra.”

A person in his fullness is someone who practices what he preaches; whose praxis is deeply informed by his thinking; and who uses every possible opportunity to share his Torah with others. It was only a few months ago that Alan led a Learning Shabbat at Minyan M’at, where he delivered a dvar tefillah, i.e., a mini-class on the Kedusha, the heart and soul of the Amidah, which we are wont to recite mindlessly, without regard to its spiritual hazards and rewards. The facilitated discussion was no less thrilling than his eloquent disquisition.

So too in the field of scholarship. “It was not only to advance the body of knowledge that Prooftexts was founded,” Alan wrote in his valedictory address, when the two of us stepped down after twenty-years as coeditors “but also to create an invisible intellectual community.” To achieve that end, the outward appearance of Prooftexts and the inner growth of the new discipline we called Jewish Literary History were one and the same. That is why we were such perfect partners. Each year, Alan commissioned the art work for our new volume, while I fussed over the layout, the typeface, the transliterations, the italics. And each of us tore out our hair (I had more than he) over each submission that was written in gobbledygook, instead of Queens English.

And in school. Hebrew in its fullness was not Hebraism for its own sake, but part of a total vision of an educated Jew. So Alan created the Hebrew Fellows, an honors club for those students who would keep the faith. He brought Israeli speakers to campus. He convened colloquia and published books on Hebrew in America. He encouraged others to learn from his mistakes and feelings of inadequacy to wear the badge of near-native Hebrew speaker with pride. (This he did as recently as April, 2017, on the Mosaic website.)
A person in his fullness is someone who emerges from prolonged and solitary study to share the bounties of his knowledge, his wisdom, his wit, with his students, colleagues, community, his children, and of course, his lifelong partner, Susanna.

Don’t think it was easy. The course of true community never did run smooth, not in Buczacz, not in the Havurah, and not in our own day. As a charter member of the Sons of Lithuania, Alan never evinced much enthusiasm for the Havurah-style of davening to begin with. As a shaliah-tzibbur, he was extremely straight-laced. As for me, he would always counsel and caution me to curb my enthusiasm. I am certain there are things I have written here that he would have taken exception to.

Where does that leave us after we have conjured up the personhood of Alan Mintz in all his fullness? We are left with the void — the emptiness of an intellectual, spiritual, and communal life without him — not just here, but from the e-mails I’ve been getting, in Israel, from Australia and Canada, in short, wherever matters of the Jewish spirit matter.

Dear friends and family. We have done our best to fill this sanctuary with Alan’s luminous presence. Now the fullness of his life must remain as a book, as an inexhaustible legacy, as a masterpiece, like Ir umelo’ah.

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A Eulogy For Alan Mintz — A Person In His Fullness

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