IN TRIBUTEby RABBI DAVID GEDZELMAN
D R. ALAN MINTZ, Chana Kekst Professor of Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, passed away unexpectedly, at the age of 70, on May 20th. The shock of Alan’s death is still pointedly raw for his family and friends as well as for the larger Jewish community. His death is also a loss to the enterprise of moving forward the possibilities of Hebrew in America.
Alan was a champion of the Hebrew language and its literature. Besides being personal friends, Alan and I were able to share our passion for Hebrew in our work together as members of the founding group of the World Zionist Organization’s Council for Hebrew Language and Culture in North America. Alan had proposed to the council the idea of creating Hebrew festivals (each known by Alan’s proposed title as a Hagiga Ivrit) across the country, which became a reality in New York and other cities in 2015 and 2016. I had the honor of chairing the New York festival and felt inspired by Alan’s vision.
In the Spring of 2011, Alan contributed to CONTACT’s issue dedicated to the theme of Hebrew in America, where he highlighted his then soon-to-be published book Sanctuary in the Wilderness: A Critical Introduction to American Hebrew Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2011). In that book, Alan sought to right the wrong of an historic Israeli lack of regard, or any kind of recognition, for the American Hebraist and literary contribution to Modern Hebrew literature and language in the first half of the 20th Century. Alan was concerned at the time that the enterprise of Hebrew in America not be exclusively judged or gauged by the reality of Hebrew language as experienced and developed in Israel. American Hebrew could not be Israeli Hebrew, Alan argued in the CONTACT article, and by seeing our achievements in Israeli terms, we do ourselves a disservice. Alan felt that an emphasis on oral proficiency in the Hebrew language was overblown for Americans and that American Jews were better served to emphasize literacy skills and a knowledge of Hebrew literature. Those of us who championed the adaptation of the Proficiency Approach for second-language acquisition to the Hebrew language in that issue of CONTACT, most notably Dr. Vardit Ringvald, found ourselves emphasizing a different focus from the perspective Alan highlighted in those same pages.
In an article written this past April for Mosaic magazine, however, Alan embraced the terms of the Proficiency Approach, seeing a focus on proficiency rather than fluency as far more helpful for thinking about his own path of learning and mastering Hebrew in an ongoing way. He wrote about the four kinds of language skills (understanding, speaking, reading, and writing), essential to the thinking behind this approach, and he expressed appreciation for the use of the term “near native” speaker as being more helpful for his own sense of himself as a Hebrew speaker and for Americans wishing to master Hebrew in general. He wrote of an appreciation for the identification of a range of skill levels for language proficiency, which is a clear characteristic of the Proficiency Approach. Of course, Alan wrote about oral proficiency in the Hebrew language in the context of the mastery and internalization of Hebrew literature rather than as an independent goal unto itself.
When I read Alan’s article this Spring, I could not help but recall that a year earlier I had given Alan and his wife Susannah a tour of Harlem Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Manhattan, a prime example of the use of the Proficiency Approach in Hebrew. A little while back I had helped Alan find resources in order to complete the publication of a robust and monumental critical translation of S.Y. Agnon’s A City in its Fullness (The Toby Press, 2016). I had one rather tongue-in-cheek condition for finding the resources: Alan would owe me a trip to Harlem Hebrew to see the Proficiency Approach for teaching the Hebrew language to children of all backgrounds at work with his own eyes. We had been respectfully debating these matters of Hebrew language learning for some time, and I hadn’t previously been successful in getting Alan to visit the school. Now was my chance. Alan and Susannah thoroughly enjoyed their visit and Alan expressed appreciation for what he saw in the most gracious terms. He wrote to me afterwards, “As a Hebraist I was deeply gratified to hear and see Hebrew being used so naturally — and culturally.”
Alan’s earlier concern had been that Hebrew teaching and learning not be reduced to a technical methodology devoid of Hebrew’s cultural breadth and legacy. He did not want the adoption of general language-acquisition practice to Hebrew to entail stripping Hebrew of its uniqueness and rich particularity. He was gratified to see that just because one teaches Hebrew in a public school where religion could not be taught or practiced, that kind of dimunition need not be the case and graciously showed appreciation for how we had been able to teach kids of all backgrounds to use Hebrew “naturally and culturally.”
It’s not only that Alan Mintz was a champion of the Hebrew language, but that his exhaustive knowledge of the language and its literature as well as his singular seriousness of purpose inspired his colleagues towards imagining new possibilities and not giving up hope. We can honor him by redoubling our efforts to celebrate Hebrew in its fullness. ■
Rabbi David Gedzelman is President and CEO of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.
This essay by Alan Mintz
is reprinted from the Spring
2008 issue of CONTACT.
ON HEBREW AND
1.Hebrew is the deep structure of Jewish civilization. Hebrew accumulates meanings in an alluvial sense, never becoming depleted. The disused meanings of terms are retained and held in potential simultaneity with the meanings that have usurped them. When Zionist farmers needed terms for their agricultural work, the realia of Mishnah were there to be mobilized. Ve’ahavtacontains the arc of divine love as mandated in the Sh’maas well as the psychological reticulations of the modern experience of love. The fact that bitahoncan turn in the direction of either trust in God or military security tells us something about the protean potential of Hebrew. In short, Hebrew provides a plastic medium in which the contradictions and subversions of Jewish culture can be negotiated.
2.Hebrew, in far more than a figurative sense, is the unitary key to Jewish culture. It is the incredible — one might say miraculous — fortune of the Jewish People that its ancient language and its modern language lie within close conversational distance from one another. A Jew who can read a poem by Yehuda Amichai can understand large sections of Genesis, and vice versa. It is the “vice versa” of Hebrew that makes it such a powerful tool. The fact that one key can open so many doors is a strong argument for concentrating our resources on finding ways to make the acquisition of this key more widely attainable.
3.“Knowing Hebrew” is a modular, rather than an all-or-nothing, enterprise. Even if one knows some aspects of the language, there are great gains to be derived in access to the treasury of Jewish texts and cultural referents. So, for example, if one has not mastered the Hebrew verb system but has learned to recognize the permutations of some of the key three-letter verb stems — say, ts.d.k, z.kh.r. or y.ts.r., one is in the exciting position of suddenly seeing how the permutations of these roots interlace to create the fabric of Jewish thought.
4.The enormous outpouring of translations from classical Hebrew sources is cause for both celebration and consternation. On the one hand, this phenomenon represents an admirable democratization of Jewish learning; on the other, it conduces to a belief that the Hebrew original is simply an obstacle to be overcome as well as a medium for messages that can be better, or at least more rapidly, understood in English. There is virtually no sense of the sacrifice and renunciation — however necessary they may be — inherent in the reliance on translation. Translation that acts as an adjutant to understanding the original is a far cry from translation that effaces the original.
5.Hebrew is a potential bridge between the observant and non-observant communities. This proposition is self-evident in Israel, where Hebrew is the shared linguistic medium; even in the Haredi world, Hebrew has increasingly become the standard for daily life. To be sure, this commonality often serves only to underscore the radically divergent experiences of the two communities. At the same time, however, as a portal of return and reconnection for Israelis who wish to explore their Judaism, Hebrew provides the kind of automatic access that is largely absent in Diaspora Jewish life. Yet even within the parameters of American Jewry, Hebrew remains — and is gaining ground, especially as manifest in textual proficiency — as a key marker of professional achievement in Jewish education, the rabbinate, the cantorate, and academic Jewish Studies across all denominational lines. Lay leaders increasingly recognize that knowing Hebrew is an essential goal, even if they often regard it as one beyond their attainment.
6.Hebrew is a potential bridge between Israel and the Diaspora. The asymmetry is stark: Almost all literate Israelis know English; very few literate American Jews can manage a sentence in the Jewish national language. Yet anyone who has learned even someIsraeli Hebrew knows that it goes a long way toward granting access to the inner struggles of Israeli society beyond the media — and fundraising — images. There are possibilities of reciprocity, as well. The Hebrew of American Jews tends to be a mixture of the Hebrew of the prayerbook and Torah study and Israeli conversational practices — so that when we speak ourHebrew, however haltingly, we enact the richness of our Jewish identities in conversation with our Israeli brethren.
7.Hebrew, finally, is a point of consensus among the contentious and divergent parties in Jewish life. It is protean in its prestige, being not necessarily religious and not necessarily secular and definitively fused with Israel. Even if this prestige is often only lip service, the unexploited potential of this moral capital is enormous. For there are so very precious few sancta of Jewish life that cut across so many boundaries and maintain such a high level of acceptability. The protean nature of Hebrew is no conceit. Hebrew is the joystick of Jewish life, and it can be pushed in a number of directions to enrich and accelerate substantive Jewish identity. ■
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