Why did you go into Jewish Studies?

Alan Mintz

Jewish Theological Seminary

My entry into Jewish Studies was the solution to a problem.

I began my freshman year at Columbia University with the intention of becoming a rabbi or a Jewish educator, but I became enthralled by the explosion of literary theory (J. Hillis Miller, Barthes, Foucault, and others) and soon forgot about my earlier vocational plans. Instead of rabbinical school, I continued on at Columbia in the doctoral program in English with a focus on Victorian fiction. Outside my graduate studies I was deeply involved with the New York Havurah and the spiritual and cultural ferment of the Jewish youth culture. As I met students from Zionist and radical movements and learned more about the Holocaust and Soviet Jewry, I realized how parochial had been my upbringing within the youth movement of Conservative Judaism. I began to feel connected to the national historical experience of the Jewish people and not only to its religious practices.

After my oral examinations, I took some time off to consider what had become a pressing dilemma. Although my enthusiasm for English studies had not abated, I began to question whether I had a sufficient depth of personal commitment to make it my life's work and to go to a remote location to practice it. My deepest commitments were now to the Jewish people, and I wanted to find a way to insure that whatever intellectual gifts I had would leave their mark on its culture. But I felt I was starting too late and could never make the switch into another field of study. A fateful conversation with the late theologian and man of letters Arthur A. Cohen forced me to confront my defenses and re-imagine my future. The decision was made, and I experienced an enormous release of intellectual energies. I would complete my degree by writing a dissertation on George Eliot and the novel of vocation. Only in retrospect did I realize that I had chosen a topic that described the ordeal I had been undergoing. At the same time and during several postdoctoral years, I would "retool" in Jewish Studies. I first pursued midrash and then medieval Hebrew poetry and finally found my home in modern Hebrew literature. Only in retrospect, as well, did I realize that my chosen field was a solution to yet another problem: how to remain deeply connected to Israel and to Hebrew while making a life in America.