People of the Book:
Building a City — and remembering a mentor with Professor Wendy Zierler.
September 21, 2023
Some books are born in sadness. Such is the case with Building a City: Writings on Agnon’s Buczacz in Memory of Alan Mintz (Indiana University Press, 2023), co-edited by Rabbi Wendy Zierler, Ph.D., the Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Mintz’s sudden death in 2017 stunned the world of Jewish literary studies, a field he helped create when he founded the journal Prooftexts in 1981 with his friend, David G. Roskies. Only months before his passing, Mintz had handed the co-editing reins of Prooftexts to Zierler, one of many scholars that Mintz had mentored and an heir to his mission of promoting the relevance of modern Jewish letters, especially Hebrew literature, to students and readers in the Diaspora.
To honor their mentor, Zierler and Sheila M. Jelen from the University of Kentucky created a special memorial issue of Prooftexts and put out a call for essays on Mintz and his final project, a book about author and Nobel laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s Ir Umlo′ah (“a city in its fullness”), a posthumously published collection of stories about Agnon’s beloved native Buczacz in present-day Ukraine. The response was overwhelming, and the memorial issue was eventually expanded by Zierler, Jelen, and Jeffrey Saks, head of research at Agnon House in Jerusalem and editor of the Toby Press Agnon Library, into Building a City.
We caught up with Zierler to ask her about the book, Mintz, Agnon and why they matter.
Rabbi Wendy Zierler, Ph.D.: He was so important to me. He built a community of scholars and modeled what I try to do as a scholar and a teacher. In the 1970s and ’80s when he left Victorian literary studies to study Hebrew literature, there were no American university departments or journals dedicated to this field. He gathered a group of Jewish literary academics looking for a forum — bible and Midrash scholars, modernists, medievalists, experts in different languages and media, the whole sweep — and created a journal where they could publish work that the mainstream literary academe wasn’t promoting.
WZ: His work was built on the assumption that modern Jewish literature has something to say about the past, and the past has something to say about modernity. That’s the intellectual and pedagogical stance that I occupy here. My goal as a scholar and a teacher is to argue that modern Hebrew literature can serve as an important new layer of commentary on our classical tradition. Its creativity is vital and ought to be considered a canonical element in our curriculum.
WZ: That model is alive and well here at HUC — we currently have a required rabbinical school course in modern Jewish literature in our curriculum, and the curriculum currently in the works intends to incorporate that approach, as well. But HUC-JIR is somewhat unique in this regard: the typical rabbinical school curriculum often marginalizes modern texts, so the only holy texts are the ones that come in dark, hardback bindings with gold letters and marbling on the outside.
WZ: Agnon was the foremost Hebrew writer of the 20th century. He stood at the intersection of past and present, Israel and the Diaspora. He was someone who was steeped in classical Hebrew sources, and he saw his vocation as a modern Hebrew writer as the next link in the chain of Jewish literature. Some of his stories read like pseudo-Midrashim. I think Agnon stands for what we strive to do in Prooftexts and in a liberal seminary education — we encompass the classical and the modern, as well as Israeli and American Judaism.
WZ: Modern Hebrew and modern Hebrew texts such as Agnon’s matter — not just because of their secular aesthetic quality, but because of their religious significance. This is especially true in a seminary context. What is going to motivate my students is Hebrew as a portal to religious life and Jewish literacy.
WZ: This compendium of stories is a full, 360-degree treatment of a Jewish community in all of its richness and diverse religiosity: its synagogues, books, rabbis, cantors, saints, sinners, martyrs and heroes in the fullness of their humanity. It’s a full picture of a civilization, and Hebrew is the access point for all that. I want more people to know about Agnon as a spiritual resource, a model of how classical and modern texts can creatively combine and reinvent, and I want our students to be the translators of that richness for their congregants.
A painting by Professor Zierler of the Strypa River in Buczacz.
The image of the Town Hall which was used on the book cover.