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Arts & Culture Dorothy, Shmorothy: Kansas U. Gets Enthusiastic Yiddish Scholar

May 5, 2006
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As bullets whistled overhead and the smoke of the Battle of Black Jack wafted through the warm air 150 years ago this month, a terse conversation passed between two men fighting alongside abolitionist John Brown. “Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt?” (So, what do you think of this now?) August Bondi, who later recorded the conversation in his journals, asked in Yiddish.

Theodore Weiner replied in Hebrew, “Sof odom muves.” (The end of man is death.)

For Jonathan Boyarin, the exchange underscores the vitality and early presence of Yiddish in America.

Boyarin, a cultural anthropologist and Yiddish scholar whose field is 20th century Jewish history, is translating a Yiddish book about the Kotsker rebbe written by noted scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Boyarin arrived at the University of Kansas last fall as a professor of modern Jewish studies, his first full-time academic position. The professorship was created by a $500,000 donation by a foundation set up by Kansas oilman Robert Beren.

Paul Mirecki, chairman of the university’s Religious Studies department, described Boyarin’s post as “an interdisciplinary professorship that will expose many K.U. students to a variety of scholarly approaches to a major world religion.”

There are about a dozen Yiddish studies programs at North American universities. Boyarin’s task will be to broaden that beachhead: In addition to helping build up the Jewish studies program on campus, he’s thinking of ways to bring Yiddish writers and scholars to campus for brief, intensive programs.

He has studied the living cultural context in which Yiddish sparkled on the lips of Jews after they were wrenched by the Holocaust out of centuries-old communities in Eastern and Central Europe.

Boyarin, 49, grew up in a chicken-farming community in New Jersey and got his undergraduate degree in anthropology from Reed College in Portland, Ore.

After college, he plunged into a rigorous Yiddish immersion program at Columbia University. Several weeks into the summer program, he had an epiphany while descending to the subway: He found himself speaking and thinking in Yiddish.

“I was a little gentler toward myself speaking Yiddish. I felt the language coming out from inside me,” he recalled.

He went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate from the New School in anthropology. His doctoral research project took him to Paris for two years in the early 1980s, where he studied the secular Yiddish culture of former Eastern Europeans living there.

One of Boyarin’s early academic works was “From A Ruined Garden — The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry,” which he co-authored. The book is a compilation of excerpts from yizker-bikher, or memorial books, crafted by former residents of hundreds of European villages and towns to remember and honor the lives and memories they left behind. Boyarin translated most of the stories in the book.

Years later, Boyarin enrolled in Yale Law School, graduating in 1998. For five years he worked with a New York law firm, doing tax law and litigation, but he still had the Jewish studies bug.

“All along I was saying to myself, ‘There’s something I really love, I am really good at it, and that’s what I should be doing,’ ” he recalls.

Boyarin is unabashedly upbeat about his work.

“We recently passed the point where the number of Yiddish speakers has stopped declining and is starting to grow again,” he said, referring to growing enclaves of Chasidic and Orthodox Yiddish-speakers. “It is not a dying language.”

But the fate of Yiddish is more than a numbers game.

“The measure of the continuing vitality of Yiddish is not only the number of fluent speakers there are,” Boyarin said. “It is also the ways fragments and elements continue to be rediscovered and transformed into new modes of Jewishness that are genuinely creative. We cannot say beforehand what they are going to become.”

One example is the vital klezmer music scene.

Boyarin expressed an interest in several Jewish farming communes that failed long ago on the hard plains of Kansas. And then there are the whispered conversations of Bondi and Weiner floating on a stiff Kansas breeze, summoning Boyarin to new battlefields.

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