Boyarin’s scholarly work represents a departure from generations of Yiddish scholars
who dealt primarily with texts. The language of the Jews of Eastern Europe was dying, it was
widely assumed, so it should be approached as an artifact of history. Boyarin and others now
work to understand the living cultural context in which Yiddish sparkled on the lips of European
Jews between the world wars, and after the Holocaust wrenched them out of centuries-old communities.
These scholars also want to heighten awareness of the important role Yiddish continues to play
in the Jewish world—from Hasidic communities in New York and Jerusalem to the frontiers
of hip hop.
For Boyarin, 49, Yiddish represents a living inheritance of religious practice, philosophical
outlook, culture, humor, and values. It has taken him decades to discover his inner Yiddish
voice and nail down a career path that allows him, at long last, to give it full expression.
In his inaugural talk, Boyarin moved from the heat-of-battle Yiddish conversation to The
Wizard of Oz, Kansas’ original mythic text. It’s a narrative progression that mirrors
his own life now, split between the white-bread Midwest and New York City, the hub of Yiddish
culture in America.
Boyarin is always on the move, traveling between Lawrence and New York’s Lower East
Side, where he maintains a residence with his wife, Elissa. They are both active members of
the Stanton Street Shul, which describes itself as “the moving edge of the Lower East
Side’s Jewish revival.” Elissa is a tour leader and expert on the history of neighborhood
synagogues that date back to the early twentieth century, when a half-million Jewish immigrants
lived in the area.
Cover of Boiberke memorial book (Jerulsalem, 1964) in
From a Ruined Garden
So wouldn’t it make more sense for Boyarin to do his work in New York, rather than at a red-state
university where he has identified “two and-a-half” Yiddish speakers? “The truth
is,” says Boyarin, “I am more useful in Kansas than on the Lower East Side.” He
is working to strengthen the local Jewish community, where plans are underway to attract a Hasidic
rabbi who would undoubtedly be yet another Yiddish speaker to add to the collection. Boyarin has
already given several talks on Yiddish themes in nearby Kansas City, home to 20,000 Jews.
On campus, he taught a class on contemporary Jewish identities in the fall. This semester, he has
taught a course on Jewish cultural history and a graduate class, “Messiah and Modernity,” that
explores the relationship between Messianism and modern notions of revolution, progress, and utopia.
The teaching load enables Boyarin to continue his research and translation—work that can
be done anywhere, even far from a large community of Yiddish speakers. And his presence is valued.
Paul Mirecki, chairman of the university’s department of religious studies, says, “He
has an interdisciplinary professorship that will expose many students to a variety of scholarly approaches
to a major world religion.”