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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.

 

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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.”

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