Boyarin grew up in a chicken farming community in New Jersey—“Springsteen country,” as he puts it. His grandparents spoke Yiddish and his parents understood the language. His upbringing was a blend of traditional and Conservative Judaism, with mixed observance of Jewish rituals. “I was very disaffected by the time I went to Reed,” he says (see sidebar, “Jewish Learning at Reed”).
His path to Lawrence, and back to Judaism, has been somewhat convoluted. The summer after graduating from Reed with a major in anthropology, Boyarin plunged into a rigorous Yiddish immersion program at Columbia University. Why Yiddish? “I thought very hard at Reed about who I was,” he says. “By coming to a place that was less Jewish than the world I knew as a child, it made me realize that I was a lot more Jewish than I was aware. I decided to grasp that and figure out what it meant.” Several weeks into the summer program, descending into the subway, he had an epiphany: He suddenly found himself speaking and thinking in Yiddish. “I was a little gentler toward myself speaking Yiddish,” he says. “I felt the language coming out from inside me.”
He earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from the New School, then went to Paris for two years to work on his doctoral research project, a study of the secular Yiddish culture of former Eastern Europeans living in the city before and after World War II. It resulted in his book, Polish Jews in Paris—The Ethnography of Memory.
Returning to the United States, Boyarin decided to try a legal career and enrolled in Yale Law School, graduating in 1998. For five years, he worked at the white-shoe New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton. But the dream of returning to Jewish scholarship still burned. “All along,” he recalls, “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.’”
Now, sitting in his campus office atop a Lawrence hilltop, surrounded by volumes of the Talmud and overlooking a landscape where wagon trains once rolled across the Oregon Trail, Boyarin says the notion of “home” has become a central theme for him. “Kansas and the Lower East Side are metaphors for home,” he says. “For most Americans, Kansas isn’t a real place at all. It’s only a trope. Turning Kansas into a real place is part of what makes being here an adventure.”