By Martin Rosenberg ’71
Jonathan Boyarin ’77 is learning to thrive
as a Yiddish scholar in
As the smoke of the Battle of Black Jack near Lawrence, Kansas, wafted through the warm summer
air 150 years ago and bullets whistled by, a terse conversation passed between two men fighting
alongside abolitionist John Brown.
“Nu, was meinen Sie jetzt? [Now, what do you think of this?],” August
Bondi, who later recorded the conversation, asked in Yiddish. Theodore Weiner replied in Hebrew, “Sof
odom muves [The end of man is death].”
The battle—which took place weeks after pro-slavery forces sacked Lawrence—is
considered by some to be the opening skirmish of the Civil War. For Jonathan Boyarin ’77,
the antebellum interchange hints at something else, the vibrancy and persistence of Yiddish
even in the unlikeliest of places.
The exchange was recently related by Boyarin in his inaugural lecture at the University of
Kansas, where he is the new Robert M. Beren Distinguished Professor in Modern Jewish Studies.
The somewhat reclusive Beren, a Wichita oilman and Harvard graduate now in retirement in Florida,
donated $500,000 to strengthen the studies of world religions and the humanities at the university.
Boyarin is a cultural anthropologist whose field is modern Jewish history of the twentieth
century. He arrived at Kansas last fall to assume his first full-time academic position, 28
years after graduating from Reed—and after several digressions.