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Jonathan Boyarin ’77 leans on a statue of Moses on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence. In addition to his Jewish ethnographic scholarship, he finds time to write law articles, including one recently co-authored with fellow-Reedie Martin Land ’77 in the Cardozo Law Review.


By Martin Rosenberg ’71

Jonathan Boyarin ’77 is learning to thrive
as a Yiddish scholar in Oz.

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.

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