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Insider from the Outside

Eytan Kobre

Early in his sociology career, Professor William Helmreich went back to the beis medrash in order to study what makes yeshivos tick. Seven years and hundreds of interviews later, he published the book that remains academia’s sole portrait of the yeshivah world. But it is the memories of the never-published conversations with the greatest roshei yeshivah of the past generation that still stir his heart and mind.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Soon after his landmark book The World of the Yeshiva was published in 1982, Orthodox sociologist William Helmreich says, “A fellow came up to me at the Homowack [a Catskills resort], and said, ‘Helmreich, it’s a gevaldige book you wrote. Imagine what could have become of you if you had stayed in yeshivah and really learned.’ I laughed, because I really understood it.” That short anecdote captures a lot about the unusual blend that isWilliamHelmreich: both insider to and outside observer of the world of the yeshivos, accomplished, yet self-effacing and affable. Professor Helmreich’s 32-year-old study of the American yeshivah world is what has brought me to the book-lined study on the top floor of his Great Neck home, a big old Tudor down the block from the Great Neck Synagogue, where he davens. Not a fancy house, but one with character, comfortable and inviting, like its owner. But a book review after 32 years? In 1972,BillHelmreich was a 27-year-old assistant professor in the sociology and Jewish studies departments at City College in Manhattan, having coming there from a teaching stint atYale. He recalls his job interview withElieWiesel, then at City College, quite clearly: “Wiesel said to me, ‘You know, you did a nice study on blacks. But this is a Jewish studies department. How do we know you can do anything on Jews?’ “I said, ‘Mr.Wiesel, you said you liked my book on the black community. But as you can see, I’m not black. So imagine what I could do on Jews if you gave me half a chance.’ He laughed, and it was that bon mot that landed me a spot over 130 other applicants.” The idea of doing a study of the yeshivah world had occurred to Helmreich while he was still up atYale, and when he shared it with an Orthodox colleague,ProfessorShneurLeiman, the latter enthused, “That’s going to be a great book!” “How do you know? I haven’t written it yet.” “There are certain subjects,” replied Leiman, “that if you write the book, everything else is commentary, because the concept itself is groundbreaking. It’s going to be great.”

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