Jonathan Boyarin

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Jonathan Aaron Boyarin
Born(1956-09-16)September 16, 1956
Neptune City, New Jersey
TitleThomas and Diann Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, Cornell University
Spouse(s)Elissa Sampson[1]
ChildrenJonah (born 1986), Yeshaya (born 1992)[1]
AwardsFellow of the American Academy for Jewish Research (2016)
W. S. Kenan Research Fellowship, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (Spring 2012)
National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Stipend, (Summer 2005)
Lucius N. Littauer Foundation Fellowship, (Summer 1998)
Harry Frank Guggenheim Fellowship, (1994–1995)
Research Fellowship, Center for Jewish Studies, CUNY Graduate Center, (Spring 1993)
Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in International Peace and Security, (1989–1992)
Post-Doctoral Fellow, Max Weinreich Center for Advanced Jewish Studies, (1986–1988)
Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture Doctoral Fellowship, (1984–1985)
Social Science Research Council International Doctoral Research Fellowship, (September 1982–February 1984)
Academic background
EducationB.A. (1977), M.A. (1980), Ph.D. (1984), J.D. (1998)[1]
Alma materReed College (B.A.)
New School for Social Research (M.A.)/(Ph.D.)
Yale Law School (J.D.)
Thesis'Landslayt: Polish Jews in Paris' (1985)
Doctoral advisorStanley Diamond
InfluencesWalter Benjamin[2]
Academic work
DisciplineAnthropology, Jewish Studies
Sub-disciplineJewish ethnography, Yiddish culture, critical theory
InstitutionsCornell University
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
University of Kansas
Dartmouth College
The New School
Notable worksThe Ethnography of Reading (1993)
The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians and the Identity of Christian Europe (2009)
Jewish Families (2013)
Notable ideas"ethnography of reading"[3]

Jonathan Aaron Boyarin (Yiddish: יונתן אהרן בוירין‎; born September 16, 1956) is an American anthropologist whose work centers on Jewish communities and on the dynamics of Jewish culture, memory and identity.[4] Born in Neptune, New Jersey, he is married and has two sons.[1] In 2013, he was appointed Thomas and Diann Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies, Departments of Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies, Cornell University.

His brother, Daniel Boyarin, is also a well-known scholar, and the two have written together.


Boyarin was educated at Reed College, the New School for Social Research, and the Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, before earning his doctoral degree in anthropology at the New School for Social Research. In 1998, fourteen years after receiving his Ph.D., Boyarin received his J.D. at Yale Law School. He has taught at Cornell University, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, University of Kansas, Dartmouth College, and The New School.[1] He is the founding co-editor of the journal Critical Research on Religion.[5] In 2016, Boyarin was elected a Fellow of the Academy for Jewish Research (AAJR).[6]


Boyarin has investigated Jewish culture in a range of ethnographic projects set in Paris, Jerusalem, and the Lower East Side of New York City.[7] Much of his work is in interdisciplinary critical theory, from the perspective of modern Jewish politics and experience.[4] He has extended these interests into comparative work on diaspora, the politics of time and space, and the ethnography of reading.[4]

As a student of modern Jewish experience and culture, he has investigated comparative and theoretical questions that help illuminate the lives of Jews and others.[8] He has conducted fieldwork in cities where those "Jews and others" live, including Paris, Jerusalem, and New York's Lower East Side.[8] Much of his work has also been in historical ethnography, primarily of nineteenth and twentieth-century Polish Jewish life.[8] He is also a Yiddish translator.[7]

The Ethnography of Reading[edit]

Boyarin edited an influential set of essays published in 1993 titled, The Ethnography of Reading,[9] exploring how people read and talk about reading.[10] In contrast to the older tendency to classify entire cultures as oral or literate, most of the essays explore the intermingling of silent reading, collective reading and commentary, recitations, and other text-related practices in a particular tradition or setting.[10] Overall, the volume is concerned with how "insiders" and anthropologists talk and write about reading.[10]

In his own essay, Boyarin describes collective reading practices in the New York City yeshiva where he studied Bible and Talmud.[9] He relates the multivocality of the texts to the "dialogic" speech events in which students intermingle mass culture and vocabulary with sacred speech as a way of negotiating their own relationship to these highly authoritative texts.[10] According to Brinkley M. Messick:[11]

The volume operates at a refreshing distance from the worn controversies of oral verses literate and from scientific slants of evolution and cognition. Its basic to "expand the archive" of our knowledge of reading and other text-reception practices. ... For Boyarin, the study of reading challenges the "lingering anti-textual bias among practitioners of cultural anthropology."[12]

Influence of Walter Benjamin[edit]

Boyarin writes that the work of Walter Benjamin helped him to "bridge the gap" between his interests in anthropology—German traditions of critical, interdisciplinary scholarship—and the preservation and transmission of East European Jewish culture. Boyarin writes:[2]

I learned Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History", written in 1939 as the storms of war were gathering, and never published during his lifetime. In that text, Benjamin analyzes the failure of the mid-1930s Popular Front to defeat the Nazis, and ascribes it at least in part to a philosophy of history that maintained a naïve faith in the ultimate inevitability of progress and the triumph of Reason. Instead of that philosophy of linear progress, Benjamin put forward a much more contingent notion of history and temporality, one in which at any moment a point or points from the past might be articulated with a present situation to reveal a Messianic opening "in the fight for the oppressed past."[13]



Book chapters[edit]

  • "When Is a Jew? The Search for Authenticity in Recent Jewish Experience," in The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 8: The Modern World, ed. Mitchell Hart and Tony Michels. Cambridge University Press, 2014
  • "Simulated Shiur: Post-It Notes of an ArtScroll Amateur", in Jewish Rhetoric: History, Culture, Theory, ed. Michael Bernard-Donals and Jan Fernheimer. Brandeis University Press (volume in progress)
  • "For a World of Shared Singularities: Fragments of a Response to Gilroy," in Retrieving the Human, Reading Paul Gilroy, ed. Rebecka Rutledge Fisher and Jay Garcia. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2013.
  • "Trickster's Children: Genealogies of Jewishness in Anthropology." in Framing Jewish Culture: Boundaries, Representations, and Exhibitions of Ethnic Difference, ed. Simon J. Bronner. Oxford, UK, and Portland, OR: Littman, 2013.
  • "The State Between Race and Religion: A Conversation (with Martin Land)," in Vincent Lloyd, ed., Race and Political Theology. Stanford University Press, 2011, 213–233
  • "Neither Paradigm Nor Pariah: Jewish and Other Diasporas, Diasporas and Homelands," in Mikael Levin, Cristina's History, Le Point du Jour, 2009, pp. 137–143.
  • "Responsive Thinking: Cultural Studies and Jewish Historiography," in Andreas Gotzmann and Christian Wiese, eds., Modern Judaism and Historical Consciousness: Identities, Encounters, Perspectives, Brill, 2007, pp. 475–493
  • "The Lower East Side Union of All the Shuls I Go To," in Sara Blair and Jonathan Freedman, eds., Jewish in America. University of Michigan Press, 2004, pp. 37–47
  • "Return of the Repressed? A Response from New York," in Grasping Land: Discourses of Space in Israeli Culture, ed. by Eyal Ben-Ari and Yoram Bilu, State University of New York Press, 1997, pp. 217–229
  • "Jews and Palestinians: From Margin to Center and Back Again?," in Margins of Insecurity, ed. by Sam Nolutshungu, University of Rochester Press, 1996, pp. 131–153
  • "The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life," in The Narrow Bridge: Jewish Perspectives on Multiculturalism, ed. Marla Brettschneider, New York University Press, 1996, pp. 207–216
  • "Space, Time and the Politics of Memory," in Remapping Memory: The Politics of TimeSpace, pp. 1–37
  • "Hegel's Zionism?" in Remapping Memory: The Politics of TimeSpace, pp. 137–160
  • "At Last, All the Goyim: Notes on a Greek Word Applied to Jews," in Postmodern Apocalypse, edited by Richard Dellamora, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995, pp. 41–58
  • "The Double Mark of the Male Jew" (with Daniel Boyarin), in Rhetorics of Self-Making, ed. by Debbora Battaglia, University of California Press, 1994, pp. 16–42
  • "The Other Within and the Other Without", in The Other in Jewish Thought and History, ed. by Laurence Silberstein, New York University Press, 1994, pp. 424–452
  • "Lecture, rêve et ethnographic," appendix to Olam (new French edition of Life Is With People), Plon 1992
  • "Observant Participation: The Ethnography of Jews on the Lower East Side," YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, 1990, pp. 233–254
  • "Yizker Bikher and the Problem of Historical Veracity: An Anthropological Approach" (with Jack Kugelmass) in The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars, Brandeis University/University Press of New England, 1989, pp. 519–536
  • "Waiting for a Jew: Marginal Redemption at the Eighth Street Shul," in Between Two Worlds: Essays on the Ethnography of American Jews, ed. by Jack Kugelmass, Cornell University Press, 1988, pp. 52–76
  • "Sholem-Aleykhem's 'Stantsye Baranovitsah'," in Identity and Ethos: A Festschrift for Sol Liptzin, ed. by Mark Gelber, Peter Lang Verlag, New York, 1986, pp. 89–99

Refereed articles[edit]

  • "An Ugly Story?" (on the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man), AJS Review, autumn 2011
  • "Another Abraham: Jewishness and the Law of the Father", Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, Spring 1997, pp. 345–394
  • "Circumscribing Constitutional Identity in Kiryas Joel", Yale Law Journal, March 1997, pp. 1537–1570
  • "Death and the Minyan", Cultural Anthropology 9:1, 1994, pp. 3–22
  • "Generation: Diaspora and the Ground of Jewish Identity" (with Daniel Boyarin), Critical Inquiry 19:4, 1993, pp. 693–725
  • "Europe's Indian, America's Jew: Modiano and Vizenor", boundary 2 19:3, 1992, pp. 197–222
  • "Reading Exodus Into History", New Literary History 23:3, 1992, pp. 523–554
  • "Jewish Ethnography and the Question of the Book", Anthropological Quarterly 64:1, 1991, pp. 14–29
  • "Voices Around the Text: The Ethnography of Reading at Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem", Cultural Anthropology 4:4, 1989, pp. 399–421


  1. ^ a b c d e Jonathan Boyarin Curriculum Vitae
  2. ^ a b Boyarin on Benjamin, Cornell Arts and Sciences Retrieved: 2015-03-07
  3. ^ Smith, Jonathan Z. (2009). "Religion and Bible" (PDF). JBL. 128 (1): 11. Retrieved 4 March 2016.
  4. ^ a b c Cornell Department of Anthropology Website Archived 2015-06-12 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ Critical Theory of Religion Archived 2015-07-19 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved: 2015-07-20.
  6. ^ Glaser, Linda B. "Jonathan Boyarin elected to AAJR". Cornell University. College of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
  7. ^ a b Cornell Chronicle Published: 2015-05-03
  8. ^ a b c Cornell Department of Near Eastern Studies Website
  9. ^ a b Boyarin, Jonathan, ed. (July 14, 1993). The Ethnography of Reading. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520081338.
  10. ^ a b c d Bowen, John R. (1994). "Talking About Reading". Current Anthropology. 35 (4): 471–472. doi:10.1086/204307. JSTOR 2744006.
  11. ^ Messick, Brinkley (March 1995). "Review". American Anthropologist. 97 (1): 188–189. doi:10.1525/aa.1995.97.1.02a00680. JSTOR 682438.
  12. ^ Boyarin, Jonathan, ed. (July 14, 1993). The Ethnography of Reading. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 213. ISBN 9780520081338.
  13. ^ Benjamin, Walter; Zohn, Harry (January 13, 1969). Arendt, Hannah, ed. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Shocken Books. p. 263. ISBN 9780805202410.