Queens College Distinguished Professor of Sociology Samuel Heilman, one of the world’s leading authorities on Orthodox Judaism and the author of 11 books and numerous studies and articles, pauses during a trek through Maroon Bells Canyon in Aspen, Colorado. An avid hiker, he has also explored terrain on Mount Cook, New Zealand, in the Purple Mountains in Nanjing China, the Grand Canyon of Australia near Blackpool, and Mount Seoraksan, South Korea
One of the world’s leading sociologists of orthodox Judaism and holder of the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, Samuel Heilman has written 11 books and numerous studies and articles. He is editor of the journal Contemporary Jewry and has received, among other awards, the Marshall Sklare Memorial Award from the Association for the Social Scientific Study of Jewry for “a lifetime of scholarship.”
But it was a book about a French anthropologist’s trip up the Amazon—Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss—that shaped his work. “For me it was a model,” says Heilman. Just as Lévi-Strauss could find no tribes untouched by civilization, Heilman found no Jewish communities untouched by the modern world. Heilman, who for a couple of years after college studied in a yeshiva, notes that it was when he was working for his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania (where his mentor was legendary sociologist Erving Goffman) that he decided to “merge my interests in sociology and Judaism.” His thesis formed the basis for his first book, Synagogue Life (1973).
Heilman is co-author of the recently published The Rebbe, a book about Lubavitch movement leader Menachem Schneerson. “He was the man who really established Lubavitchers in this country and in the world,” Heilman said, “the man who transformed himself from somebody who was hoping to be an engineer and settle in Paris, to somebody who transformed a Hasidic group into a worldwide movement.”
Heilman’s evolution from freshly minted PhD to world-renowned scholar began when he started teaching at Queens in 1973. “Except for sabbaticals and Fulbrights, I’ve spent basically my entire career at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center,” he says. In fall 2008 he went to the Republic of China as a Fulbright Senior Specialist Professor to help academics set up Jewish studies programs. He has also been a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Jerusalem, a visiting professor at Shalom College at the University of New South Wales Australia, and at the University of Illinois at Chicago, among many other colleges and universities where he has been invited to teach.
Besides the sociologists Goffman and Morrie Schwartz (of Tuesdays with Morrie fame) he has studied with, Heilman counts among his inspirations “the remarkable immigrants and first-generation Americans who graduate from Queens College each year.”
Favorite book: “Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures or my own most recent book, which is always my favorite.”
Favorite music: Mozart, Haydn, and Donizetti’s opera Elixir of Love
Courses taught: Comparative Religious Fundamentalism, Sociological Theory, and Sociology of Death and Dying.
Surprising fact: “I am an immigrant to America who came here with my parents as a Displaced Person.”