My abiding research, writing and teaching obsessions arose in rural Farmingdale, New Jersey, where I spent my childhood among a community of Jewish chicken farmers. That community, made up of refugees, immigrants, their children and grandchildren, offered a warm if contentious haven, but it dissolved in the course of the post-World War II building boom. That early experience left me with abiding concerns for the dynamics of diasporic populations, the sometimes violent displacements of modernity, techniques of cultural transmission, and in particular, Yiddish and East European Jewish culture and history.
My research projects generally take the form of participant-observation ethnography, studies in memoir and autobiography, and essays in critical theory. My earliest fieldwork was carried out in the working-class and immigrant quarter of Paris, among Polish Jewish immigrants. A subsequent project brought me in contact with a range of Israelis and Palestinians in and around Jerusalem. Since then, I have conducted a number of studies on the Lower East Side of New York City, where my wife Elissa Sampson and I have lived for almost four decades. I have undertaken Yiddish translation projects ranging from memorial books of Polish Jews to novelistic treatments of the history of Hasidism. And I have consistently tried to intervene in debates on the broader politics of identity and culture, to demonstrate (as the subtitle of one of my books has it) “the relevance of Jewish culture.”
The record of all this is to be found mostly in a dozen or so monographs, edited collections, and translations. Early work includes Polish Jews in Paris: The Ethnography of Memory and From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry (with Jack Kugelmass), and The Education of Shlomo Noble in Europe and America. My works in theory include Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory; Thinking in Jewish; and Jewishness and the Human Dimension. My insistence that Jewish history “inside” Europe and the history of the colonial encounter need to be studied under one lens is expressed in The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe. My fascination with Jewish family dynamics through the ages is documented in Jewish Families. My love for the Lower East Side is captured in Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Lower East Side Summer, and, as of 2016, in an ongoing study of the neighborhood’s last yeshiva.