Samuel Heilman serves as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York and as the Harold Proshanky Chair in Jewish Studies at the CCNY’s Graduate Center. He has spoken and lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Israel, China, South Korea, and Australia, as well as throughout North America.
His many books include Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (2006), When a Jew Dies: The Ethnography of a Bereaved Son (2001) and Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century (1995). As the editor-in-chief of Contemporary Jewry, the leading journal for social scientific studies of Jewish experience, he helps to set the direction for his field’s development.
How does a sociologist’s approach to studying Jews differ from a historian’s?
The historical approach is interested in mainly what the factors are in the past that led to the present, whereas the sociological approach is more focused on the way things are in the present: what are the ongoing cultural, social, anthropological factors that affect how things are in the present? The focus is different.
We start from what we can see around us, often by surveying the scene, sometimes by interviewing people, doing observations, sometimes even participating. A historian can’t participate in what’s happened in the past, can’t ask questions of participants. In some ways, historians would do well if they had the material that sociologists and anthropologists have collected. If they had those kinds of testimonies and studies from the past, history would be fuller. I don’t think we’re doing competing kinds of things. I think they’re complementary.
Does the sociological study of the Jews differ in any particular ways from the study of other contemporary communities?
In every group, the social and cultural conditions play a part in how you study them. You use some of the same approaches, of learning about people, understanding the values that they have, and the behaviors by which they express themâ€”enough so that you can talk about a discipline of sociology or anthropologyâ€”but also differences, so that you can’t assume that somebody who has experience studying the Jews would necessarily have the same facility in studying other groups.