Professor William B. Helmreich Dies From The Corona Virus

In his last year of life, the professor read and enjoyed my 2004 book Yesterday’s News Tomorrow: Inside American Jewish Journalism.

When I was getting into Judaism in the 1990s, I read many of his books including “Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator” and “The World of the Yeshiva.”

I never got to interview him, however. He did not like giving interviews. But I tried.

From the New York Times:

Curious, gregarious and inexhaustibly energetic, Mr. Helmreich was fearless in his study of human beings. As a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, he chose to do his dissertation on a group of black-power advocates who were hostile toward white people like him, even once getting into a tussle with one of its members. In 1973, the study was turned into his first book, “The Black Crusaders: A Case Study of a Black Militant Organization.”

Although for a time he helped organize the annual parade in Manhattan celebrating Israel, he conducted a two-hour interview in 2003 in Gaza with a leader of Hamas, Dr. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who had just survived an attack by Israeli helicopters…

The book of his that broke important new ground was “Against All Odds.” In writing it he interviewed 380 Holocaust survivors and found that, far from the pathological stereotypes surrounding them, they had more stable marriages, equivalent economic status and a lesser need to seek psychiatric help than other American Jews of the same age.

He argued that traits like adaptability, tenacity and resourcefulness, which had been needed to endure near starvation, terror and the loss of so many loved ones, had enabled most survivors to flourish in the freedom and opportunities that America afforded. The book won an award from the Jewish Book Council…

He attended Yeshiva University before doing graduate work at Washington University. As a professor at City College, he could be a riveting teacher, known for provocative interchanges with students and a near photographic memory. Professor Helmreich was the college’s longtime chairman of sociology, writing books on the Jews of Philip Roth’s Newark and the truths and distortions of ethnic stereotypes as well as follow-up walking guides to, separately, the streets of Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and Queens.

In addition to his son Jeffrey, an assistant professor of philosophy and law at the University of California at Irvine, Mr. Helmreich is survived by his wife, Helaine Helmreich, a speech therapist who wrote a well-received novel, “The Chimney Tree”; another son, Joseph, a writer; a daughter, Deborah Halpern, a speech pathologist; and four grandchildren. A third son, Alan, died of a brain aneurysm in 1998 at the age of 24.

From CNN:

Helmreich prided himself on having walked “virtually” every block of the city, earning an everyman’s view of daily life.
“He believed that everybody had a story worth telling,” Jeffrey Helmreich said of his father. “Every place and every person was interesting to my father. And every person felt interesting when talking to my father.”
Helmreich, who also wrote spinoff volumes highlighting each of the city’s boroughs, was working on the final entry in his series before he died.
“He was just about to finish Staten Island,” his son said. “We’ve still got to finish that one.”
Highly regarded in academia, Helmreich also reveled in the joy and grittiness of everyday life, his family told CNN.
“He was so intensely human as a scholar. It was so much about learning with his feet, with his heart, with his intuition, with his gut,” said Jeffrey Helmreich, who is a professor at the University of California, Irvine. “He talked his way into everyone’s hearts and revealed it to the rest of us.”
After testing positive for coronavirus, Helmreich’s symptoms appeared to be improving when he died suddenly on Saturday.
“We weren’t ready for this at all. We didn’t say goodbye. We didn’t think we had to say goodbye,” Jeffrey Helmreich said.
His family held a virtual funeral, with few guests. They were not able to sit shiva — or mourn together at home — as is Jewish tradition.
Funeral service workers in personal protective gear carried the casket, and a bulldozer shoveled dirt over the grave, Jeffrey Helmreich said.
Helmreich’s widow and one of his sons attended, standing six feet apart.

From JTA:

(JTA) — Sociologist William Helmreich, 74, an academic with eclectic interests whose areas of expertise ranged from race relations to urban life to Orthodox Jewry, died of coronavirus on Saturday….

“Helmreich is extraordinarily energetic and voluble,” The New Yorker wrote of Helmreich in a 2013 piece by Joshua Rothman about Helmreich’s chronicle of his urban walks in New York City, “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in New York City.” Research for the book had Helmreich walking city streets nearly every day for four years, and he later expanded his work by following up with specific guides for each borough.

“I love the city,” Helmreich was quoted as saying. “I love to read about the city, to live the city, to walk the city.”

Born in Switzerland in 1945 to parents who were Holocaust survivors, Helmreich came to the United States as an infant and grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He went to Yeshiva University for college and obtained his doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis.

He lived most of his life in Great Neck, on New York’s Long Island, where he was part of the local Orthodox Jewish community. Helmreich was a member of Great Neck Synagogue.

“Willie was in precisely the wrong profession for the coronavirus: He was a sociologist and he loved interacting with people,” Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Social distancing was not in his nature. Connecting with people is the point of his book about walking New York, and his scholarship also saw him exercising his interview skills in a wide range of ways. His book ‘The World of the Yeshiva’ pioneered a subject that few, at the time, considered worthy of study.”

Helmreich is survived by his wife, Helaine, and three children: Deborah Halpern, Joseph Helmreich, and Jeffrey Helmreich, a professor of philosophy and law at University of California, Irvine. A fourth child, Alan, died two decades ago.

From Wikipedia:

William B. Helmreich ( d. March 2020)[1] was a professor of sociology at the City College of New York Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.[2] He was also a published author[3][4] (14 books as of 2013).[5]

He published a sociology work in 1979 titled “Old Wine in New Bottles: Advanced Yeshivot in the United States”.[6]

The City University of New York website lists Helmreich as “Distinguished Professor”[5] and lists his areas of specialization as “race and ethnic relations, religion, immigration, risk behavior, the sociology of New York City, urban sociology, consumer behavior and market research..”

Helmreich, who grew up in New York on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.[7], was born 1945 in Switzerland to Holocaust survivor parents. In 1946 he “was brought to this country as an infant”[8][4] Helmreich wrote about his growing up years in a book he named “Wake Up, Wake Up, to Do the Work of the Creator” (a phrase, spoken in Yiddish, by those who went house-to-house to awaken worshippers for daily prayer).[9]

When asked about recordings of “many of the famous roshei yeshiva of yesteryear” whom he interviewed, “Do you still have the recordings?” he replied “At one time I thought I did, but it seems that all I have are the transcripts.” These he donated to his alma mater,[10] Yeshiva University.

Books written by Helmreich include: The Manhattan Nobody Knows (2018), The Brooklyn Nobody Knows (2016), The New York Nobody Knows (2013), What Was I Thinking (2010), The Enduring Community (1998), Against All Odds (1992), Flight Path (1989),The World of the Yeshiva (1982), The things they say behind your back (1982), The Black Crusaders (1973).

He revised his 1982 The World of the Yeshiva 18 years later[2] by comparing sociological changes “among the strictly Orthodox” since his 1980 research. Two areas about the new edition highlighted by The New York Times are the doubling in those doing full-time “collegiate and graduate”-level religious studies and population growth.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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