The eminent sociologist William B. Helmreich was best known for walking every block of New York City and writing a celebrated book about his 6,000-mile odyssey. He has died of the coronavirus at 74.
A scholar of Judaism as well, he walked every block in New York — totaling 6,163 miles — and wrote a book about his odyssey. He died of the coronavirus.
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.
What made his ramble through New York so beguiling — besides the sheer feat of his feet — were the serendipitous encounters and discoveries of offbeat corners of city life. In Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he met a man whose ample garage was chock-a-block with old Dodger baseball uniforms, carousel horses, gaudy amusement arcade machines and vintage cars — all as a wistful homage to the Brooklyn of his childhood.
In Gowanus, Brooklyn, he came across a long-dormant grocery on a street of rowhouses and found that it that had been kept as a shrine by the descendants of a Neapolitan immigrant who had opened the business a century before, its Rheingold and Schaefer beer neon signs flashing at Christmastime in tribute.
“I saw this as a remarkable example of filial piety, something that today’s generation might not understand,” Professor Helmreich told Mr. Mitchell. “Today’s generation is much more techie, much more involved in the present.”ImageProfessor Helmreich’s rambles through New York were inspired in part by a pastime that he and his father called “Last Stop.” They would choose a subway, take it to the end of the line and spend a few hours exploring the novelties of neighborhoods they had never seen.
Credit...Alessandra Montalto/The New York TimesWilliam Benno Helmreich was born on Aug. 25, 1945 in Zurich. His parents, Leo and Sally (Finkelstein) Helmreich, had met in Nazi-occupied Belgium and had spirited their way through France into neutral Switzerland. In 1946 the family emigrated to the United States, where his father worked first repairing diamond jewelry and eventually became a diamond dealer.
Settling on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, his parents sent red-haired Willie, as he was known, to Manhattan Day School, a modern Orthodox yeshiva, where teachers noticed his strong tenor voice and had him star in the annual Purim play. (Among his many adult diversions, Professor Helmreich sometimes served as a supplemental cantor.)
He reflected on his mixed feelings about his childhood education in a memoir, “Wake Up, Wake Up to Do the Work of the Creator” (1977), and later studied more advanced yeshivas in “The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Judaism” (1982).
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.
Learning of Professor Helmreich’s sudden death, Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said: “He was in the wrong profession for the coronavirus. Willie loved talking to people. Social distancing was not in his nature.”
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