Over dinner in a kosher restaurant in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn a few years ago, Dr. William Helmreich, a professor of sociology and prolific author, was telling some friends and fellow academics a few stories about his latest book, “The Brooklyn Nobody Knows” (Princeton University Press), from 2017. The book was his journal of his walks along the borough’s 816 miles of streets.
One particular story had caught his attention — about the Theodor Herzl mural.
Helmreich, distinguished professor in the City College sociology department and an instructor at the CUNY Graduate School, had discovered a five-story-high likeness of the founder of the modern Zionism movement along the side of a building in Brownsville, the Brooklyn neighborhood that through the 1950s was largely Jewish.
The professor told his friends, Linda and Heshy Friedman of Borough Park, professors in the CUNY system, about the incongruity, and symbolism, of an image of a famed Zionist leader displayed prominently in a black neighborhood, said Heshy Friedman.
“He was excited” that young African-Americans were inspired by the resilience message of Herzl’s words — “If you will it, it is no dream” — that were part of the artwork, Friedman said of Helmreich, 75, who died at his Great Neck, N.Y., home on March 28 of coronavirus. “He had a lot of interest in a lot of areas.”
Helmreich’s specialty areas were race and ethnic relations, religion, immigration, risk behavior, the sociology of New York City, urban sociology, consumer behavior, and market research.
“He was an invaluable asset to the history of this community,” said Linda Forgosh, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society (JHS) of New Jersey, an agency of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
She told NJJN that a book committee of JHS hired Helmreich to write what became the authoritative history on the Jews of this region, “Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and MetroWest” (Transaction Publishers, 1998). His research notes from this project are housed in the JHS archives on the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany.
“For me he was indispensable because he did such a thorough job,” said Forgosh. “I admired him.”
Helmreich was a featured speaker at several federation events, including the opening of the 2013 JHS exhibit “Federation at 90” and at an opening of “From Memory to History,” once an annual exhibit by the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest NJ. He interviewed local Holocaust survivors and their children for his 1995 book “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America” (Transaction Publishers).
“He had a great sense of humor and was full of anecdotes,” recalled Max Kleinman in an email to NJJN. Kleinman was CEO/executive vice president of Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ from 1995 to 2014 and was involved in commissioning Helmreich to write “Enduring Community.”
Kleinman added, Helmreich “was a great conversationalist and had an encyclopedic knowledge in many fields.”
While the Holocaust and other Jewish topics were the subjects of many of his books, he was best known in recent years for the Brooklyn book, as well as “The Manhattan Nobody Knows: An Urban Walking Guide” and “The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City,” journals that chronicled his travels around New York City, by foot, on all of the streets of the Big Apple.
“After his book on New York City, we spent a day together, traversing the Bronx, Manhattan, and several neighborhoods in Brooklyn [Bushwick, Williamsburg, Greenpoint],” said Sandee Brawarsky, culture editor at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. “He drove like the taxi driver he once was, knew the shortcuts, so comfortable behind the wheel, noticing everything, as when he’d walk down streets. On street level, he struck up conversation all along the way, noticed so many details, remembered every detail.
“He was also a gentle, very thoughtful, very generous guy, remembering all the small things,” Brawarsky said. “He still had so many miles to walk.”
Rabbi Dale Polakoff, spiritual leader of the Great Neck Synagogue, said Helmreich was an active supporter of the congregation and of the North Shore Hebrew Academy, the local day school. “He would do anything we asked of him. He wasn’t looking for honor, to be recognized for anything.
“He loved coming to shul – to daven, to connect with people,” Polakoff said.
When Helmreich’s son Alan died suddenly about 20 years ago, during Sukkot, he showed up that night at the rabbi’s house; both Orthodox, they would not use the telephone on
After he broke the tragic news, Helmreich told the rabbi, “Please keep this quiet. I don’t want to ruin anyone else’s holiday.”
“He was thinking of others,” Polakoff said.
Curious about a virtually unlimited range of topics, Helmreich over the decades met and befriended people from many religious and ethnic backgrounds, from Black Panthers to chasidic rebbes. Though a member of the Orthodox community, he was at ease with Jews of all denominations. Though a trained academic, he wrote in a style accessible to anyone. Though he grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, born in Switzerland in 1945 to survivors, he exuded, his friends said, a captivating optimism.
He “never forgot that he was the son of survivors — he was acutely aware of the [lost] world he came from,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. Like many children of survivors, Helmreich was driven to succeed, Sarna said. “I’ve known other children of survivors. Many of them had seen [the example of] their parents, who had to remake their lives” in this country.
“He was a volcano,” Sarna said. “He was a powerhouse.”
“The world and the field of sociology have lost a gem,” said Hella Winston, a sociologist and investigative journalist who has written extensively for The Jewish Week. Helmreich was the Ph.D. dissertation adviser for Winston, who graduated from the CUNY Graduate Center in 2006.
“Dr. Helmreich was a wonderful adviser and mentor. He was incredibly supportive of and enthusiastic about my work, generous with his time and vast knowledge, and unfailingly upbeat,” Winston said. “My research was on chasidic people who were leading ‘double lives’ within their communities. At one point, Dr. Helmreich expressed an interest in meeting one of my key informants, a young chasidic man who was deeply connected to his community but no longer abiding by all of its rules. Dr. Helmreich asked me if this man would be willing to meet him and his wife and suggested a place on the Upper West Side.
“My informant was nervous about the meeting, far out of his Brooklyn comfort zone, but also excited that such a well-known academic would be interested in his life, what he thought and had to say,” Winston remembered. “I will never forget that evening — how open Dr. Helmreich and his wife were, and how they so effortlessly put this young man at ease with their warmth. I have no doubt the man will not forget it,
Helmreich is survived by his wife, Helaine; and three children, Jeffrey, Joseph and Deborah.
Over the decades, Helmreich taught thousands of students, and advised hundreds. “His many books and as well his students,” Sarna said, “will be his legacy.”
Steve Lipman is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication