Death and the Minyan

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Essay Excerpt

The hierarchical and spatially enforced bifurcation between the practice of ethnography and the discourse of social theory has been undermined in recent decades both by intellectual developments and by world events. Attempts to simply "apply" atopic theories to local situations no longer go unquestioned, whether because of a heightened respect for the particularities of experience or because of greater awareness that the theories themselves are irrevocably linked to their own "local situations." This critical awareness does not necessarily attach itself to contemporary philosophy, however, even when the philosophical work deals with questions that are at the core of decades of ethnographic study. All too easily, even the most politically concerned philosophers still proceed as if the remnants of post-Christian European modernism were generalizable as a universal condition of humankind. In this essay, therefore, I intend to juxtapose an important and frustrating recent French philosophical statement on "community" (Nancy 1986, 1991) with shards of ethnographic narrative from a very local situation.[3]

It is not particularly old, as Lower East Side synagogues go. It is not large: one of what I call the "tenement shuls," squeezed long and narrow into lots laid out for crowded immigrant housing. It is not yet the only mark of Jewish presence on this mostly Latino block; across the street is a small shop with a sign bearing the name, "Moyshe Hans," and then in English, "Tropical worsted suits." Twice a day, morning and evening, Rabbi Singer still manages to cajole or conjure a minyan, a quorum of ten male adult Jews, to satisfy the minimal demands of presence for collective Jewish prayer (3-4).

Boyarin, J. "Death and the Minyan." Cultural Anthropology 9.1(1994): 3–22.

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