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New York Author Dies From COVID-19

Ellen Levitt

Posted on March 31, 2020 13:00

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One of my favorite non-fiction authors has died of COVID-19. Here is my tribute to him, and thoughts on how mourning and paying tribute are impacted by the pandemic.

One of my favorite modern non-fiction writers has died of COVID-19. Professor William Helmreich, who taught in the City University of New York system, and who authored fourteen books on NYC, Judaism, and sociology, has died at the age of 74. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book "The New York Nobody Knows: Walking 6,000 Miles in the City," as well as his book on Brooklyn. 

I learned of his passing when a friend posted a blog piece on Facebook. It was a dignified tribute, and I wanted to pay homage to him as well. 

Professor Helmreich had done me a favor that I didn't know about until I read "The New York Nobody Knows" from cover to cover: in the bibliography he had listed two of the books I'd written about the Lost Synagogues of New York City! I was highly appreciative. 

Then in September 2018, I read that he'd be attending the annual Brooklyn Book Festival. I was volunteering part of the time for a non-profit group that had a table there, and during one of my breaks I walked over to the Princeton University Press table, and there was Professor Helmreich. I approached him, said hello, and mentioned that I was the woman who had written the lost synagogues books. He gave me a big greeting, and we spent several minutes talking about NYC -- Brooklyn in particular -- as well as architecture, synagogues, and more. Later on he stopped by our table, the Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative, and looked at our pamphlets. 

Overall, I was so pleased to speak with someone whose work I admired, and who was a down-to-Earth "mensch" (Yiddish for 'good guy'). 

His books about NYC are written in an intelligent but accessible style, enthusiastic but not uncritical, comprehensive but not dry. I aspire to write in this fashion. He has had a lot to say about exploring all sides of New York City and its people. 

Thus, hearing about his passing saddened me. And imagine how his family, friends, students and past students, colleagues and well-wishers cannot attend his funeral now because of social distancing. His family cannot receive visits during the seven day mourning period known as "shiva", a familiar Jewish ritual of comforting the closest mourners by visiting them and offering solace. Now shiva for Professor Helmreich, and any other Jewish person in NYC and in many parts of the world, cannot be conducted in person as tradition goes. People can only call or email or perhaps teleconference their condolences. It's a strange, changed world out there.

Most of us are now living in seclusion, within our homes, or working at jobs that are considered essential. This was not the New York City of Professor Helmreich, who loved to walk all around, make observations of roof gardens and street art and houses of worship and so much more. He enjoyed speaking with New Yorkers, getting their views, and incorporating them into his work. 

Rest in peace.

 

Ellen Levitt

Posted on March 31, 2020 13:00

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COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus , is having drastic effects around the globe — and some people are drawing...

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