Alexander Goldenweiser, an American Anthropologist with Russian Jewish Roots

Wednesday, October 14, 2020 - 12:30pm to 1:45pm
color photo of Sergei Kan

The son of a prominent Kiev-based Russian lawyer, Alexander (“Shoora”) A. Goldenweiser (1880–1941) was raised in a highly educated and assimilated middle-class Jewish family, passionately dedicated to Western high culture and liberal political values as well as Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy of nonviolence. Scholars, who focus mostly on Goldenweiser’s published scholarly works, tend to view him simply as a major figure in the first generation of American anthropologists trained professionally in the 1910s. Indeed, Goldenweiser’s major contributions to anthropology include a thorough critique of the concept of “totemism,” seminal ideas about the theory of culture (including the key role of the individual), and several others. In addition, he authored the first comprehensive American anthropology textbook and was a legendary lecturer who taught at Columbia, the New School for Social Research and Reed College, where he nurtured a number of leading figures in American anthropology. However, most scholars do not take his Russian Jewish roots into consideration.

Professor Kan’s exploration of Goldenweiser’s widely scattered archive as well as his contributions as a public intellectual to various nonacademic periodicals breaks new ground by focusing on both Goldenweiser’s scholarship and his views on social and political issues to demonstrate that his identification with Russian and Western European cultures, left-leaning anarchism and individualism as well as European cosmopolitanism had been strongly influenced by his background. Kan’s talk will discuss Goldenweiser’s criticism of the Soviet regime for its severe restriction of the individual’s rights and liberties. Kan will also review Goldenweiser’s ideas about Jewish “race” vs. Jewish culture, anti-Semitism, Jewish assimilation (which he favored) and Jewish nationalism (which he opposed).

Sergei Kan was born in Moscow and studied at the History Department of Moscow State University between 1970 and 1973. He and his family emigrated to the United States in 1974. That same year he enrolled in Boston University’s undergraduate University Professors Program, receiving a B.A. in anthropology and religion in 1976. He then pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1982. The focus of Kan’s ethnographic and archival research for his dissertation was on the pre-Christian as well as Russian Orthodox mortuary and memorial rituals of the Tlingit, the indigenous people of southeastern Alaska. He is the author and editor of several books on Tlingit and Alaska Native history and culture, the impact of Orthodox missionization on Native Alaskans, Native American ethnology, and the anthropology of death and dying, including Symbolic Immortality: the Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century (1989), Memory Eternal: Tlingit Culture and Russian Orthodox Christianity Through Two Centuries (1999) and Death in the Early Twenty-First Century: Authority, Innovation, and Mortuary Rites (2017). His research on the history of Russian and American anthropology resulted in the book Lev Shternberg: Anthropologist, Russian Socialist, Jewish Activist (2009) and numerous articles. Kan is currently working on an intellectual biography of Aleksandr A. Goldenweiser (1880–1940), a major figure in American anthropology, born in Russia to a prominent Jewish family. 

Maxim D. Shrayer, born and raised in Moscow, is a bilingual author, scholar and translator. A Professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College, Shrayer serves as Director of the Project on Russian and Eurasian Jewry at Harvard’s Davis Center. Shrayer authored and edited over fifteen books in English and Russian, among them the internationally acclaimed memoirs Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story and Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, the double biography Bunin and Nabokov: A History of Rivalry, the Holocaust study “I SAW IT,” and the travelogue With or without You. Shrayer edited and co-translated four books of fiction by his father, the Jewish-Russian writer David Shrayer-Petrov. Maxim D. Shrayer won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Shrayer’s Voices of Jewish-Russian Literature was published in 2018. His most recent book is A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas. Shrayer's Of Politics and Pandemics: Songs of a Russian Immigrant is forthcoming.


Sergei Kan (Dartmouth College)
Moderator: Maxim D. Shrayer (Boston College; Davis Center)

Cosponsored by the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University. The Project on Russian and Eurasian Jewry has been made possible with the generous support of Genesis Philanthropy Group.Genesis Philanthropy Group

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