Teasing Out The Secrets Of Medieval Jewish Life


Last week, Princeton scholar Marina Rustow was named a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, more popularly known as a MacArthur “genius” award. The $625,000 prize is a no-strings-attached award, recognizing individuals who are “pushing the boundaries of their fields, improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways,” as the foundation’s president, Julia Stasch, explains. The Jewish studies specialist is one of 24 writers, artists, scholars and musicians selected.

Rustow, a social historian of the medieval Middle East, delves into textual materials from the Cairo Geniza in her research and intuits new connections. “I track the afterlives of texts,” she says.

The author of “Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate” (2008), she is the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and director of the Princeton Geniza Lab. She joined the faculty of Princeton last summer, after teaching at Emory University and Johns Hopkins. Rustow, who grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is also interested in the musical traditions of the Middle East, and plays oud, buzuq and classical piano.

Q: What was it like to get the news that you were selected?

A: I got three calls from a 312 number and assumed it was a furniture store outside of Chicago calling about couch swatches. When I finally picked up, someone asked, “Are you Marina Rustow and are you in a place where you can have a confidential conversation?” I can think of a lot of conversations that begin that way, none of them good news. When they told me, I was in a state of shock. I feel like I’m in the graphic novel version of my life, that any minute now I’m going to wake up to the real one. It’s hard to absorb.

What does it mean to study documents from the Cairo Geniza?

The Geniza is a cache of mostly 11th-to 13th-century documents, preserved in a synagogue in what is now Cairo; it was then Fustat. There are about 330,000 folio pages, and of those the vast majority are literary texts, written for posterity, copies of parts of biblical and rabbinic literature and liturgical texts and other books. Then there are roughly 20,000 letters, legal documents, lists, memos and other documentary material, and those are the sources I work with.

I have mostly asked two kinds of questions of them. Human beings have all kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and the Jewish stories mostly have to do with continuity and with distinctiveness. I was never satisfied with the idea that Jews lived without any meaningful contact with non-Jews. It just didn’t seem plausible. With the documents, I found a finer-grained picture, and the more complicated things look, the more interesting they become. That is the real challenge of Jewish history: to explain how Jews were never really insulated from non-Jews but also maintained a sense of cohesiveness.

In the period I work on, the vast majority of Jews lived in the Islamic world and spoke Arabic. The Ashkenazi communities were tiny backwaters in uncivilized Europe. You can’t actually understand this crucial period in Jewish history without understanding how the Islamic world functioned, and how Jews lived in it, and how Islamic thought influenced the evolution of Judaism between the time of the closing of Talmud, about 600 to 750, and the rise of print culture, about 1500. At the end of the Talmudic period there were three main Jewish communities, in Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt, and a smattering of Jews in what is now called Italy. A few hundred years later, with the Islamic conquests, Jewish life had spread to an enormous variety of other places, from the Atlantic to India, so already Islam is crucial to the basic question of diaspora and survival. I’m interested in looking at Islamic political history to see if it helps explain what Judaism became in the Middle Ages.

And the second set of questions?

The project I’m working on now comes from the realization that I could also do the converse: use these Jewish sources to construct a more fine-grained picture of what the Islamic world looked like in this period.

The Geniza preserved not just Jewish documents, but also documents written by Christians and Muslims. Most of that material had been ignored, and that was a breakthrough for me. I noticed that some of the materials in Arabic script had been re-used for texts in Hebrew script, and some of them were government decrees. The Hebrew script explains why they were preserved in the Geniza, but it doesn’t explain how the Arabic documents got into the hands of the Jewish people who reused them.

How do you actually examine the documents?

Just a few years ago, my answer to that question would have been different. The digital revolution has transformed this field. Geniza material is scattered across the world, in about 200 libraries and private collections. You used to have to travel or look at microfilm, and you could have the top half of a letter in Cambridge and the bottom in New York, and unless you had a photographic memory, or took detailed notes, it was difficult to piece things together. Now, I can sit in the comfort of my own living room in pajamas and look at a torn folio the way its scribe would have seen it.

How did you become interested in this period and in the Geniza?

A lot of small, winding paths led to a single road. I studied comparative literature as an undergraduate [at Yale] and then became more interested in Jewish studies, especially the Babylonian Talmud and redaction criticism — looking at the various layers of the text and how it was put together. [At Columbia] I got more interested in questions not of how the text was composed, but how it was disseminated, which led me to studying the medieval period and the Islamic conquests.

I also had a fantastic teacher, Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who had a preternatural ability to intuit which dissertation topics would play to his students’ strengths. He told me to study Arabic, and to look at the Karaites, and the Karaites led me to the Geniza. He wasn’t a specialist in the Geniza, so I spent a couple of years commuting from Columbia to Princeton where I studied with Mark Cohen. [He is now retired, and she now holds the named chair that he did.].

How will you use your MacArthur?

I don’t have specific plans, although it’s already changed my thinking a little bit. I’m in the process of trying to finish a book on Fatimid documents of state preserved in the Geniza. One thing I’d like to do is to let the project breathe. I always feel internal pressure to get the book done, and I’m hoping this will permit me to dig a little deeper and wander aimlessly, to look at documents I might not otherwise have spent time with, and also to read more widely in other fields of history.