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Interview with MacArthur Fellowship Recipient Marina Rustow

AJS News Managing Editor Amy Weiss spoke with Marina Rustow, 2011 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award recipient and past AJS board member, about winning a MacArthur Fellowship.

Below is the full interview. Read an abbreviated version of the interview here.

Amy Weiss: Congratulations on winning a MacArthur Fellowship! How did you find out you had just won a Genius Award?

Marina Rustow: I was out running errands with my four-year old. I actually was expecting a call from Chicago, but not from the MacArthur Foundation. A furniture company was supposed to call me about couch swatches. I kept getting these missed calls from Chicago and wondering why the furniture company wasn’t leaving a message. When I got home I finally picked up the call and heard the voice on the other end of the line ask, “Is this Marina Rustow? Are you in a place where you can have a confidential conversation?” I thought: this can’t be good. There must be some bill that never made it to my home and has now gone into collections. Or someone died. Luckily it didn’t turn out to be either. It’s surreal.

AW: Did you know that you had been nominated before receiving this phone call?

MR: It was totally out of left field. I think that’s deliberate on the foundation’s part. It adds to the sense of affirmation. You don’t apply for the fellowship. You have no idea that somebody has nominated you. You have absolutely no idea who the people were who wrote on your behalf, and there are a minimum of thirty of them. You have no clue that this is going through the pipeline. You don’t know how long it took to go through the pipeline. There’s some kind of anonymous group of people out there who helped make this happen. So it’s like a surprise party for your work. It’s overwhelming.

AW: Can you share with AJS members how your work on the Cairo Geniza differs from previous work on this topic?

MR: The work I’m doing right now, even though it’s unusual in terms of previous work on the Geniza, is not unprecedented. A few scholars before me have worked on Arabic script documents in the Geniza and without their work I would be lost. One of them is S. D. Goitein, who found plenty of Arabic-script material in the Geniza, but he left it to S. M. Stern at Oxford to do the rest. Stern was very brilliant, and published a few of them, but he died suddenly at the age of 48. He had passed a few documents on to D. S. Richards at Oxford who published them, but Richards moved on to later material, Arabic documents from the monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai.

And then along came Geoffrey Khan from Cambridge. He read more of these Arabic documents from the Geniza than anyone before him by a long margin—more than ninety. When I first started getting interested in them, I studied his work and went to him with questions. The fact that I’m doing this work at all owes everything to Geoffrey Khan. He cracked these documents open. And in the end, one is always building on previous work. If our approaches differ, it’s because he is a linguist and I am a historian, but he is a linguist with a very refined historical sensibility.

Now that I’ve given the caveat that I’m actually not completely original, let me back up. Most people who have worked on the Cairo Geniza have worked on material that is directly related to the Jewish community, the history of Judaism, the practice of Jewish courts of law, and long-distance traders. The first people who worked on Geniza material starting in the late nineteenth century were mainly interested in biblical material, and also in advancing knowledge of Jewish literature in the period between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, which was almost totally undocumented. After S. D. Goitein and the documentary turn in the 1950s, work on the Geniza was still mainly about the Jewish community. Maimonides, who died in 1204, spent the last forty years of his life living in medieval Cairo and praying in the same synagogue where the Geniza materials were found, but nobody really knew what his daily life was like or what his position in the community was. There were big holes in our knowledge. So that’s what people had studied. Goitein started working on the Geniza in 1947. He stumbled across some Geniza documents in Budapest and found letters from traders who had gone from Egypt all the way across the Indian Ocean. He thought this was somewhat bizarre and more than somewhat exciting. He was the first person to realize the potential of working exclusively on documentary material—not Jewish literature, not Jewish liturgy, not translations of the bible, not rabbinic literature, not famous people whose works had been copied for generations, not the intellectual elites but the nameless and forgotten. And that intersected with perhaps the most persistent theme in Jewish historiography in the twentieth century in general: Jewish communal organization and rabbinic leadership. So that is the tradition that I come from: Jewish communal studies. My first book was on the Jewish community. Because the Geniza is the densest and most coherent cache of documents from the period that has survived, it is rare to come across a person who is mentioned in only one document, so the material lends itself well to communal studies.

AW: In your first book, you talk about how Karaites and Rabbanites married each other, but so often sources suggest that they are two completely separate sects and that they are in opposition in every way.

MR: The intermarriages had long been known, but no one had really put the couples in the context of all this rich supporting communal evidence and traced their social networks. They were thought of Romeo and Juliet stories of starcrossed lovers whose families opposed their marriages, not to mention their entire communities. But when I actually started to try to understand who the bride and groom were for each of these marriages, it turns out there was a bigger story here in two ways. One is that medieval marriages were decided upon by either the immediate or extended families of the bride and groom. You’re marrying your child to a child of another family and they each have to agree upon the value of the dowry and other conditions of the marriage, and that already shows that the court is involved; and then you have to bring it to a court to draw up the marriage contract. The marriages necessarily involved communal authorities. Not only that, the Karaite-Rabbanite marriage contracts all have specific clauses detailing what a bride and groom are supposed to do on holidays and on Shabbat and other occasions when Karaites and Rabbanites are supposed to do different things. Both parties’ practices are being protected, which means that rabbinical authorities were sanctioning the protection of these Karaite practices. So there was actually a much bigger communal story happening here.

Or take the calendar. Karaites and Rabbanites have different methods of calendation, so the husband and wife could observe Yom Kippur or Passover as much as a month apart. It was clear that this wasn’t a problem for anybody, that they were living in the same household and fasting or not fasting and nobody was particularly disturbed by this. It was all written into the marriage contract. But even the historians who were willing to admit that there was a lot more connection than we might have thought between Karaites and Rabbanites argued that the calendar was the red line that essentially separated one community from another—that he who calendates differently severs himself from the body of Israel. But the connections between the communities ran so deep that for a period of the eleventh century, you couldn’t become gaon of the Jerusalem yeshiva unless the Karaites liked you.

I think the internal politics of the Jewish community are a fascinating subject. I’m working on another Jewish communal project right now with Sacha Stern, about another controversy over the calendar, between Iraqi and Palestinian rabbinic Jews. But my departure from the communal approach came when I realized not only how many documents there are in Arabic script from the Geniza, but how many of those documents emanate from government officials—bureaucrats, tax-collectors, chancery secretaries, even caliphs and viziers. In my first book, I had noticed that when factions of Jews were fighting out who was really in charge, they did it by petitioning the caliph. SO I started looking more carefully at the petition-and-response procedure, who went to the caliphs to settle disputes and why the caliphs bothered to help. That was when I started looking at the Arabic material. When I started, I thought surely this topic has been explored enough already, and there were just a few details I wanted to figure out. But it turns out we just at the beginning with this material, for a couple of different reasons.

There is a large quantity of Arabic script material that no one has looked at or identified because it’s hard to read even if your Arabic is excellent. The paleography is not for the faint of heart, and not many people actually do it. Geoffrey Khan published more than anyone before him by an order of magnitude, but he published Arabic documents from Cambridge, and there are about 70 collections around the world with Arabic material. There are also many hundreds more Arabic government documents in Cambridge itself. So clearly there is more to be done. That was the first thing I realized.

The second thing I realized, and I may as well admit that I thought this might be a bit loony tunes at first, is that when you’re looking at a document you have to look at both sides, recto and verso. Let’s say you’re looking at a letter, and it was written on the back of a tax receipt. Previous scholarship looked at either the letter or the tax receipt. I got interested in the question of where the tax receipt went after it was issued to the person who paid their taxes, and how it got into the hands of the person who wrote the letter. There’s a lot of social information embedded in that transfer. And then I realized that even some of the Geniza texts in Hebrew script that had been published—rabbinic literature, liturgical texts, poetry—was written on the backs of Arabic documents, but the Arabic script had never been identified or even really noticed. This was an important realization for me because there’s not a single state archive in the Middle East that dates back to before the Ottoman period. And we’d really like to know what a state archive might have looked like. Oddly enough, the Geniza turns out to be our richest source of Arabic government documents from before 1500: the key to finding the state archives of this period lies in texts preserved in a Jewish synagogue—but only if you look at all the inscriptions on the texts instead of filtering out the Arabic.

In 2011 the Cambridge University Library Geniza Research Unit had me write a short article on the work I was doing in its newsletter and I talked about these Arabic fragments covered with Hebrew script. Shamma Friedman then sent me an e-mail saying, “I finally understand why this bifolio of a Talmud text that I published in 1986 has 4 gigantic lines of Arabic across it. Here’s the image and thanks for clarifying.” And I was like, “Wow. I wonder how many more of these there are out there.” So I started looking even through published material and finding what turned out to be fragments of government decrees of precisely the sort we’re missing. There are only ten Fatimid decrees that had survived more or less intact from the Middle Ages, and there I was finding hundreds of fragments of them in Jewish texts.

AW: It sounds like there is a community of scholars working on different topics, but even though you are working on different topics, there is still collaboration.

MR: You have asked the $64,000 question. That is one of the big problems. It’s probably true in any field; I can only speak for my field. The Geniza contains so many different kinds of material that nobody on earth can be an expert in every single one of them. And because the very same piece of paper can contain vastly different types of texts, people have to work together. One of the things that I’ve been trying to do, and I’ve finally found a way to do it in the last few years, is to create collaborative structures so that people can pool their knowledge. I started doing this by applying for collaborative grants, and now I’m running those projects and others through the Princeton Geniza Lab. I just came from a weekly meeting I have with four other people where we were looking at documents and trying to pool our knowledge and we’re all finding that our work is going much more quickly and easily this way.

I’ll give you another example of why collaboration is important. One of the brains behind the Friedberg Genizah Project, Roni Shweka, studies post-Talmudic rabbinic literature from the period of geonim. He was looking through Geniza fragments of an eighth-century work called the She’iltot and he found 120 fragments, six of which fit together to form a long, vertical scroll.

On the back of the scroll there was some Arabic writing, so he emailed me and asked me what it was—and it was more than a meter of a Fatimid decree. I could never have pieced it together myself because the line spacing is so wide that the text isn’t dense enough to piece together.

AW: In 2011, you received a Jordan Schnitzer Book Award from AJS for your book, Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate. Can you talk about the impact of that award for you, both personally and professionally?

MR: The thing with academic books is you don’t write them to sell copies. Most academic publishers do small print runs because there is no absolutely guarantee that books are going to be sold. And you’re not doing it for the royalties check. That there was a committee of colleagues who thought I was up to something good gave me the confidence to go on and take new risks. It was a risky project, in a way. My doctoral advisor, Yosef Yerushalmi, was interested in any kind of question dealing with heresy, and he turned me on to the Karaites. But his interests in heresy were not the same as mine, and in a way, I was walking on this tightrope where I had no idea if I would find anything worthwhile. The fact that someone found the results to be worthy made me think, well, maybe I’ll go on and find more tightropes.

AW: What advice do you have for graduate students and early career scholars in the field of Jewish Studies, perhaps especially given the job market’s current prospects?

MR: Three things. They might seem to be pulling in opposite directions. The first is you have to know your materials. Whatever corner of the Jewish world you are working in, chronologically, geographically, disciplinarily, you have to know your stuff. You have to understand the texts. You have to work on your languages. You have to immerse yourself to the point where you can think like the people you are studying. And that is detail work. But at some point you have to come out of the weeds and tell us why it matters.

The second is, go to the archives, whatever those are for you, and don’t assume that everybody has exhausted the material, or even mapped it. You never know. When Roni Shweka found those 120 fragments of the She’iltot, he had been told, don’t bother. It’s a closed case and we already know everything about it that there is to know. I have 500 Arabic state documents in my database that Geoffrey Khan didn’t publish. Don’t be afraid to look at a topic even if you think it has been covered. There might be new stuff there.

The third is that not everything is worth working on. The example that Yerushalmi used to give is “the household finances of the kingdom of something-you-have-never-heard-of from 1461 to 1462.” If you choose a topic, you have to make a case for it. You have to tell us why we should care. What does your material teach us that is reproducible and transferrable to other contexts, and what does it give us beside just filling in the blanks. Another teacher of mine, Michael Stanislawski, once told me: we’re not about filling in the blanks. We’re about making worthwhile arguments.

So, work on the details, but you need to have the big picture in mind all the time. And if you can manage to connect those things, if you can do detailed philological work and put your argument on firm evidentiary ground and get all your technical skills in order and keep in mind why it matters, then you’ll convince a search committee that you’re worth having around.

And there is a fourth thing: Write well. Learn how to write well. Don’t get lulled into thinking that authors of academic books are necessarily good writers, or the writers you should emulate. Read good prose. Give your stuff to people to read, to edit. Try to write as readably as you can because the process of communicating keeps you honest. If you can’t say it simply, you might have to go back and think more. You might be using eight-dollar words to cover over areas you haven’t understood completely.

And I didn’t even talk about the job market. Yes, it’s true that the academic job market is in contraction. It’s also true that the Jewish Studies market is much less in contraction than other fields. On that, my advice is don’t panic. Do serious work.

AW: What are you currently working on, what’s your next project and how do you see the MacArthur Fellowship helping you accomplish this work?

MR: Right now I’m trying to finish a few projects. One of them is the book on Arabic script documents, the petition and response procedure under the Fatimids and what the Geniza has to say about it. The book is trying to explain the paradox that our single greatest source of medieval Arabic government documents comes from the attic of a Jewish synagogue. The second is a collaborative project with a fantastic group of colleagues on documents and institutions, and what scribal practice can tell us about courts of law and government offices that other kinds of sources aren’t telling us. The third, with Sacha Stern, is about the calendar controversy of 921-922. That’s another example of what I was saying before—even things you thought had been done might need more work. The calendar controversy is a staple of Jewish history courses, and all the texts about it had been published 100 years ago, so we thought there wasn’t much left to do, we’d just look at the texts from a new angle, asking why they were copied and read in the 11th and 12th centuries by whoever left them in the Geniza. But then we saw that the old editions were not even up to standard when they were published. We made new discoveries, new manuscript fragments, new joins, and a lot of old mistakes that had been embedded and encrusted into the literature. So we’re producing a new set of editions and a historical and technical analysis of the controversy.

My hope is that the MacArthur Fellowship will allow me to dig deeper into the documents, and to read more broadly in other fields of history, to look at stuff I might not have looked at otherwise, in a sense, to go a bit astray. I’m hoping it will allow me to hit the pause button, slow down and take a look around. I’ve already started trawling through parts of the Geniza I had never really scrutinized before. It’s opened up some mental space. Like tax receipts. Sounds boring, I know, but it’s not. I’m hoping to work on taxation, but not, like, what were the finances of the Fatimid empire. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in taxation on a human level. Who were the tax collectors? What were their relationships to the people whose money they were collecting? How did people try to avoid tax collectors, what kind of ruses or subterfuges did they find? My colleague Jessica Goldberg at UCLA discovered that merchants in the medieval Mediterranean basin used false labeling practices, essentially to smuggle goods under the nose of the tax collector to avoid paying imposts. That’s what interests me about taxation.

AW: I’m very much looking forward to reading this works when they are complete! The History News Network previously surveyed historians asking them what the one or two things are that they couldn’t live without. As a historian, what can you not live without to finish your work?

MR: Loose-leaf green tea. The Friedberg Genizah Project. I can’t do my work without high-resolution digital images of the documents that I’m looking at because I can’t be on an airplane to see manuscripts all the time or spend my life staring at microfilm. My eyesight. I’m very conscious of what kind of shampoo I use because shampoo gets in your eyes. So do UV rays, so sunglasses are important outside if you want to read manuscripts, especially really faded ones. So I would say good green tea, the Friedberg Genizah Project, and my eyesight.

AW: Is there anything else you’d like to share with AJS members?

MR: I think Jewish Studies is at an interesting moment of its existence right now. There used to be a lot of inward-looking work, work that cared about parochial or internalist questions; non-Jews were considered “context” or “local color.” But now there is a lot of outward-looking Jewish history, by which I mean people recognize that Jewish subjects can actually help us to understand something about the wider world. That’s a positive change because it means that Jewish Studies has something to teach other fields. Eric Goldstein, who was my colleague when I taught at Emory, used to say, “I’m always looking to figure out what the Jewish experience can tell us about the rest of society.” I’m a social historian, and if you’re a social historian, it doesn’t feel right to study a tiny minority and not the rest of the society. As soon as Eric said that to me, something fell into place: you can’t understand a society unless you understand its minorities. It’s rarely worth understanding a minority on its own, and the minorities can teach you something about the society that the majority can’t.

Marina Rustow is the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and professor of History and director of the Princeton Geniza Lab at Princeton University.