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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 an abbreviated version of the interview. Read the full 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: 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 Jewish 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, work on the Geniza was still mainly about the Jewish community. My first book was on the Jewish community, although I was trying to figure out what the Jewish community would look like if you thought about it holistically, not just the rabbis but everyone. There were lots of surprises. One was that Karaites and Rabbanites were marrying each other with the full approval of legal authorities on both sides, and that for a stretch of the eleventh century, no rabbinic leader in Syria or Egypt could stay in office without Karaite supporters. I thought that was the kind of thing that merited closer study, because it could change our ideas about medieval Judaism, not just the Judaism of books read by a tiny minority of people, but the compromises people normalized in the course of getting along with each other and with life.

My departure from this came when I realized how many documents there are in Arabic script from the Geniza, and 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 trying to figure out who was really in charge, they were working it out by petitioning the caliph. So I started looking more carefully at this petition and response procedure. That was when I started looking at the Arabic material, saying wait a minute, there is something going on here that should be explored further. A few people had already worked on the Arabic script material in the Geniza, most notably Geoffrey Khan, so I thought surely this topic has been finished already. But it turns out we are just at the beginning for a couple of different reasons.

One is that 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. Not many people actually do it. The paleography is not for the faint of heart. That was the first thing that I realized, that there’s a lot more out there. Geoffrey Khan published a volume of maybe 160 documents, which was more than anyone before him by an order of magnitude. But he published Arabic documents from Cambridge, and there are not only about 70 collections around the world with Arabic fragments, there are several hundred 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 at 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. 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 Arabic documents, but the Arabic script had never been identified or even really noticed. 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. The Geniza turns out to be our richest source of Arabic government documents from the medieval period—or to turn it around, the key to finding the lost medieval Arabic state archive lies in the texts preserved in a Jewish synagogue—but you have to look at all parts of the text.

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 guarantee that books are going to be sold. 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 interest in heresy was 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. I have a colleague, Aharon (Roni) Shweka, who had been told not to bother looking for fragments of the She’iltot in the Geniza. It’s a closed case and we already know everything about it that there is to know. Then he went and found 120 fragments and a complex textual history. Don’t be afraid to dig in 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.” Not everything is actually worthy of being written about or worthy of being recovered. Meaning, 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 a book on Arabic script documents, the petition and response procedure under the Fatimids and what the Geniza has to say about it. It’s about 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: 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.