John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Vox Tablet

Puzzle Master

For years, scholars dismissed the Arabic on text fragments from Cairo’s genizah as unimportant scribbling. Then along came Marina Rustow, bona fide ‘genius.’

October 13, 2015
John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

A genizah is an area in a synagogue or Jewish cemetery where sacred texts that are in disuse are stored. Traditionally, a text is considered sacred if it’s got the name of God written on it, whether in a liturgical form or simply in a greeting like “Praise Be to the Almighty” written at the top of a letter. The most famous genizah was in Cairo at the Ben Ezra synagogue. It held documents dating to the 9th century; those documents helped scholars piece together what life was like for Jews in the middle ages. Until fairly recently, people who studied genizah fragments mostly looked at the Hebrew or Aramaic, piecing together documents to figure out what they could about the Jewish community. Marina Rustow instead has been looking at the long-neglected Arabic scribblings in the margins and on the backs of such documents.

Rustow, a professor of history and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, had a hunch that deciphering the Arabic bits and pieces would reveal something about what life was like under the rule of the Fatimid Empire, a dynasty whose archives, such as they were, did not survive the centuries intact. Her painstaking efforts have paid off—not just in terms of scholarly discovery, but also in terms of professional accolades. Just two weeks ago, Rustow was named a MacArthur Fellow, which brings with it an award of $625,000.

She joins Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry from her home in Philadelphia to discuss the unique skill set that makes her good at her job, the correspondence that has given a sense of personality to particular historical figures, and what she plans to do with her windfall.

Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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