Saturday, October 27, 2012

Statement of Research Need

I had to write up a rough research plan as part of the application for a reader's card for the Bodleian Library; so since it was already all spelled out, I figured I'd share some of what I'll be up to for the next two weeks, Frankenstorm-pending, of course.


I propose to consult with three manuscripts that form part of the Bodleian collection.

The first is Neubauer Cat. No. 1402.1, a copy of the Hebrew translation of Solomon ibn Gabirol’s ethical-didactic treatise, The Improvement of Moral Qualities, as well as a letter written by the translator to a friend in which he describes his translation process. The subject of my current research is that translator, Judah ibn Tibbon, his son Samuel, and their joint intellectual program. I have, thus far, consulted with the two extant editions of the letter, published in Hamburg in 1848 and in Lyck in 1859. The Hamburg edition literally leaves question marks in the text, and the Lyck edition was based on the earlier print edition rather than on the manuscript. I therefore require access to the manuscript to ascertain what those question marks are standing in for, whether it is text or damage to the page.

The second is Bodleian MS 2130 (Cat. No. 730), a letter from a sixteenth-century bookseller, Pinhas of Narbonne, in which he describes his communications with a confederate, Isaac bar Menahem of Narbonne, whom I believe to have been involved in the creation of forged texts attributed to the translators who are the subject of my research. The letter is cited once, quoted only partially and only in French translation of the original Hebrew, in Henri Gross’ Gallia Judaica.

The third is Neubauer Cat. 2219.3, a Hebrew ethical will written by the father translator to the son translator. This is the only complete manuscript of one of the major texts that forms the basis of my research. I have been working from editions up until now but prior to publishing my work I wish to verify a few details of the text by consulting with the manuscript.

And finally, in the introduction to his catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts held by the Bodleian Library, Adolf Neubauer explains that he does not do more than give a cursory listing of each manuscript because “something must be left for those who may make a special study of these manuscripts” (vii). I hope, by working with the manuscripts themselves, that I may be able to discover things that I cannot yet identify as needing because they will have been overlooked, deliberately or unintentionally, by cataloguers and earlier scholars.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lewis and Lawrence on Stage and Screen

In the last few weeks I've seen two theatrical productions that were related closely to the history of religions: the film Lawrence of Arabia and a stage adaptation of C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.

Lawrence is one of my favorite movies, but it's been an age since I've seen it. I've always wanted to see it on the big screen, so it was a real treat to do so when it was re-released for the 50th anniversary. It took a while to get used to the aesthetic because even though the film was digitally remastered, the definition is unchanged and is much grainier than contemporary movies; after a while, though, I wasn't even noticing it. I walked away this time feeling much less sympathetic for Lawrence, at least the Lawrence who is the protagonist of the film, if not for the flesh-and-blood historical figure.  It left me wondering about hubris and foresight. I've read parts of Seven Pillars and Lawrence's dissertation on the Krak des Chevaliers but I came away from the movie deciding it was time to read some biographies, as well. I've started with one called Lawrence and Aaronsohn; it's so far not doing much to make me more sympathetic to Lawrence than I had been feeling. I want to write more about this at a later date, once I've had a chance to think more thoroughly about some of the bigger issues.


I love C.S. Lewis' writing on Christianity and on the Middle Ages, and so I was thrilled, albeit briefly, to be able to see this stage adaptation of The Screwtape Letters. That is, I was thrilled until the curtain went up. The set design was over the top, the actor seemed not to be in control of his body or his voice, and the imagination of the character Toadpipe was far more Tolkien than Lewis, as if the production team had thrown all of the Oxford-based medievalist/fantasy writers into a hat and pulled something out at random. I think that the theater company's goal of making Christian art more widely accessible and opening dialogue between religious and secular people is admirable, but to do it at the cost of the art reinforces the stereotypes it is trying to break down. I found myself thinking, "Well, at least the text is good," and then catching myself. Of course the text was good!

Friday, October 19, 2012


Beinecke Persian MS 136

I tried to give you consolation
When your old man had let you down
But like a fool, I fell in love with you
Turned my whole world upside-down

Layla, you've got me on my knees
Layla, I'm begging darlin', please
Layla, darlin' won't you ease my worried mind?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

In Which I Lash Out, in Grief, At My Colleagues' Bad Behavior (Or, Saying things because they need to be said, even without the protection of tenure)

Dear Colleagues,

I know the job market is bad. I know I'm saying this from a position of extreme privilege. But there is no excuse for public, list-serve speculation about whether the death of a too-young colleague less than twenty-four hours ago — beloved to many and author of work that, agree with it or not, radically changed the face of the field — means that there will be a position open now at Yale. 

To think that you are my peers makes me lament not just our absent friend but the disappearance, with her death, of the world that she imagined and taught us to imagine, one where people acted with basic decency and supreme humanity first, even in hard times and even in a bad job market.

My first reaction to this series of emails was to want to opt out: To go law school or teach high school. To leave a profession that breeds such contempt for the humanity it purports to elevate. But one deep breath reminded me that it was someone in the profession who so abhorred this kind of careerism and tried to instill in me that same abhorrence. The profession doesn't create this climate; the people do. 

There will never be another like her, but I can hope that I will continue to have the great good fortune to read and teach and think mostly alongside people who do this work out of a love of text and of solving puzzles and not anywhere near the people who fritter it away, jockeying for position over the corpses of the giants on whose shoulders they stand.

Love, life, and literature,

Monday, October 15, 2012


remember the story of El Cid Campeador in Spain, he also loved a woman called Ximena. And when he was mortally wounded he told her to tie his dead body to his horse and send him back into battle, so the enemy would see he was still alive. Then tie my body to a bloody rickshaw or whatever damn mode of transport you can find, camel-cart, donkey-cart, bullock-cart bike, but for godsake not a bloody elephant; okay? Because the enemy is close and in this sad story Ximena is the Cid.

— Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh


Give each man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

— Polonius, Hamlet I.iii.69-81


My language,
I'd ask of you
in my life
to lift up a sound
of lament

— Samuel ibn Nagrila, trans. Peter Cole


Que a mi me vengan a decir la verdad
No aguanto ya más mentiras
Disfruto bien de la vida
Aunque tomando medidas — ¡azúcar!

— Celia Cruz, "La negra tiene tumbao"

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Fortnight in Links (Rescue Owl Edition)

Once again, Wikipedia rejects the validity of primary sources. There isn't a transcript of this NPR story, but it's worth a listen. It's a really striking example and hits the right tone to be able to use in a classroom discussion of why Wikipedia isn't a valid source, in addition to raising some more general questions about the uses and abuses of history:

Wikipedia Policies Limit Editing Haymarket Bombing

In continuing news of the New York Public Library, apparently the man who tried to take all our books away was seen, in his capacity as the president of Amherst, as "arrogant, and talked too much about democracy when his management style was fairly autocratic." Sounds...familiar. Also, he's apparently copped a guilty plea for drunk driving.

The Education of Tony Marx 

Writing novels isn't going to bring peace to the Middle East:

Writers, Politics and 'Peace'

It didn't help much in the ancient or early medieval worlds, either, but the versions keep coming, oddly enough, from great modern fantasy writers: Last year saw C.S. Lewis' Aeneid, and next year will bring Tolkien's Arthur.

'New' JRR Tolkien Epic Due Out Next Year

I desperately hope that the image that goes with this story is a stock photo and that people aren't trying to pass off what is clearly a modern book as something else:

Yemeni Man Claims Finding Oldest Quran Copy

I remember reading a book as a child in which the protagonist was advised that she was treading the fine line between brave and foolhardy. The author of this anti-academy manifesto has clearly veered off in one direction or the other, but I"m not sure which.

Resigning So As Not To Become Resigned

Advice for Academic Technologists:

Advice on Academic Blogging, Tweeting, Whatever

Traces of Readers Past (And Their Moms)

Encountered on a recent trip to San Francisco in the wondrous used bookstore where I spent much of my misguided youth, traces of a reader past:

Friday, October 12, 2012

"I have honored you by giving you many books... but you have dashed my hopes and made yourself scarce from them!"*

As part of my fellowship this year, I'm meant to be involved in outreach to the greater Philadelphia Jewish community. I am actually pretty excited about that; I think it gives meaning to the work in a way that simply doing abstract research for the sheer pleasure and intellectual satisfaction doesn't often have. And so I proposed to give a talk in the spring called: "You Have Fallen Short of My Expectations!": How a Medieval Jewish Guilt Trip Brought Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed to Europe. And I was going to talk about a letter from the father of the first Hebrew translator of the Guide of the Perplexed, an important Jewish text, to the translator himself, in which the father berates the young man for not studying hard enough, for not caring about intellectual endeavors, and for having messier handwriting than a twelve-year-old. It's a very vivid letter and a very over-the-top berating. (*The title of this post quotes from that berating.) But the real kicker is that when it comes time to translate this very important work of Jewish law and philosophy, the son uses his father's methods rather than the methods preferred by Maimonides, who had been nothing but encouraging.

The theme of the series of public lectures of which this is one is "Why the Jewish Middle Ages Matters." Now, I'm not a big fan of making the Middle Ages relevant to modernity, but I figured that showing that values of family and hard work and education, and even the occasional guilt trip about not being perfect in school, were present amongst thirteenth century Jews in very similar ways as they are present amongst American Jewry would be a good and not-totally-cliched way of handing the question.

I thought the title was catchy.

Plus, I figured the talk itself would play really well to a synagogue audience.

I was seriously wrong.

I heard back today that no, actually, they'd prefer it if I could put the word Islam in the title.

And yeah, I could. But that's going to go one of two ways: It could take me into the much more technical side of my current project. I promise you: even the most educated lay audience is not going to care about Judah ibn Tibbon operating as a lexicographer rather than as a translator when he incorporates the work of Ibn Rushd and al-Ghazali into his own writing. (Frankly, I've probably lost most of you, and I don't fault you for that. It's really cool to me and about six other people.) Or it could take me way general, your sort of basic Okay. 711. Muslims. Jews. Cordoba. Horseshoe arches. kind of thing. And maybe that would be interesting to them, but it's sure not really interesting for me, not to mention that it's not what I'm totally immersed in at the moment; and I have to figure that my own investment in the topic is probably worth something just in terms of the presentation.

I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out. I'm also sure that it's not going to be quite as good as what I had in mind. But what do I know? I'm just the expert.

Update 13 Oct. 9:45am: I've decided I can give the same talk under the revised title: "In This Land as in a Kingdom of Ishmael": Fathers, Sons and Jewish Learning in the Islamic World

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Teaching Someone Else's Students

I am precisely a week behind in blogging. I suppose that two transcontinental flights and a rollicking wedding at a nature preserve (not mine — the wedding or the preserve) can have that effect now and again.

So, precisely a week ago, I taught an undergraduate class at Penn.

The director of the center where I'm based this year was away giving a talk, and it happened to coincide with the week that his Jewish history class was going to cover the rise of Hebrew poetry in Spain; so of all the fellows here this semester, I was the logical choice to fill in. (Had this been the spring, there would have been two people who would have been even better, but no matter.) It was material I could teach with my eyes closed, so I decided to use this as an opportunity for a bit of pedagogical experimentation.

I'd already been thinking, on the basis of student feedback, that I would eventually have to get away from delivering lectures in intro classes on the basis of a prepared text and work, instead, from notes. And I was dreading the possibility. I figured I'd get flustered, forget to mention a ton of stuff and generally be inarticulate. I was also really worried that I wouldn't have a good core of materials to work from and I'd have to invest the same, insane, intense amounts of time in writing lectures every year as I did this year; and that wouldn't be feasible if I'm ever going to be this book manuscript finished. (Which I am.) So I was really resisting the change, but figured that this would be an opportunity just to see how teaching from notes would work.

I'm pleased to report that it worked really well. I hadn't planned to use a Powerpoint presentation (although that's something that I do under normal circumstances), but decided to in the end as a way of anchoring myself to the narrative arc of the class.

As I said, I do it anyway, but I didn't realize that it would also help with going off-script. There was one moment when I got ahead of myself, but it didn't seem to throw things off at all when I stopped and said, "Wait a minute, let's actually go back one step."I definitely don't think I'll have trouble carrying it forwards. It also seems like I'll be able to work from sets of notes in future years and do whatever updating I need without feeling like I have to completely rewrite each lecture each year, which was one of my major concerns.

Plus, I did a few cool things with text slides.

In a certain respect, it was very freeing to teach a one-off class. It's not to say that I felt like I could screw up the director's course and not have to worry about it because I wouldn't be the one picking up the pieces as much as it was kind of freeing to have no history with this particular group of students: no set way of doing things, no particular expectations on their parts. I could just try a few new things and see how they worked. It was surprising; I expected that it would be disorienting to walk into a classroom where the students already had a rapport with each other and a regular routine, but not so.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Bending Time and Space Further in the Library

I hadn't realized until I got here that the center where I am spending the year is the successor institution to Dropsie College, a now-defunct institution of higher learning that was the first in the United States to be accredited to award the PhD in Jewish Studies. A lot of the greats in biblical studies, Semitics and Hebrew and Jewish Studies from the middle of the twentieth century passed through. Their correspondence and libraries are now housed here. Last week I posted an image of a book that had the bookplates of the Dropsie and Penn libraries; today I happened to pull a book that has the plates of all three institutions that the center has been, including the Annenberg Research Institute, which is what Dropsie had become and which remained independent until it became a part of Penn in 1993. It's heady to have the physical reminder on my desk of what this place is and has been. Here, then is a visual history of the institution in the form of its own bookplates in a copy of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed: