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

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