Tuesday, January 29, 2013


This tableau will eventually yield the handout for my talk tomorrow.

Clockwise from bottom left: Handout draft, manuscript photos, chamomile tea, flawed edition.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Hebrew Incunabula at the Rosenbach Museum

This afternoon, I had an introduction to the Hebrew incunabula collection at the Rosenbach Museum here in Philadelphia. The museum is the historic home and (parts of the) book collection of the Rosenbach brothers, one of whom was an important book dealer and collector. The regular tour of the home, which I took the last time I visited Philadelphia, in 2009, is the most charming, literary historic home tour I've ever been on — and something I'd highly recommend. 

The building has a small exhibition of Samuel Yellin ironwork in the lobby; and the museum is the depository of Maurice Sendak's work, so all in all, it's a great place for representations of monsters and other gruesome characters. 

The hands-on tour was part of a series that is definitely for non-specialists, and I think I did a reasonable job of not being a pain in the patoot. Except about this book:

It is a Lisbon Bible — not the famous manuscript Lisbon Bible, but one of a class of printed Hebrew Bibles also referred to as Lisbon Bibles (kind of like Paris Bibles refer to a type of Bible, if that helps situate you at all); they were among the first books printed in the city of Lisbon and are considered to be one of the most skillful examples of early Hebrew printing.

This particular exemplar is particularly of interest to me because it appears to have traveled roughly along the same route out of the Iberian Peninsula as some late medieval/early modern books I'm working on currently and for we're missing about 200 years of ownership information. I'm definitely going to go back and sit with their registrar's file, at least to have some kind of comparandum in terms of the history of the books.

The type of binding is known as a box binding, which is more or less just what it sounds like. 


The woman leading the tour brought out a copy of the Bay Colony Psalter and asked one of the people to read from it to illustrate the way that the Puritans translated in a linear style (that is, word for word, without regard to the syntax in the target language, just like my medieval  translators did). I wish I had volunteered more quickly — he's actually holding one of the very few remaining Bay Colony Psalters in existence, and one of only three in the original sixteenth-century binding. (NYPL has one, too, though I don't know about the binding.)

And this is the first printed image of a matzah:

I'm a little disappointed that I have to write my book this year because I'm definitely not making use of the really amazing local collections; but since I know about them now, and since Philly and NYC are not that far apart, I can definitely think about using them as a really organic foundation for the next big project.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Second Annual Delurking Day

I'm a little late in celebrating Delurking Day this year, but I didn't want to let it slide entirely. Site stats tell me that there are loads (well, not loads, but some) more people reading than commenting. So, if you're one of them, consider this your invitation to join in the (various) conversation(s) here. I'm really curious about who you all are! I've seen some blogs post a question for delurking day to give people something to delurk about. I'll do the same, going with an old but evergreen standby: Any good book recommendations?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rejection and Scholarly Identity

I know this is going to sound like I'm being a total drama queen, but I got a journal article rejection today that is making me question my identity as a scholar.

There's more to it than the simple rejection, of course.

This is a piece that started out its life as a second-year-of-grad-school seminar paper, one which was returned to me with the somewhat embarrassing mark of A+ and a comment from the professor that it was publishable as it was. Great, I figured. So I held onto it and submitted it to a journal as soon as I was done with my dissertation. Originally, I got a decision of revise-and-resubmit. So I revised, making many but not all of the changes that had been suggested. On that basis, I figured there was a decent chance that it would be accepted but that there was also a very real chance that it wouldn't be; and the gamble didn't pay off.

One option would be to send it to another journal and see what their reviewers have to say. The problem is, I think that there is some merit to some of the comments I got back on the second set of reviews. So I'm not sure it would be acceptable anywhere as it is now, and even if it were, I'm not sure I'd want it to appear in exactly the form it now takes.

The obvious solution is to put my butt back in the chair, make the changes and send it somewhere else. And this is where the scholarly identity crisis starts to creep in. The thing is that I don't want to. It's not that I don't want to do research or writing — in fact, I'm working on another article that I'm so excited about that I have to limit the amount of time I spend on it each day because I have two talks coming up in the next month that I've not finished writing. I finally feel like the book manuscript is coming into focus. And I'm really excited to go back to Oxford and the Bodleian at some point very soon.

It's not my identity as a scholar that's the issue; rather it's my identity as the type of scholar I want to be. In this article that was rejected, I was suggesting that the anonymous author of the Libro de Alexandre, a really major part of the traditional Spanish canon, was probably familiar with some of the stories in the Qur'ān. I conceded that the work was speculative, but there was probably still more I could have done with the texts to make my point. That is, there's more that I could do.

But the fact of the matter is that I kind of feel like I can't be bothered. Part of it is the fact that this has sort of been hanging over my head for the last five years — not inhabiting my mind, like a big book project that could easily stick around for five years or longer, but just like a little nagging fly buzzing just at the edge of my ear. Part of it is, I'm sure, reluctance to return to graduate school material simply because, for all the good in my department, it was a rough period in my life: I hated Ithaca, I was in a disastrously bad relationship for much of the time I was there, I was trying to navigate some weird academic and intellectual politics, I hated Ithaca, and my dissertation was a seriously ugly sprint to the finish after I was hired majorly ABD at NYU. My book isn't even a revised version of my dissertation — it's all from scratch. So part of it is definitely still a visceral reaction to thinking again about anything I did in graduate school. And part of it is a sense that I don't want to shift gears too much right now. I have a book project. I have an unrelated article in progress on the side. I don't want to have to get my head all the way back into mester de clerecía, as well.  With patience not being my strong suit, putting it away for a while and coming back to it later, probably the smart thing to do, isn't really an option. I just don't think I will. It's now or never. This or nothing.

And this is where my scholarly identity crisis is coming into play. This is exactly the kind of article I should be wanting to work on, offering to the world careful proof of meaningful intellectual content between Christians and Muslims, between Romance-speakers and Arabic-speakers. This sort of work is the promise on which my department hired me: I could see connections that nobody else could or did.

But a funny thing has happened in the three years since I was offered the job I now hold: I'm becoming something I never thought I would be, namely a pretty credible scholar in the pretty (though definitely not completely) mainstream field of Judaeo-Islamic Studies. I'm becoming a pretty credible reader of challenging Arabic and Hebrew texts. These are texts that are crucial to understanding intellectual life in Spain, in al-Andalus, but the connections that I used to see with the Romance-speaking side of that world are slipping away out of my field of vision. I don't know if that's because they were never really there in the first place. I don't know if it's because I've simply become distracted by a book project that went in a very different direction than the one I was expecting and that I'll be able to re-center myself for the next book. (I'm hoping that's the case, actually.) But I also don't know if I just positioned myself as this odd maker of connections as a way of carving a niche out for myself when I was convinced I'd never be good at any of the real or the hard stuff, that I'd never be able to read a text that a million people have already read a million times over and see something new and important in it.

It's not really the job I'm worried about (although I'd be lying to say I felt completely confident that my colleagues won't get to the table when it comes time for my review and realize that, wait a minute, they've hired an Arabist — even though that was what they set out do do in the first place). It's that I don't want to fight the serendipity of working on good material and doing it well right now, which is why I don't want to take the time to go back and rework that graduate school paper that was just rejected by the journal. But at the same time, I also don't want, as I become this thing I never thought I'd be good enough to be, to lose sight of the quirky reader and the indefatigable fighter that I used to be.

I'm not sure yet what loss I'm lamenting, and I think I have to sort that out before I can figure out how to proceed.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Biblioteca Popular Judía

One of the things I've enjoyed most about being at Penn this year is having access to a specialized research library with some really unique collections that reflect the institution's pre-Penn history as the first college of Jewish Studies in the United States. Much of that collection is still in the process of being catalogued and integrated into the Penn library system (since, as I've mentioned before, previous cataloguing processes were not always totally standard) and so periodically, one will wander into the library and find piles of really interesting, obscure, random works.

Last week they were cataloguing was is apparently the most complete set in an American library of pamphlets in the series "Biblioteca Popular Judía." These were short works put out by the Buenos Aires-based Latin American wing of the World Jewish Congress.

I ended up xeroxing a bunch of them for teaching purposes. The Spanish is quite simple, and the booklets will work really well for my course on modern representations of the Spanish Middle Ages: What did mid-century Argentine Zionists think was important about figures like Maimonides and Judah ha-Levi?

Some of the pamphlets were not original portraits of major figures, but were rather Spanish translations of important (if now dated) academic articles in the field. Those are useful to have for teaching purposes as well, to be able to give students more reading in Spanish where appropriate.

There are hundreds of them — I wish I had snapped a picture of them all spread out on the table downstairs. But alas, they're all now in a box in the second subterranean level of the stacks awaiting the day when someone will finish cataloguing them.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

I Desire You Would Remember the Ladies

ETA 1/11/13, 7:53 am: Oh, man. I've just been medieval Kansas-ed!

Just received the following call for papers, forwarded with the note at the top. Tee hee, quod she. 


From: [name and email redacted to protect the innocent]
Sent: Wednesday, January 09, 2013 6:00 AM
Subject: Fwd: [Fwd: call for papers]

Dear All
I assume ladies are welcome to respond as well.
---------------------------- Original Message ----------------------------
Subject: call for papers
From:    [name and email redacted to protect the less innocent]
Date:    Wed, January 2, 2013 20:56


in december will be organized at the University of Urbino an international
conference about medieval filologies, in attachment you will find the call
for papers.

Yours sincerely.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

MLA in Medieval Kansas

I have the vague sense that this was meant to be funny.

(Click to enlarge to a readable size.)

Maybe I'm a humorless medievalist for thinking it just sounds a little... earnestly common? And then wondering whether it could be leveraged to reform current university structure to make it a little more like thirteenth-century Syrian madrasas and Parisian universities — in other words, flexible in ways that would make medievalists' lives within universities more sensible.

I suppose the fact that I didn't realize that "occupy" was still a thing is probably telling — whether about me or about them probably depends on one's perspective.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Medieval Trash Heap, a Refuge from the Modern One

I'd like to share a paragraph that comes close to the end of a 1957 article I've just finished reading in the course of my research on a medieval woman poet. The article was written by the founding father of Cairo Genizah studies, S.D. Goitein:

"It is natural for woman, whose emotional life is strong and delicate, to be sensitive to religious poetry and endowed with the gift of song. In a society which does not oppress woman, especially one which does not humiliate her spirit or steal her self-worth from her, these traits find their outlet in creativity. Biblical society was such, and we have therefore found that the Hebrew woman of ancient days lifted up her voice in song. For the rule governing her was not yet 'the voice of a woman is indecent' but rather its opposite: 'let me hear your voice.' She sang in times of love and during the days of mourning, expressed the joy of victory and the agony of defeat, words of wisdom and whispers of prayer."

The whole article is a cacophony of similarly insulting, patronizing comments on women and literature that, beyond being out-and-out sexist are also just methodologically wrong and not the way we — any of us, regardless of critical school — approach literature. I don't even think it was the way we approached literature in the antediluvian 1950s when this article was originally written. (The 1988 publication date that you'll see if you follow the link above reflects the posthumous publication of an English translation of the article, which was originally written in Hebrew.) It unquestioningly lines up the Hebrew Bible with modern poetic practices, forcing and shoehorning the the Bible into corresponding with history in a way I've only ever seen amongst the farthest-gone religious fundamentalists and Levantine archaeologists of a certain school of thought:

"During his studies the present writer sometimes heard women's poetry spoken  by men and men's by women; and yet the gender of the author was always immediately apparent" (2).
"Woman's poetry sometimes took the form of prophecy. The connection between poetry and prophecy is likewise found among many ancient peoples, and is the subject of a book by a well-known woman anthropologist and literary scholar" (3).
"Nor is the reason that 'women are chatterboxes'" (31).

The irony of it is that the vast majority of Goitein's writing on the women whose lives were recorded in and amongst the sacred trash is sensitive and nuanced and thoughtful, and for many topics in women's history and literature in the Genizah remains the authoritative work. I'm at a loss to explain what happened when he sat down to write this article. Perhaps his papers might offer some clue; perhaps I'll have a chance to look into it at some point. 

But the usual approach that we expect from Goitein when writing about women still breaks through in one line in that first offending paragraph: "The rule governing her was not yet 'the voice of a woman is indecent' but rather its opposite: 'let me hear your voice." Goitein wrote this while comparing modern Yemenite women's poetry and song to the occurrence of women poets and singers in the Hebrew Bible; the contrast that he establishes between the now and the then and the place of women in each evinces sadness over what has come to be and nostalgia for what had once been.

The voice of the woman is now indecent: We are reminded of it monthly as the Israeli police arrest women worshippers at the Western Wall for donning ritual garments that they are legally but not halakhically (according to the majority of authorities) prevented from wearing — women are exempted from wearing fringed garments and phylacteries, but that exemption evolved into a prohibition over time — and for praying out loud. Kol isha, the voice of the woman, is indecent and it is criminal.

The regular arrests and imprisonments of Jewish women in Israel for praying against the law is a powerful contrast with the occasionally tin-eared mid-century historian who would pat us on the head and exoticize us but then go ahead and treat our forebearers fairly and with great humanity as he pulled their history painstakingly from the most historic of rubbish bins and lament the loss of a time when we could speak, aloud and in writing, for ourselves. Neither model, the modern Israeli legal establishment's nor the archivist's, is perfect — far from it. But I know with whom I cast my lot.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Everything's Always Medieval in the End

 The new year's extravaganza in Philadelphia is a "mummers' parade," a form of satire and entertainment that apparently has its roots in fourteenth-century Germany.

Some more photos after the jump: