Historian studying Cairo Geniza among those awarded ‘genius grants’

Princeton history professor Marina Rustow’s work shedding new light on Jewish life in the medieval Middle East recognized by MacArthur Foundation.

September 30, 2015 00:19
2 minute read.
Marina Rustow

Marina Rustow. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Among the 24 winners of $625,000 grants given by the MacArthur Foundation this year is a Princeton University professor who is studying the Cairo geniza texts – hundreds of thousands of documents stashed in an Egyptian synagogue for more than 1,000 years.

Marina Rustow, 46, “goes beyond decoding documents... to questioning the relationship between subjects and medieval states and asking what that relationship tells us about power and the negotiation of religious boundaries,” according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The fellowships, which have been awarded annually since 1981, are unique in that the hefty stipend – which comes over five years – has absolutely no strings attached.

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“I thought that I must be dreaming,” Rustow told NJ.com. “The award is going to permit me to work in a way that I haven’t really been able to work before…to dig a little bit deeper.”

Rustow, who holds a BA and two master’s degrees from Yale University, an M.Phil., and a PhD from Columbia University, wrote a 2008 book focusing on the trove of documents from 909 to 1171 CE. Her work calls into question earlier assumptions about a deep divide during that period between the Rabbanites, who accepted the Oral Law, and Karaites, who rejected it. While prior historians had depicted the two groups as bitterly divided, her examination of non-literary documents – letters, legal contracts and decrees – shows a great deal of social and political interaction between them.

Her current studies narrow in on the documents in Arabic script during that same period, the Fatimid Caliphate, to understand how Jewish, Christian and Muslim subjects were treated during that time. She is also developing a handbook of never-before-published medieval legal and state documents from the Middle East.

The 23 other recipients of the grants include a journalist, a tap dancer, a puppeteer, a sociologist, a playwright and two chemists, among others.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, 39, whose journalism for the Atlantic and book Between the World and Me have provided context to a national debate on racism and police violence, is another one of this year’s winners.

Joining him is Lin-Manuel Miranda, 35, who wrote one of the hottest shows on Broadway at the moment – Hamilton, a hip-hop interpretation of the life of Alexander Hamilton, the first US secretary of the treasury.

MacArthur Foundation president Julia Stasch said: “These 24 delightfully diverse MacArthur Fellows are shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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