I am a social historian of the medieval Middle East, and I work with a relatively neglected type of source: medieval documents, especially sources from the Cairo Geniza, a cache of more than 300,000 folio pages preserved in an Egyptian synagogue. I also work with Arabic papyri and paper documents. Most of my research has centered on Egypt and Syria from the tenth century to the fifteenth, with occasional forays into Europe and modernity, both strange preserves into which I rarely venture unchaperoned.
My work has lately centered around a set of related questions: what makes social and religious groups cohere and fragment; how people demanded justice of the state and facilitated or resisted its extraction of resources; how written documents structured the exercise of power and the creation and maintenance of social bonds; and how reconstructing the concrete details of medieval life demand of the historian a use of the imagination that is rigorous rather than fanciful. I have also developed a fascination with decoding the graphic and semiotic features of documents, and with how medieval people did so.
My first book, Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (2008), asked what made Jews vulnerable to the charge of heresy in some circumstances and exempt from it in others. The sources I studied persuaded me that rabbinic authority—which historians have considered the great shaper of medieval Jewish communal life—by itself does not adequately explain the coherence of medieval Jewish communities. Bringing non-rabbinic Jews, long-distance traders and the state into the equation better explains how rabbinic leaders depended on others for their legitimacy and authority. In a series of articles on patronage and social reciprocity, I have taken a stab at explaining social glue in general, both binding forms of individual reciprocity (these are pervasive in medieval Arabic sources and Geniza documents alike) and the kind of group solidarity that emerges during religious and political revolutions, and often holds what came before to be corrupt, ignorant, or unjust.
For more than a decade, I have been studying Fatimid documents of state preserved in the Geniza. These are some of our best sources for understanding how medieval Islamic states governed their subjects, and how states balanced two essential requirements that were often in tension with one another: the extraction of resources and the provision of justice. The physical features of state documents—many of which were later recycled as scrap paper—also have the potential to solve the longstanding problem of the dearth of archives from the pre-Ottoman Middle East. I published a pilot article on the subject in BSOAS in 2010, and a pilot collaborative study in 2011. You’ll find the results of this research in my book The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Medieval Synagogue.
Together with Sacha Stern, I spent a few years reediting the manuscript sources about the controversy over the calendar between Iraqi and Syrian Jews in 921–22. The standard narrative holds that Saʿadya b. Yosef al-Fayyūmī (882–942), one of the great cosmopolitan rabbinic leaders of the medieval period, “won” the dispute by imposing the standard, uniform calendar of Iraqi Jews on the entire Jewish world. The Geniza evidence tells us otherwise, but it had not been fully sifted and examined in a century. With a better understanding of codicology and easy access to digital images, we were better equipped to understand how the various parts of manuscripts in disparate libraries fit together. The project brought me to one of my favorite places: the elusive but scenic crossroads of the material text, digital imaging and good old-fashioned Wissenschaft. Here is a pilot article on the subject; Sacha’s book (in collaboration with Nadia Vidro, Ronny Vollandt and myself) Is titled The Jewish Calendar Controversy of 921/2 CE.
I am passionate about both teaching and collaborative learning, and I encourage a laboratory-like atmosphere among students. I run Princeton’s Geniza Lab, where undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs can conduct original research as far as their Sitzfleisch and historical curiosity can take them. I advise or co-advise projects on medieval Middle Eastern or Jewish history, and I’m especially interested in social and economic history before the Ottomans. To date, I have advised Geniza-based theses on domestic slavery, female adolescence and marriage, the India trade, Jews under Crusader rule, the relationship between Jews and medieval Iraqi polities, and taxation under the Fatimids.
Apart from medieval manuscript fragments, I also have an abiding interest in the classical musical traditions of the Middle East, especially theory and performance practice in the Arab, Ottoman, Persian, Andalusi and Iraqi traditions. I play oud, buzuq and classical piano.
I hold a BA in Literature from Yale College, where I wore black, smoked cigarettes and read literary theory; this means that while I welcome a good methodological discussion, I can sniff gratuitous or decorative uses of theory a mile off. After my undergraduate education, I spent two years as an editor of long-form print journalism and four studying the textual history of the Babylonian Talmud. I did my doctorate in history at Columbia with Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, but most of my Geniza-related training extra muros here at Princeton.
- The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Cairo Synagogue (Princeton University Press, in press, expected publication date January 14, 2020)
- (with Eve Krakowski), “Formula as Content: Medieval Jewish Institutions, the Cairo Geniza, and the New Diplomatics,” Jewish Social Studies 20 (2014): 111–46.
- “Patronage in the Context of Solidarity and Reciprocity: Two Paradigms of Social Cohesion in the Premodern Mediterranean,” in M. E. Alfonso and J. Decter (eds.), Patronage, Production and Transmission: Books in Medieval and Early Modern Jewish Cultures (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014), 13–44.
- “Yerushalmi and the Conversos,” Jewish History 27 (2014): 1–39.
- “The Diplomatics of Leadership: Administrative Documents in Hebrew Script from the Cairo Geniza,” in A. Franklin, R. E. Margariti, M. Rustow and U. Simonsohn (eds.), Jews, Christians and Muslims in Medieval and Early Modern Times: A Festschrift in Honor of Mark R. Cohen (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 306–51.
- (with Sacha Stern), “The Jewish Calendar Controversy of 921–22: Reconstructing the Manuscripts and the Transmission History,” in S. Stern and C. Burnett (eds.), Time, Astronomy, and Calendars in the Jewish Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 79–95.
- “The Legal Status of Dimmī-s in the Fatimid East: A View from the Palace in Cairo,” in M. Fierro and J. Tolan (eds.), The Legal Status of Dimmī-s in the Islamic West in the Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols), 307–32.
- “A Petition to a Woman at the Fatimid Court (413–414 A.H./1022–23 C.E.),” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 73 (2010): 1–27.
- “The Genizah and Jewish Communal History,” in S. Bhayro and B. M. Outhwaite (eds.), From a Sacred Source: Genizah Studies in Honour of Professor Stefan C. Reif (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 289–317.
- “Formal and Informal Patronage among Jews in the Islamic East: Evidence from the Cairo Geniza.” Al-Qanṭara: Revista de Estudios Árabes 29 (2008): 81–122.
- Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008).
- “Karaites Real and Imagined: Three Cases of Jewish Heresy.” Past and Present 197 (2007): 35–74.
Selected awards and fellowships:
- MacArthur Fellowship, 2015
- National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Fellowship, with Eve Krakowski and Craig Perry (2014–17)
- Guggenheim Fellowship (2014)
- American Council of Learned Societies Collaborative Fellowship, with Eve Krakowski (2015–17)
- American Council of Learned Societies Ryskamp Fellowship (2009–12)
- National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship (2009–10)
- Salo Wittmayer Baron Book Prize in Jewish studies (2009)
- Jordan Schnitzer Book Award in ancient and medieval Jewish history (2007–11)
- Rome Prize in Medieval Studies, American Academy in Rome (2006–7)