I earned my college degree at Brandeis University, studying European and American history and Jewish studies. During a post-graduate year as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar at the University of London I had my introduction to both Islamic history and Hebrew poetry written in Muslim Spain, and that decided my research field: the history of Jews living in Arab lands in the Middle Ages. I completed an M.A. in history at Columbia University, followed by four years of training in classical Judaica at the Jewish Theological Seminary and then my doctoral work at that same institution.
My first book, Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt (1980), listed below, a study of the origins of an important institution of medieval Jewish self-government in Egypt, is based primarily on Cairo Geniza documents, and most of my scholarship since then has centered on that unique source. In 1987 I contributed a book to a new series of basic introductions to Jewish history and culture to be translated into Arabic for readers in countries like Egypt. I am particularly proud of that publication—an overview of Jewish life in Islamic Egypt through the mid-14th century—for it is, as far as I know, still the only book of its kind in Arabic written by a specialist trained in Jewish history.
Before I retired, I taught the Department's courses in medieval Jewish history, as well as graduate seminars dealing either with Near Eastern Jewish history (the dhimma system) or Judeo-Arabic and Geniza documents. I was instrumental (along with Professor Udovitch) in training graduate students to use the Geniza for Islamic social and economic history. Books resulting from these seminars are Olivia Remie Constable's Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900–1500 (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Hassan Khalilieh's Islamic Maritime Law: An Introduction (Brill, 1998); and Roxani Eleni Margariti’s Aden & the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port (University of North Carolina Press, 2007). Several other graduate students did a field in Jewish-Arab history for their Generals or wrote theses on Jewish history using the Geniza, among other sources. These include Arnold Franklin’s This Noble House: Jewish Descendants of King David in the Medieval Islamic East (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Uriel Simonsohn’s A Common Justice: The Legal Allegiances of Christians and Jews under Early Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); and Phillip I. Ackerman-Lieberman’s The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2014). Students working on the Jews in the later period include Yaron Ayalon, who published Natural Disasters in the Ottoman Empire: Plague, Famine and Other Misfortunes (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and Jessica Marglin, author of Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco (Yale University Press). Lev E. Weitz, who also did some of his studies with me, recently published Between Christ and Caliph: Law: Marriage, and Christian Community in Early Islam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018). Two Columbia University PhD students did their Judeo-Arabic and Geniza training with me: Marina Rustow, author of Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Empire (Cornell University Press, 2008) and Jessica L. Goldberg, who wrote Trade and Institutions in the MedievaL Mediterranean: The Geniza Merchants and their Business World (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
My book, Under Crescent and Cross (1994, 2008), listed below, a comparative study of Islamic-Jewish and Christian-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages, tries to avoid the pitfalls of tendentious writing about the Jews of Islam, emphasizing, on the one hand, the myth of a Jewish-Muslim interfaith utopia or, on the other hand, the counter-myth of relentless Islamic persecution. This book has been translated into Turkish, Hebrew, German, Arabic, French, Russian, Romanian, and Czech. In 2005 I published two related books: Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt and The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza. My most recent book is Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islam World, a study of Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Law in the light of Geniza documents about everyday commercial life.
Many years ago I taught an undergraduate seminar in the History Department with Natalie Zemon Davis on the Jews in Early Modern Europe; the idea for the book on the autobiography of a 17th-century Venetian Rabbi listed below arose out of teaching that course.
In 2009, I was named the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, and in 2010 I was honored to be the first winner of the Goldziher Prize, awarded by Merrimack College for scholarship promoting better understanding between Jews and Muslims. In my retirement I have been a visiting professor at Columbia University, New York University, and New York University in Abu Dhabi. When I was in Abu Dhabi I was invited to lecture on the Cairo Geniza at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt: the Origins of the Office of Head of the Jews, ca. 1065–1126, Princeton, 1980.
Al-mujtama` al-yahūdī fī Miṣr al-islāmiyya fī’l-`uṣūr al-wusṭā (Jewish Life in Medieval Egypt 641–1382) (translated into Arabic), Tel Aviv, 1987.
The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah, translated and edited by Mark R. Cohen, with introductory essays by Mark R. Cohen, Theodore K. Rabb, Howard Adelman, and Natalie Zemon Davis and historical notes by Howard Adelman and Benjamin Ravid, Princeton, 1988.
Jews among Arabs: Contacts and Boundaries, co-edited with A. L. Udovitch, Princeton, 1989.
Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt, Princeton, 2005.The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza, Princeton, 2005.
Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, Princeton, 1994; revised edition 2008.
Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World, Philadelphia, 2017.