The study of Judeo Arabic after the era of the late Prof. Norman Golb

Miriam Frenkel (Hebrew University)

Lecture given at the 20th conference of the Society of Judeo-Arabic Studies, Haifa 2022


In December 2020, the academic world said goodbye to one of the pillars of Genizah and medieval Judeo-Arabic studies, Prof. Norman Golb z”l. The present lecture reviews Prof. Golb’s significant contribution to these fields with the aim of shedding some light on the ways his discoveries and works have affected the state of the art. Finally, I point to some potential future directions of research along the lines outlined by Prof. Golb.

This is how Stefan Zweig in his book Magellan describes the enthusiastic atmosphere that swept Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, the period of the great geographical discoveries:

At such winged tempo, the picture of the world was altered and extended from year to year, nay from month to month. By day and by night the cartographers were hard at work in Augsburg, but could not keep up with the unceasing demand for revised maps. These were snatched from their hands damp and still uncolored. There was a like impetuous demand for stories of travel and for globes, now that everyone wanted news about the mundus novus. Hardly had the cosmographers revised their maps in accordance with the latest intelligence when new reports arrived. The old representations had to be thrown aside, and fresh ones made, for what had been an island was now known to be a continent, a continent in which new rivers, new mountains had to be depicted, and the etchers had scarcely finished a new map when yet further news came to hand demanding further revision.

Never before and never since have geography, cosmography and cartography known such frenzied advances as during these fifty years, when after ages of ignorance, the shape and size of the world were at length definitively established, the globular form of our revolving planet being now proven without dispute. This was the work of little more than one generation, whose navigators faced unknown dangers for all coming times. Whose conquistadors vanquished lands and seas, whose heroes performed many of the tasks which an inert world had previously left undone.

Stefan Zweig, Magellan, translated from the German by Eden and Cedar Paul, London, Pushkin Press, 2011, pp. 43-44.

I like to see Professor Golb as Magellan’s academic counterpart.

Norman Golb was born in Chicago in 1928. He received a doctorate in Judaic and Semitic Studies under William Foxwell Albright from Johns Hopkins University in 1954. He won many prestigious research scholarships: The Cyrus Adler Scholarship from Penn University (then Dropsy College) and in 1955 also the Warburg Scholarship from the Hebrew University. He taught as a guest lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, at Harvard in 1969-1970, and also at the young Tel Aviv University, which in that very year (1969) received full recognition from the Higher Education Council and became a recognized research university.

In 1964 Golb joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he taught and researched for over half a century.

Golb was a researcher endowed with prestigious awards and research grants. He received the scholarship of the American Philosophical Association, an award from the Littauer Foundation, the Guggenheim Fellowship twice, and other scholarships that allowed him to devote considerable time to studying the rich and diverse Genizah collections in the Cambridge Library. He was also a Lifetime Research Fellow at Clare Hall College, Cambridge University.

His great discoveries include the autobiography of Ovadia Ha-Ger (Obadiah the Proselite), perhaps the only ego document to be found in the Cairo Genizah. Golb identified the famous Genizah page containing musical notes and attributed it to Ovadia Ha-Ger. This single page is of enormous importance as it bears the stamp of the musical tradition of the Western Church, which the writer tried to apply to the Hebrew Piut text. This is the earliest known document of Jewish music (12th century). The Kiev letter (an autograph signed by a Khazarian Jew) and other documents documenting the Khazarian Jews were published in Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century (Cornell University Press, 1982), written in collaboration with Prof. Pritzak of Harvard.

The Kiev letter (TS 12.122) dates from the beginning of the 10th century. It was written (in Hebrew) by a representative of the Jewish community of Kiev. This is a letter of recommendation for a member of the community. According to Marcel Erdel, the letter was not sent from Kiev but was destined for Kiev. In any case, this is the earliest document that mentions the name of Kiev and the existence of a Jewish community connected with the network of Jewish communities of the Islamic world. This document is also important for establishing the chronology of the Khazarian kingdom. It indicates that at the beginning of the 10th century this kingdom still existed.

Golb can also be credited with the discovery of the earliest court deed, written in Sicily, documents related to the Jews during the First Crusade and other documents indicating the connections between the Jews of Normandy in France and the Jews of Egypt. He also compiled a catalog and description of Yemenite manuscripts in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew, located at Spertus College.

Golb’s name is also linked to textual and archaeological studies related to the Jews of the city of Rouen in the Middle Ages, as well as to some daring hypotheses regarding the origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In this lecture, I will not deal with these studies, which are not directly related to the study of Judeo-Arabic culture, though Golb won prestigious awards for all these studies.

As can be seen from this partial list, Golb’s range of interests was extremely broad, extending chronologically from the ancient world of the Dead Sea scrolls to the Middle Ages and geographically spanning the world from Kiev and Rouen to Sicily, Aleppo, Jerusalem and Cairo.

All these discoveries were possible only because of the basic qualities of Golb, the scholar: meticulous philological scholarship alongside a critical approach that accepted no axioms in research, questioned everything, and took the trouble to deeply and thoroughly investigate every assumption and every piece of information, paying attention to the smallest and seemingly trivial detail. For Golb, God resides in the details, and he had an amazing talent to extract from the smallest details revolutionary and paradigm-changing theses.

But alongside this meticulous attention to detail was Golb’s radically critical approach, which

encouraged re-examining every assumption and tracking the depths of historical sources. All this along with a supreme gift of openness to new ideas and to new directions in research.

Golb was an academic hunter, in constant search of new and sensational information. He spent countless hours in archives around the world. He had an extraordinary talent for identifying manuscripts (that’s how he knew how to associate the sheet of musical notes he found with Ovadia Ha-Ger).

The past was for him, as the well-known maxim says, “a foreign country” and an intriguing country, as well.

I like to see Golb as one of the last pillars of Geniza research, one of those giants who, in the spirit of the 19th century, the century of the great discoveries, set out for research trips full of curiosity and intellectual intrigue, in order to discover a new, unknown land. I am not referring here to Golb’s physical journeys in the world’s libraries, but rather to his far-reaching research journeys to the depths of a text, to the identification of a handwriting, to the careful reading of names and words, journeys at the end of which unknown territories were discovered, new and exciting findings that shed new light on Jewish history and hence on the history of all human civilization. Discoveries about the Khazar kingdom, of unknown connections between European Christianity and Judaism, about the ancient Jewish communities of Sicily, the island of inter-culturalism, and the role played by music in bridging cultures and religions.

From Golb onwards, the wind`s direction in research (to continue the metaphors of sea voyages) changed fundamentally. It was not a sharp and sudden change of direction, but rather a gradual one, which has received its quintessential expression in the works of his distinguished student, Prof. Eve Krakowski from Princeton.

There is no doubt that Prof. Krakowski was deeply influenced by her great teacher. In the obituary she wrote in his memory, she admits:

For the small handful of students who gravitated there each semester, Norman’s classroom was a magical place. Part of the magic came from the care he took with texts. Over the course of hundreds of hours spread out over many years, he trained me to read and decipher an astonishing array of different Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic genres—everything from the Mishna, to piyyut, Andalusian Hebrew poetry, to medieval English Hebrew charters, to Judeo-Arabic biblical commentaries, to personal letters from the Cairo Geniza. (I cannot claim to have mastered everything he tried to teach me, especially not piyyut. But the fault lies with me, not with his efforts.) Throughout all these hours, his basic lessons remained the same: Never take anyone else’s word for anything. Always check scholarship against its sources and always check the printed editions against the manuscripts. Also, never assume that you know what a text means at first reading. It was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever received from any teacher. If I ever find myself tempted to fudge an especially difficult line of something I’m trying to decipher, the memory of that semester stops me—I wouldn’t have gotten away with fudging in Professor Golb’s classroom, so I can’t let myself get away with it now either.

And yet, even though she inherited from her eminent teacher the seriousness, the responsibility, the breadth of the canvas and the erudition, there is no doubt that the student’s studies are already turning to new, different directions.

If Golb in his pursuit of more and more new and sensational discoveries is a typical product of modernity, one may consider Krakowski a postmodern scholar (although I’m not sure she herself would agree with this label), that is, a scholar who looks inward, into the social fabric, to what has been considered marginal and trivial by modern scholars, to the silenced voices of society, those of adolescent girls, not to the loud voices of community leaders and elite members. The place Judaism as a cultural collective occupied in the medieval world, a theme so central in Golb`s works (Judaism in the Khazar kingdom, in Sicily, during the Crusades, Judaism`s attraction for proselytes) gives way in Krakowski’s studies to new social and communal subjects, mainly to gender relations in Jewish society. Even the title of Krakowski`s book, Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt, alludes to the strong anthropological propensity in her research (following Margaret Mead’s well-known Coming of Age in Samoa).

It could be argued that by focusing on the social and anthropological features of Geniza society rather than on the national and institutional aspect, Krakowski does not follow Golb`s path but actually adopts S. D. Goitein’s sociographic stance. Nevertheless, unlike Goitein, who, in the spirit of modernism tended to employ unequivocal and binary social divisions, Krakowski’s approach emphasizes the fluidity and flexibility of the social fabric. As a modernist scholar, Goitein looked for solid patterns and considered the Jewish family as a typical Mediterranean patriarchy, based on patrilineal principles. Krakowski, on the other hand, points to the fluid and diverse structure of Geniza families, which could assume variegated forms and were not necessarily subject to a rigid pattern of patrilineal patriarchy.

Krakowski’s important book marks a turning point in the study of Judeo-Arabic culture in the post-Golb era, a turning point that emerged at the beginning of the 21st century and is evident nowadays in new approaches to the social history of Genizah society. Goitein presented himself as a “sociographer”, who limits himself to the description of the Genizah society as directly and faithfully reflected in the Genizah documents. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that he actually went far beyond that, and provided his readers with plenty of insights about this society. According to his institutional approach, Goitein described a pyramidal society in which power derives from formal and authoritative leadership institutions: the Babylonian yeshivot, the Jerusalem yeshiva, Rosh ha-Golah, the muqaddam, and the leaders of the local communities. I believe that my book on the community of Alexandria presented for the first time a different model, in which the real centers of power are located, not necessarily in official institutions, but rather in human agents, with their struggles, intrigues, plots and collaborations, and in which the pyramidal model is replaced by a horizontal model of wide communication networks. My book presented a cosmopolitan network of a leading elite, whose members shared many interests and which was designed to preserve these interests and their hegemonic position. Since the publication of the book in 2006, additional studies have been published that have proposed other models intended to explain the organizing principles of Jewish society in medieval Islamic countries. Marina Rustow, in a paradigmatic article from 2008, proposed a model of patron-client relations that is also reflected in the Muslim courtly literature written in the Abbasid and Buyid periods, a model based on loyal ties between the patron and his clients. In a later paper from 2014, Rustow proposed a more complicated model, in which, following Seth Schwartz, she distinguishes between societies based on reciprocity and societies based on solidarity. In societies based on reciprocity, there are direct personal relationships that do not take into account the cohesion of the entire group and are therefore hierarchical and characterized by inequality and considerable class differences. Such societies tend to include various types of patronage. By contrast, societies based on solidarity tend to emphasize group affiliation and are based on common ideology; such societies are usually more egalitarian and particularistic. According to Rustow, until the 12th century the Geniza society was based on reciprocity, while from the 12th century onward it began to assume the traits of a society based on solidarity, as witnessed for

example in Maimonides` writings. This model may be useful for analyzing the Genizah society, but it still lacks concrete historical evidence. Its weak point is that medieval Jewish society is portrayed as a monolithic and uniform entity, ignoring any class differentiations within it—differentiations that play a central role in my own book about the Jewish community of Alexandria.

Another new approach can be discerned in some of Rustow`s articles, an approach already taken by Goitein and even more so by Mark Cohen. This approach considers the Genizah society an integral part of an overall Islamicate culture (a term still waiting for an adequate translation into Hebrew). A common culture, that is, to Muslims, Christians and Jews, which developed during the middle ages in territories under Muslim rule. This concept assumes that the medieval communities of Muslims, Jews and Christians, while having their own unique characteristics, shared many common features. This approach is fundamentally different from that manifested in Norman Golb’s studies. Although Golb`s writings take into consideration complicated relations and contacts between the Jewish communities and the surrounding Muslim and Christian societies, he perceives them as completely separate communities that maintain external contacts. A concept of a common multi-religious culture is not to be found in his studies.

The approach that considers Genizah documents mainly as a source for studying medieval Islamic society has indeed gained momentum, but has also strong opponents, the most prominent of whom is Philip Lieberman. In his book The Business of Identity: Jews, Muslims, and Economic Life in Medieval Egypt (Stanford, 2014), Lieberman comes out categorically against this trend, in which he sees a distinct product of what he calls the Princeton School. According to him, the Jewish merchants mentioned in the Cairo Genizah engaged in unique trading methods that are not paralleled in the trading methods of the Muslim merchants but rather reflect the Jewish tradition and Jewish law, with such unique trading methods providing the Jewish traders with an expression of their separate identity.

The perception of Jewish society as part of the Islamicate society also encouraged perception in the opposite direction: phenomena discerned in Genizah documents are perceived as being indicative of the entire Islamic society and, in fact, of the entire medieval society. The possibility of using the Genizah documents for the study of the medieval Middle East, to which Mark Cohen had already drawn attention in his 2006 article “Geniza for Islamicists,” received perhaps the most prominent expression in Abner Greif`s book, Institutions and the Path to Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade (Cambridge, 2006). The book, which discusses the role of institutions in establishing the modern economy, uses the term “Maghariba” (= the Maghrebis) to characterize pre-modern trade. Greif believes that the term, a common one in the Genizah writings, is the name of a group of merchants founded on a common ethnic origin in the Maghreb. In his opinion, this group was based on a binary relationship between a main merchant and an agent, relationships that were based on a mechanism of reputation. Greif presented the relations between the Maghariba as typical trade relations practiced in the Middle Ages, which preceded the institutional enforcement of law and supervision of trade relations, known only in modern times.

Another expression of this approach is evident in Rustow’s groundbreaking latest book, The Lost Archive (Princeton, 2020). In this book, the author uses government documents written in Arabic and found in the Cairo Genizah—petitions, government orders and manuals—in order to restore what she calls “the lost archive of the Fatimid Caliphate”. With the help of these documents, which were issued by the Fatimid Court, Rustow refutes the assumption that has prevailed among scholars of Muslim history for generations regarding the complete absence of archives in medieval Islamic civilization, a claim that has served as proof of the inferiority of this culture compared to the Christian culture of


Documents from the Cairo Genizah are hence used by Rustow in order to bring about a dramatic change in the scholarly paradigm that has prevailed in Oriental studies and to point to the strength of the medieval Muslim administration.

This book by Rustow marks another new direction that characterizes the era of research after Golb, namely the use of documents as artifacts, not only as texts.

Norman Golb sealed a generation of virtuous scholars who laid the foundations of our knowledge of medieval Jewish society and culture in Islamic countries. The generation after him now turns to examining the broader meanings of Genizah documents and perceives them not only as transmitters of content but also as physical artifacts. It would not have been possible to reach this compelling stage without Golb’s groundbreaking discoveries.


Norman Golb