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Jewish Women in Mediterranean Society

Education
History
Women & Gender

The Genizah collection has provided an entrée into what is aptly described by S. D. Goitein in the third volume of A Mediterranean Society as “the world of women”. Just as little was known about the medieval Mediterranean Jewish world prior to the discovery of the Genizah, even less was known about women’s lives. Goitein was, however, the first to notice the wealth of material offered by the vast collection of fragments and to weave together an image of their world. Needless to say, his sensitivity and insights were extremely rare and rather avant garde and have left a lasting impression; essentially he was a pioneer in the field of the history of medieval Jewish women.

For more than a decade, both Joel L. Kraemer (formerly of Tel Aviv University and emeritus, University of Chicago) and I have been dealing with this material.  Kraemer has collected a large corpus of over 160 letters written by and to women; many have been discussed in the three articles that he has published in Hebrew and English. In addition, he has transcribed and translated the majority of them, but they have not as yet been published.

Essentially, I have been passed the baton by my senior colleague in order to continue and to complete this important research. I have been teaching portions of this and additional material published by Goitein in our women’s studiesprogram at the Schechter Institute as well as at Yale University. I also published an article that includes a translation and analysis of two Maimonidean responsa dealing with a woman teacher that offer unexpected insights into the attitudes of this society toward women, toward teaching and the education of Jewish boys. In another article, I analyzed the influence of Islam on the lives of women including a discussion of polygamy, veils, concubines, maidservants and temporary marriage arrangements.

In July 2011, I was informed by the Israel Science Foundation that the proposal I had submitted was approved for funding. This meant that I was awarded a four year grant for the project on Jewish women in Mediterranean Society. With the aid of Prof. Nahem Ilan (who has also taught courses at Schechter), the proposed project is to prepare and publish Kraemer’s material and additional relevant documents and to search for more letters dealing with women in the various Genizah collections (Taylor-Schechter; Oxford Bodleiana; Mosseri; JTS, etc).

The funds received allow for the employment of two wonderful Judeo-Arabists (scholars of Arabic written in Hebrew letters, in this case, medieval Arabic) to double check readings of the original documents and to look for additional ones. With digitization, access to a large portion of this material is now at one’s fingertips. The team will utilize the newly digitized collections (thus far, Princeton, JTS, National Library, Friedberg) as well as Goitein’s handwritten notes to help check the accuracy of earlier transcriptions and translations. The documents will be translated into Hebrew and English. The plan is to include a catalogue description of each document and an array of photos of originals as well; the estimate is that up to 200 documents will be included. We hope that this collaboration will result in a fresh analysis of this material.

A few months ago I prepared a talk about Spanish women who appear in the Genizah. One of the letters was written by a young woman, a daughter writing in her mother’s name to her father. Goitein and others had assumed that this merchant was located at the time in Mocha, a port in Yemen. Recently, this very document became the source of debate. Had this handwriting been correctly deciphered? Was this father in Yemen? Was the handwriting that of a Spanish émigré to Fustat (Old Cairo) whose knowledge of Arabic was imperfect? (Most scholars who have seen this letter assumed that she had not mastered the intricacies of the language.) Could it have been the handwriting of a more sophisticated scribe to whom she dictated the letter? Were certain letters of the alphabet written oddly? Or had Goitein misread this? One only needs to peruse this document to realize how difficult it is to read and why different sets of eyes do not necessarily see everything identically.

What were the items that this young woman was asking her father to purchase and bring or send home? How unusual were these white and ruby-red silk garments? How long had this merchant been away? [Since his wife was pregnant, we know that his absence was less than nine months, which was hardly considered to be a long duration of time for these Mediterranean merchants since travel was so time-consuming and costly.] At any rate, the new readings of this document seem to confirm the fact that the letter was not sent to Mocha and that the unusual handwriting may well have been misconstrued by the master, Prof. Goitein. This family’s situation did not change however, for this girl, her sister and her mother were pining away for the head of the household, who, while pursuing his profession and hoping to support his family, left his loved ones in Cairo to fend for themselves. Most merchants attempted to send valuable goods to their wives and children who could sell them in order to maintain themselves in their absence. We know not when this particular father returned and if he indeed procured the silk items requested.

At any rate, the plan is to prepare two volumes, one containing the original Judeo-Arabic transcriptions alongside a Hebrew translation, and another with translations of the documents into English. In addition, the material will be organized by categories (such as letters from husband-wife, mother-son, sisters) in order to enable a detailed historical analysis of the documents. I will be writing the introductions to the volumes in both languages. They will include a survey of the status of research on medieval Jewish women; a discussion of the significance of the Cairo Genizah in medieval Jewish history and of the nature of the documents found there that are relevant for the study of women; and an analysis of the nature of the material in this collection that sheds light on this world and allows for women’s voices to be heard, both directly and indirectly.

These publications will expose the English reader and the Hebrew reader to the world of women in medieval Mediterranean society (mostly from 950-1250). They will contain new and relevant material for historians and linguists as well as for scholars of Jewish law, Jewish education, literature, women’s studies and Mediterranean studies. Judeo-Arabic scholars will clearly benefit from this research as well by gaining access to transcriptions of original texts. One cannot overemphasize the uniqueness of these documents: it is rare to hear Jewish women’s voices at all in the medieval world. This collection should make a resounding impression upon the reader and present unexpected insights into the realities of women’s lives in the medieval Mediterranean World.


Renée Levine Melammed, Kekst Fellow and out-going Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies Graduate School, is a professor of Jewish History, Academic Editor of Nashim, and a leading scholar in the history of Sephardic Jewry and Jewish women’s studies.

Image Credit: Younes and Soraya Nazarian Library, University of Haifa & The Friedberg Genizah Project

Renée Levine Melammed, originally from Long Island, New York, received her degrees from Smith College and Brandeis University. Her dissertation and early research dealt with the lives of crypto-Jewish women in Spain and the way in which conversos coped with the issue of their identity; her research now is focusing on women’s lives as reflected in the Cairo Geniza. She is a professor of Jewish history at Schechter, teaching courses in medieval Jewish history and gender studies as well as in Jews of Spain and Islamic lands.

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