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Prof. Renée Levine Melammed on Miriam The Sister of Moses

Bible
Shavua Tov @ Schechter
Women & Gender

In Parashat Shemot, a child, Moses, is born to Yocheved and placed in a basket on the river, while the baby’s sister, Miriam, stands watch from afar.

Prof. Renée Levine Melammed, professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, shares with us the story of another Miriam: the sister of Moses Maimonides.

Full transcription below:

Among the letters that can be found in the Cairo Genizah, are letters written by sisters to brothers. This is actually very common because if there were no fathers around, the brothers took care of the sisters. And what I found among them, actually it was not my personal discovery, but what I found extremely interesting there, was a letter written by a woman whose brother was none other than Maimonides Moshe ben Maimon. Her name was Miriam. So, she was actually Miriam bat Maimon. And I thought about it the other day, I realized that we have here just like Moshe Rabbenu in the Bible, whose sister was Miriam. Here we have Moshe ben Maimon whose sister was also Miriam. And Miriam opens this letter up with an amazing introduction. You would think she would write, dear brother, how are you? What’s happening? How are your kids? Or how are my kids? Or something like this. But she starts with two or three lines of superlatives to the greatest, most impressive, most Holy, most wonderful et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And then she gets to the bottom line.

The problem is that she had sent her son to Cairo for studies and many of the families who didn’t live in the big city would send their children there. And we have actually other letters by mothers who were worried about their sons. This son didn’t write to his mother. It sort of reminds us of summer camp when our parents get worried that we’re not writing them, but she has someone very important who can help her out because she realizes that her brother is extremely well connected. “I know that you’re very busy, but please I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. I’m so worried about my son. So please find out where your nephew is and let me know how he is. And if by any chance you discover that he’s not around, maybe he went somewhere else. (We don’t know how old he was when he was in elementary school or in a higher level.) If for some reason he’s not in Cairo, then you sent him a letter and you give him a piece of your mind and include my letter with this.”

So we have this letter that was sent to Maimonides at the end of the 12th century. He died in 1204. So it had to be sometime towards the end of the 12th century. Unfortunately, we don’t have the answer. We don’t know what happened to her son. I’m pretty sure that Maimonides did what he was supposed to do. His brotherly fraternal duty. But we’re going to hope that he indeed found the son and settled the problem and that he wrote to his mother.

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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