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Norman Stillman Delivers the 17th Tenenbaum Lecture

Norman Stillman Delivers the 17th Tenenbaum Lecture, TAM Institute

by Benjamin Hary

Soon after the Tenenbaum Family Lecture Series was established with a generous endowment gift from the Tenenbaum family, I was asked to organize the first annual lecture. I had recently returned from Cairo, where I had participated in events marking the 100th anniversary of the "discovery" of the Cairo Geniza, the huge cache of Jewish manuscript fragments that had been hidden for centuries in the storeroom of the Egyptian capital's Ben Ezra Synagogue. In order to further commemorate the centennial of the Geniza's discovery and to underscore its central importance as a source for modern Jewish studies, I invited Professor Menahem Ben-Sasson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to deliver the inaugural Tenenbaum Lecture, titled "When Books Aren't Enough: Jewish History from Fragments." Professor Ben-Sasson mesmerized the audience with his in-depth description and analysis of the Geniza sources and of the larger Judeo-Arabic culture of which they were a part.

This year, the 17th annual Tenenbaum Family Lecture has brought us full circle, back to a topic connected to the one with which we started. Our distinguished guest lecturer was Professor Noam Stillman, the Schusterman/Josey Professor of Judaic History at the University of Oklahoma and an internationally recognized authority on the history and culture of the Islamic world and of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry. Reminding us of a time quite different from our own, and also that Jewish civilization has had many important facets beyond the familiar Ashkenazic cultural milieu that frequently takes center stage in Jewish studies scholarship, Professor Stillman offered us a stimulating lecture titled, "When Arabic Was a Jewish Language."

Norman Stillman, Tenenbaum Lecture

It may seem odd today to refer to Arabic as "a Jewish language," since much of contemporary Jewry is of Ashkenazic background and tends to think of Yiddish as the quintessential Jewish language, or mameloshn (literally, "mother tongue"). Yet as Professor Stillman explained in his lecture, a majority of world Jewry lived under Islamic rule in the era before the 13th century, when the center of gravity of the Jewish population shifted to the Christian world. Although the Jewish presence in Arabic-speaking countries continued to decline in the period that followed, there were still as many as 800,000 Jews living in Arab lands at the beginning of the 20th century. For them, Arabic, in its Jewish varieties, was the language of a vibrant and flourishing community life. In fact, among all of the many Jewish diaspora languages of post-Talmudic times, Judeo-Arabic holds a place of special distinction, having the longest recorded history after Hebrew and Aramaic (from the 9th century to the present) and also the widest geographical diffusion, extending across three continents during the Middle Ages. Even more significantly, Judeo-Arabic was the medium of expression for many of the greatest works of Jewish spiritual, intellectual, and cultural creativity. As Professor Stillman explained, this "cultural creativity" not only included works of "high culture," but also a popular culture no less effervescent and piquant than that existing in the Yiddish-speaking world. Professor Stillman's lecture opened up this world for his listeners by offering a wide-ranging historical and cultural tour from the present to the past and back again, looking at Jewish civilization in its Islamic milieu where Arabic was indeed a Jewish language.

Moshe Idel seminar, TAM Institute
Sam Tenenbaum, Inez Tenenbaum, Claire Sterk, Noam Stillman, Dinah Assouline Stillman, Cookie Gale, Barry Gale, Robin Forman

Professor Stillman comes to his examination of Judeo-Arabic history and culture with a list of impressive credentials. He earned a BA (magna cum laude) and PhD in Oriental studies from the University of Pennsylvania and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His published work has focused on topics including the history of the Jews in the Islamic world, Sephardi history, Arabic language and linguistics, Jewish languages, and the ethnography of Jewish communities. He is the author of seven books and countless articles in several different languages (Arabic, Dutch, English, German, French, Hebrew, Turkish), among them The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (nominated for a National Jewish Book Award), Sephardi Religious Responses to Modernity, and my own favorite, The Language and Culture of the Jews of Sefrou, an ethnographic and linguistic study of the Jews of Sefrou, Morocco. He is the executive editor of the award-winning, five-volume Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World (Brill, 2010) and continues in that capacity for the expanded online edition.

Moshe Idel seminar, TAM Institute
Noam Stillman and Benjamin Hary

In addition to his public lecture, Professor Stillman also offered a seminar for faculty and graduate students on the topic "More French than the French: The Algerian Jewish Resistance during World War II, Its Crucial Role in the Allied Landing, and Its Betrayal by the Americans." The discussion detailed the prewar role of Jews in Algerian society, the consequences of the fall of France and the Vichy regime, and the results of Jewish underground assistance to the Allies.

TIJS is grateful to the Tenenbaum Family for making possible this continuing intellectual high point of the year for the Emory community.







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Fall 2013
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