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Studying Past and Present: Q&A with Craig Perry and Geoff Levin

Left: Dr. Geoffrey Levin; Right: Dr. Craig Perry

July 30, 2020

Last year, the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies announced the appointment of Professor Craig Perry, formerly of the University of Cincinnati. This upcoming academic year we are again proud to announce a new member of the faculty, Professor Geoffrey Levin. Professor Levin completed his doctoral studies at New York University in 2019, followed by a fellowship at Harvard University's Center for Jewish Studies. Both scholars study Jewish society in the context of Middle Eastern civilization but at very different points in time—the medieval period and the twentieth century. 

TIJS and MESAS asked Perry and Levin the following questions, and their answers demonstrate how their respective expertise complement each other to offer students a comprehensive and complex understanding of Jewish and Middle Eastern studies.

What are your primary areas of research? When and how did you first become interested in these particular areas?

Craig Perry (CP): My primary areas of research are the social history of the medieval Middle East, the history of Jews in the Islamic world, and the history of slavery. I also specialize in a subfield of medieval Jewish history called documentary Geniza studies. The Cairo Geniza was a chamber attached to the Ben Ezra synagogue of Old Cairo. For about nine-hundred years, Egyptian Jews deposited their worn out manuscripts (prayer books, Bible codices, copies of the Talmud, etc) along with their personal papers (family letters, wills, real estate deeds, etc.). The Ben Ezra was the synagogue of Moses Maimonides and his descendants and some of his letters and papers were put into the Geniza. In the late nineteenth century, collectors acquired these materials and they are now in major libraries and smaller private collections around the world. Most of the 330,000 or so pages have been digitized in the last ten plus years. The documents I use for my research are mostly written in Judeo-Arabic (Arabic written with Hebrew letters), but Jews also used some Hebrew and Aramaic for specific purposes. 

My first career was as a high school social studies teacher; I especially enjoyed teaching world history. Jewish history was a new interest for me when I taught for a time at Jewish day school in Los Angeles. When I decided to pursue a PhD, I wanted to combine my interests in world and Jewish history. The Cairo Geniza materials provided an opportunity to do that as the people who put their papers there traveled across the medieval world. My decision to study slavery grew out of an interest in writing social history “from below” in an attempt to capture the experiences of daily life and the perspectives of individuals and groups whose histories are not always told. The study of slavery also tells us a lot about how power works - from the level of geo-politics down to individual interactions in slave-owning households. 

Geoffrey Levin (GL): My main focus is the history of modern Israel. I am particularly interested in Israel’s relationship with the world, and how people in other countries see Israel, which is always shaped in part by local contexts and histories.

I was always interested in foreign relations and in questions related to identity and community. More so than some other countries, Israel means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and many people have strong opinions. I became interested in how these differing views emerged and why they had such emotional resonance. For my dissertation, I focused on American Jewish debates on Israel and the Palestinians between the 1940s and the 1970s. I suppose that was only natural given my own experiences as an American Jew who had studied and lived in the region.

Follow up conversation: 
CP to GL: What is the most surprising, shocking, funny, or bizarre discovery you have made in doing archival research?

GL: I would say that one of my most surprising archival discoveries was the discovery of an archive itself. Two years ago, I traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah for an extended archival trip. Utah was not a place I expected that my research on American Jews and Israel/Palestine would take me. However, I learned that the University of Utah held the papers of Dr. Fayez Sayegh, a collection which was vast and virtually untapped by Middle East scholars. Sayegh was important for my research because during the 1950s, he had run the Arab League’s Arab Information Center in New York. Essentially, he had been the chief Arab spokesman in the United States back then, sort of like a Palestinian counterpart to Israeli ambassador Abba Eban. Yet the archivist told me that no one had really taken a serious look at Sayegh’s paper before. I found some really intriguing material on meetings between the Arab League official and American Jewish leaders, which was a surprise. It turns out that it was there, in part, because Sayegh’s wife was from Utah.

What is your teaching philosophy? What do you hope students will appreciate most when taking one of your courses?

CP: In the classroom, my ultimate goal is that students actively construct knowledge. In more practical terms this means that students are continually analyzing primary evidence in order to construct arguments and also to critique interpretations that they encounter in secondary sources including readings, films, and my own presentations. Students do this at home, in small groups, and then as part of larger class discussions. I also model this in short lectures. Another layer to this approach is the student’s own prior experience and point-of-view. In class we study how, for example, an author’s own historical context shaped their view of history. This invites us to think about how our own present realities and experiences shape the way we interpret evidence and make sense of things. This is best done in a seminar format though I have also found ways to create these opportunities in larger format classes. In this spirit, I tell my students that the best thing about any given class is “you.” By this I mean that this style of education is driven by student introspection and participation as well as their own investment in the community of learners. So the camaraderie that develops between students and between them and me is a part of what makes our learning effective, authentic, and, hopefully, edifying. 

GL: My philosophy is to “meet students where they are.” By that I mean I aim to help my students connect the course content with topics that they are already passionate about, and with issues that are already on their mind. I try to get a sense of what students already know, what their backgrounds are, what their interests are, and then build upon that. I think this can make the course material more meaningful for students. Assignments that I create using this approach might include writing essays that involve comparing political or sociological trends in Israel to those of a country that they are more familiar with. I hope that through this, my students will come to appreciate how political systems or historical trends transcend local contexts. In a course about Israeli politics, for example, my students will learn about Israel, but I am thrilled when the students are able to apply to concepts they learned in totally different settings.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been considered a contentious subject, but these days almost everything feels more controversial than it used to be. So I also hope my students come away from my courses with a strengthened ability to speak thoughtfully and productively on the wide array of sensitive issues.

Follow up conversation: 
GL to CP: I noticed that you taught a course called “The History of Jewish-Muslim Relations” last year. Can you share any highlights, challenges, or surprises from teaching the course or putting together the syllabus?

CP: For most of the students who take this course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is their only context for the subject of Jewish-Muslim relations. Students are hugely curious about this topic and want more opportunities to discuss it because they almost fear the conversation due to the tensions and polarized discourse on campus and all around them. Also because of this framework, students are frequently surprised, and even skeptical, to find other examples of Jewish-Muslim relations that defy modern stereotypes. This gives us an opportunity to discuss how the present shapes our view of the past and the questions we ask about it.  

Another conversation that recurs throughout the course is how we already make a consequential choice by framing the class as the study of a group we can encircle and call “Jews” and another one that we can bracket as “Muslims.” The interactions we see in history are more complex. People had other aspects of their identities—as mothers and fathers, by virtue of their occupations, as Arabic speakers, as subjects of empire, etc.—that sometimes were more immediate and important to them than just their Jewishness or Muslimness. Thus, by teaching about Muslims and Jews we are inviting students into a conversation they want to have. But we’re also already categorizing people in ways that they might not and, if we’re not careful, that flatten historical specificity and contingency.

What other kinds of activities do you enjoy? If you had an extra day in the week, how would you spend that time?

CP: On my time off, I like to spend time with my family—my wife and our two children. We like to do things like take bike rides (usually to a destination that includes King of Pops, ice cream, or some other treat), watch movies together (most recently it was the original Murder on the Orient Express and then the remake), and play board games (favorites include Ticket to Ride and Cincinnatiopoly, the Cincinnati version of Monopoly). When I have time for myself, I really enjoy going for longer bike rides in and around Atlanta. I also like sometimes to just sit and be still as I listen to all kinds of music or read a book. The last books I read were Octavia Butler’s Parable duology. This was a bracing and harrowing read given our present societal circumstances, but I find her work fascinating. Finally, as the cook in my family, I enjoy putting yummy meals together and bribing my kids with desserts so that they eat at least some vegetables. 

GL: I really enjoy cooking and traveling. These days it has been much easier to cook than to travel, of course, so I’ve been able to try a plenty of new recipes. With regards to traveling, Israel was actually the first place I ever traveled to outside of the United States. I went there in college, and obviously, the trip made an impression. Since then I’ve been to over forty countries. These days, I “get away” by reading a lot of fiction. I just read a great new novel set in Kolkata, A Burning, which may be of interest to some in MESAS.