Remembering Ilana Sasson
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Remembering Ilana Sasson

Memorial lecture will focus on ‘materiality’ of Cairo Geniza

Ilana Sasson, left, and Marina Rostow
Ilana Sasson, left, and Marina Rostow

Mention the name Ilana Sasson at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck and prepare to be impressed.

“She was a special person,” congregant Arlene Sokolow said, in a casual conversation during kiddush this past Shabbat. “Everything she did, she did well.” Apparently, that included everything from academic pursuits to sewing perfect stitches on a homemade tallit.

Praise for Ilana — who died last year — came also from Professor Marina Rustow, Princeton University’s Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and director of the Princeton Geniza Lab. If her title is intimidating, so too is the field over which she and Ilana bonded.

“Ilana and I met in 1996 during our first year of Arabic at Columbia,” Dr. Rustow said. “We became friends — she was always sharing Hebrew cognates with me, basically helping us wrap our minds around Arabic. She was passionate about the Judeo-Arabic world.”

Dr. Rustow — a 2015 MacArthur Fellow whose work focuses on the study of Judeo-Arabic documents found in the Cairo geniza and the history of Jews in the Fatimid caliphate — will deliver the Ilana Sasson Memorial Lecture on October 21 at the Teaneck synagogue where Ilana was an active member. Her topic is “The Cairo Geniza in the Digital Age.” (See box for more information.)

The Cairo Geniza is a collection of some 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments that were found in the geniza — or storeroom — of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, or Old Cairo, Egypt, in 1896, Dr. Rustow said. Today, they are dispersed over 60 libraries.

“Maimonides was a member and leader of the congregation that prayed in the synagogue where these were cached,” Dr. Rustow said. Among the fragments found were not only draft pages of famous books but also handwritten scraps from Maimonides.

“There were notes saying things like, ‘I got your previous note but it was wet when it arrived.’” They’re not entirely unlike today’s email messages, Dr. Rustow said, the ones that often end up in spam folders. But then, unlike today, people’s habit “was not to casually dispose of their writings but to store them.”

According to Ron Prywes, Ilana’s husband, Dr. Rustow is in a direct line of geniza scholars. One of her graduate advisors was Princeton professor Mark Cohen, whose position she now holds. He, in turn, was mentored by Shelomo Dov Goitein, “the person who put the documentary geniza on the map,” Dr. Rustow said. Until he did his work, “no one cared about letters and legal documents.”

In her lecture, the speaker “will essentially talk about how the advent of high resolution digital photography transforms how we study the geniza.” She said that while many scholars “have drilled into the manuscripts for text, the actual materiality of the manuscripts themselves” is less well explored. “What did it look like? What were the choices of layout, of margins? Were they horizontal or vertical? No one has been focusing on this.

“Digital photography has given us much better access to the material history, the history of paper, scribal culture, and how the manuscripts physically circulated,” she said.

“One thing very interesting for me as a teacher is the availability of digital images, which makes it possible to give a totally different kind of lecture, showing a lot of slides. My students today are way more visual” then they used to be. “Even if they don’t have the language skills, they’ll be able to pick up stuff from the visual images. It’s changed the way I want to teach.”

Dr. Rustow clearly is passionate about her chosen field. Ilana was too, she said, and they shared an interest in Jews in the medieval Islamic world. Her friend also was extremely generous, she added. “She found out about my interest in Middle Eastern music and gave me her traditional Iraqi tapes.” Ilana’s family originally was from Iraq; later they moved to Israel.

The tapes include recordings of maqam, which is “a very interesting art form,” Dr. Rostow said. “It’s technically extremely complex.” While most of the famous performers were Muslim, most of the instrumentalists were Jews and Christians. She noted also that one of her last emails from Ilana, in 2015, congratulated her on receiving the MacArthur Award. “She was a wonderful human being. She wouldn’t have let that go” without an acknowledgement.

Dr. Rustow noted that when Ilana received her doctorate at JTS — “she did amazing doctoral work on Karaite manuscripts and biblical exegesis, she just kept drilling” — at around 50, she was the oldest person in her class. She didn’t know what she was going to do with the doctorate, Dr. Rustow said, but her passion drove her to earn it.

Dr. Prywes described Ilana as “loving everything Mizrachi. She was interested in the language of her parents, Iraqi Jews.” She grew up in Holon, Israel, served in the IDF, and then went on to Hebrew University, where she received a BA and a master’s in human genetics. Her growing interest in ancient Semitic languages came later in life. “She switched fields,” Dr. Prywes said. “After raising kids, she wanted to study things more closely related to her parents and her Iraqi roots.”

If Ilana’s credentials are impressive, so too are those of her husband and their two children. Prof. Ron Prywes is co-director of graduate studies in the department of biological sciences at Columbia University. Their son Noam earned a Ph.D. from Harvard in chemistry and chemical biology and did post-doctoral work in plant biology at the University of California at Berkeley. Their son Eden is working toward a Ph.D. in mathematics at UCLA.

Dr. Prywes said he hopes this talk will be the first in an ongoing series of tributes to Ilana. He noted that the family also has established a memorial fellowship in Judeo-Arabic biblical studies at Tel Aviv University.


Who: Prof. Marina Rustow

What: Will deliver the Ilana Sasson Memorial Lecture

When: On Sunday, October 21, at 7 p.m.

Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

The program is free and open to the community

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