Featured Fellow


William Kolbrener

Our final Featured Fellow of the year is William Kolbrener, a professor of English Literature at Bar-Ilan University, and member of our Research Group, "Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe". We spoke to William about Midrash, Milton, and the unexpected connection between the two…

Read More


What research are you working on during your time at the IIAS?

Currently, I am writing a book on Psalms, a project which developed serendipitously. I became interested in Renaissance psalms translations thanks to my IIAS colleague, Emilie Murphy, who is researching the reception of the psalms in the 17th century. Together, we discussed the Geneva Bible, an English translation from 1560, written during the Marian exile, and persecution of Protestants. To my mind, it remains one of the best and most precise English translation that exists.

The figure of David focuses his thoughts and emotions frequently through representing the differences between sight and hearing. In Psalms, so much of his experience of founding the People of Israel is based upon hearing. Seeing has a different status, more reflecting the individual fear of God. I've become very interested in both senses in the English translations, and also how these text reflect the original Hebrew text.

Psalms is the most challenging of the books of the Old Testament, because David not only allows for, but cultivates multiple meanings. As a translator, you have to choose one interpretation. The rabbis of the Talmud understand that Psalms provides different angles on the figure of the David, and so many of them are mediated through sight and hearing.


What other projects are you working on?

This year, I finished a book that I started writing over the pandemic, called Literature and the Sacred: God and Reading in a Time of Pandemic. The book is about the way in which Midrash, more particularly midrashic method, has been adapted over the centuries. Although it is a homiletic genre created by the rabbis, in the 17th century, figures such as Milton and Rembrandt adopted Midrash in their work. For example, Milton's most well-known work, Paradise Lost, is pretty much a Midrash on the Old Testament. Milton knew Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, a Midrashic commentary translated into Latin in 1644. And Rembrandt lived down the block from Menasseh Ben Israel who was a scholar of Midrash – painting his portrait and a frontispiece to one of his theological works. My book focuses on Rembrandt's four paintings of the Samson story, and Milton's 'Samson Agonistes'. I focus on the Midrashic method, rather than the stories, the ways in which Midrash brings past into present.

The project most explicitly related to our group’s work on early modern representation of the senses tells a story that goes from John Milton to Isaac Newton, from the priority of poetry to philosophy. When the authority of Milton and his age ends, there's a movement away from a world based upon time, story, and hearing, into a place of space, experimentation, and seeing. This represents a way of understanding the modern: as we stop telling stories because they are fiction, we become interested in a new kind of truth that we can see and verify with our eyes. The transition from story to sight is really a transition away from the sensibilities of Milton and Rembrandt, in which people would find themselves through reading and writing, through story. There's some tragedy to prioritizing sight, in that we no longer think that reading matters because we are told by scientists that stories don't matter. Not only the stories that we see other people tell, but primarily the stories that we tell ourselves, through which we narrate past, present, and future. In psalms, David is the main storyteller. His contemporaries say to him, "You have no story, and no future. You're done." The Sages say that David invented repentance, because he responds by persisting to write his story. There's a lesson in that for people today. Only through narrative is there a future.


How does your religious background contribute to your academic work?

I think the blessing that I have is that I know how to read into different traditions. Living in the Jewish world, I was constantly exposed to the languages of the Jewish sages. And I internalized them; they are a part of me. I was Haredi and learnt in a kollel [institute for full-time advanced Talmudic study] for 15 years, but the languages of Milton and Shakespeare are in some ways even more important to my self-identity.

I see a responsibility to the people who I teach, because I see that they also want to be part of their traditions, and they want to learn how to read in active creative manners. Great writers who tell stories leave room for your interpretations; they're teaching you how to read, and Milton is the apotheosis of that. Hamlet is the best Midrash on David (don't tell people in my synagogue!) because he's like the 17th century David. Any emotion – joy, shame, depression, guilt, nihilism – has already been written about by David.

Another thing I realized when I started to study Midrash is that David is behind every conception of individualism that exists in the western world. I teach 17th century English literature, so I always saw the individual as beginning with Paul, Augustine, and Luther, and continuing with Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Milton. I always wondered: where is this in the Jewish tradition? I realized that all these figures are reading psalms. It's coming from David. Shakespeare would have heard the whole psalm cycle sung in church every thirty days, and so it was a part of him.  Western and Hebraic traditions are intertwined through David’s Psalms.


How has your time been at the IIAS?

The Institute gives you the luxury to do what you want to do, without being distracted. On the first day, Yitzhak [Hen, the Director of the IIAS] said, "We don’t make any demands: we don't mind what you write, and we're not going to ask you", because he knows that that's how scholars thrive. It’s the exact opposite of every other academic context where nervous administrators are always looking over your shoulder.

Do you know what an incredible place this is? It's scholarly paradise! Academics never have this. I haven't told Yitzhak this yet, but I'm planning on locking myself to this desk at the end of July.


Read Less

Eric Wajnberg

This week's Featured Fellow is Eric Wajnberg, the Head of Research at SPE, INRAE, and co-organizer of our Research Group, "Mathematical Modelling of Biological Control Interaction to Support Agriculture and Conservation". We spoke to Eric about insect behaviour, biometry, and film-making…

Read More

What research are you working on during your time at the IIAS?

My work is divided between editorial work and research. For the editorial part, I am a member of the editorial board of a few international journals, and I'm the Editor-in-Chief of the BioControl academic journal.

For my research, I use theoretical approach to understand insect behaviour. We want to understand what behaviour these insects are using to maximize their reproductive success, so we are using theoretical models to see what is the optimal behavioural strategy used by animals to help maximizing the number of progeny they produce. We build models, use mathematical equations and sometimes complex computations, and then design experiments to see if the insects follow the model’s predictions. Funnily enough, most of the time their behaviour does follow our models, and we want to understand why this is.

Insects are short-lived: most of the time they live for a couple of hours, and sometimes a couple of days, so they have to be really accurate in the way they organize and manage their time. The insects that we are investigating are parasitoids, which means that they lay their eggs in other insects, and kill the host when the eggs produce larvae and eat the host. These parasitoids therefore act as insecticides, and so we are using them for biological control of the nasty insects that are attacking our crops. When we are studying what pushes those insects to optimize the number of progeny they produce, we also understand how they maximize their impact on the pest, and so our research has an applied perspective.

I spend a lot of time on really tiny insects, less than a millimetre long. These are the most intensively produced animals on the planet, with “factories” that produce zillions of insects. In Europe, we release about 300,000 insects per hectare of corn, and we treat several hundred thousand hectares of corn all over Europe.

What is an example of insect reproduction behaviour that you're researching?

The insects we are working with are able to do a lot of things that we, humans, cannot do. For example, they are able to decide the sex of their progeny, and they have a specific mechanism that allows them to choose whether to lay a male or a female egg. We want to understand how they use such mechanisms to maximize their reproductive output. We have found that they lay males and females in specific sequences that we can describe statistically. Hence, we produce mathematical models to predict whether a male or female will be laid in a specific situation, and then we test these models by creating experiments that place the insects in such scenarios.

Insects are really convenient to experiment on. You have a new generation each week, it costs almost nothing to breed them, and you can do really accurate experiments in a lab with cameras, computers etc. Although the biological models we use could also, hypothetically, be tested on other animals, it is definitely easier to experiment on insects than elephants!

How did you first get into the field of ecology?

My university career has been in a field that lies somewhere between maths and biology – biometry – which applies mathematical tools, especially statistical tools and computer science, to biology. I have always been more interested in the mathematical approach.  Biologists spend their entire life collecting data, which they have to analyse it in the correct way, and this is my niche. The fact that I'm more on the theoretical side means that there are always people knocking on my door trying to ask me how to develop theoretical models for their own insects, so I am working on a lot of insect species.

How has your time been at the IIAS so far?

It's a really great opportunity. I was extracted from my day-to-day work and I can really focus on my research. Together with Tamar Keasar and Michal Segoli, we were able to build a dream team. Most of the members of our group have all known each other for decades, and we are all friends, so it is not only scientific and academic activity here, there is also the social dimension, which is lovely. I am really enjoying it. Our group is here for 5 months, but I wish we were here for longer!

What do you like to do outside of your research?

I am a guitar player, but I am a really poor guitar player. I enjoy bossa nova, which is Brazilian jazz music that was famous in the 60s and 70s, and that is the style of music I like to play. I also love art, and have enjoyed visiting the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum.

Can you tell us a bit about the short film you created?

A few years ago, I received a grant from the European Science Foundation to make a 30-minute film on parasitoids. The film explains the theoretical models used to make predictions about the efficacy of the parasitoids when trying to control pests.

The film was made for the general public, and was created with open access, so anyone in the university system can use it for teaching. The film is made in a Sherlock Holmes detective story style that surveys Europe. We designed some cartoons for it, and we also had a musician to compose the music. It took eight months to write, and four months to shoot, so it was a whole year of work! I was in charge of the scientific part, and I connected with professional filmmakers for the production. The movie was a real success, and we received some international awards for it.


Click here to watch Eric Wajnberg's 2009 film on parasitoids


Read Less

Tamar Keasar

This week's Featured Fellow is Tamar Keasar, a professor in the Department of Biology and the Environment at the University of Haifa, and co-organizer of our Research Group, "Mathematical Modelling of Biological Control Interaction to Support Agriculture and Conservation". We spoke to Tamar about agricultural pests, the benefits of models, and the similarities between humans and bees...

Read More

What research are you working on during your time at the IIAS?

My Research Group is working on the topic of biological control, which is the method of controlling agricultural pests through natural predation. This method reduces the use of insecticides, which are unhealthy, costly, and are becoming less effective over time, because the pests are evolving insecticide resistance. The question is how to do biological control in the best way. Previously, people have experimented with different forms of biological control, with some success and some failure, and without using theoretical insights to plan biological control programs.

An alternative method is to look at the basic science of ecology, which describes how populations behave and interact. There are many models that predict what would happen if you were to put two populations, or several populations, together. So our groups is integrating those two methods: to use experimentation alongside ecological models to improve the practice of biological control. Our group is composed of experimental biologists who go out to the field and do biological control in practice, as well as biologists who come more from a theoretical background and have an interest in biological control. So we're trying to get everybody to collaborate and exchange ideas in order to develop improved theories and practices.

Are you focusing on a specific pest species?

We are looking at a broad range of species. We meet with different people here in Israel who are working on specific pests and specific biological control programs, and discuss with them what's bothering them and where they need solutions, so this gives us additional ideas for species to study.

For example, we have a colleague who is an applied biologist working on a specific moth species. The larvae of this moth bore into tomato fruits, and cause a lot of damage. This is a huge issue, because tomatoes are widely grown in Israel and are a big cash crop, so any harm to this crop creates a lot of economic damage. The moth has a natural predator, a predatory bug that is naturally present in those fields, and feeds on the pests. The challenge we were posed was to figure out what population size of predatory bugs is needed in order to sufficiently keep the moth population under control, so that insecticides don't need to be used on the crops. Our group worked together, and made the calculations, and we met with her to discuss our results. This is an example of a specific problem that we can tackle with the help of mathematical modelling.

Do you have a lot of opportunities to visit farms as part of your research?

Yes, we work with real farms and real farmers, and part of the job is learning to talk to them and get their cooperation, because they are really important for these studies. We are trying be useful and to address people's needs. It is also important to talk in a language that they can understand and accept, because sometimes academics use fancy terminology which is unclear to the farmer, so communication is really important.

How did you first get interested in this field?

My PhD was on insect behaviour, and the research didn't have any applied use, it was trying to understand what dictates decision-making in bees as a model for learning about other animals, and maybe even humans. When I did my postdoc, I switched to behaviour, learning and decision-making in parasitic wasps, which are actually natural enemies of agricultural pests. When I started my own lab, new students presented their ideas and their research interests, and I found that many of them were interested in these applied topics, and wanted to make a difference in the world. I adopted their point of view and got into more applied research, which I have really found fascinating. So I learnt from my students.

What's an example of how the behaviour of bees can be reflected in human behaviour?

One finding from my PhD research was how bees allocate their efforts between searching for food in known food sources, and trying out new locations. It's a question of curiosity: would curiosity for something new be a constant in all situations, or would it be situation-dependent? And I found that there is some dependence on the situation. When the bee knows that its environment is very variable and uncertain, then it will be more willing to try new things. And when it is very confident that everything will stay the same, then that tendency decreases. And I think humans work in the same way too, so it's nice to see that it’s a common principle.

How are you enjoying your time at the IIAS so far?

It’s a really lovely opportunity to have time to think, and to write. I really enjoy the interactions with my Research Group, and also with the other Research Groups at the Institute. I don’t normally have many interactions with academics from the Humanities, and so this is really exciting for me. Also, I did my PhD here at The Hebrew University, two buildings away, so it's great to be back on this campus!

Outside of your research, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I like hiking and gardening. Now, in the spring, I spend a lot of time in my garden.

Do you have a favourite hiking trail in Israel?

The Negev highlands and the area of the Ramon crater are very dramatic, and the landscape is different to anything else. It's such an open area, and there are very few people, so it’s the perfect peaceful place to walk, and think, and enjoy the view.

And finally, do you have a book recommendation for us?

Before I came to the IIAS, I spent a few months in London. I read a few books about London, written by people who'd visited London, and one of them is London Observed by Doris Lessing. It’s a collection of short stories, all set in London, and they show different parts of the city and different people in the city, from an outsider's viewpoint. The author immigrated to London in the late 1950s, and she wrote this collection of stories during her first years there when she didn't know the city well. She observed it as a visitor, and so when I came as a visitor to the same city 50 years later, it was very exciting to read her perspective.


Read Less

Simha Goldin

This week's Featured Fellow is Simha Goldin, Director of the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University, and an Individual Fellow at the IIAS. We spoke to Simha about liturgical poetry, conversion, and 13th century feminism…

Read More

What research are you working on during your residency at the IIAS?

My area of research is medieval Jewish history, focusing mainly on the social life of the Jewish communities in 'Ashkenaz', that is, France, Germany, part of Italy, and England. I'm looking at the interactions within the Jewish community, as well as the interactions and conflicts of Jews with their Christian neighbours.

I am curious as to how the Ashkenazi Jewish communities survived during the Middle Ages, despite internal and external threats. I am also interested in the role of women and children in this survival process. In my book Yihud ve-ha-Yahad (Uniqueness and Togetherness), I argued that the survival of the Jewish communities throughout the Middle Ages was thanks to the creation of massive and unique organizations that allowed successful socialization processes. Through these, individuals were taught beliefs, values and behaviours. Since these processes took place in the synagogue, I have studied the synagogue as a social institution, rather than as a place of prayer. 

The socialization processes are also evident in the prayers. Jewish prayers in the Middle Ages are a unique source of information. It appears that prayers were constantly added to the main section of the prayerbook, and these prayers contain numerous hidden messages pertaining to everyday life, as well as hinting to the Jewish community's relationship with Christianity. Hence, liturgy can profitably be used for the study of social history. By looking at liturgical poems in prayerbooks and by using medieval commentaries on these poems, I try to understand how Jewish socialization processes evolved, and what made them so effective.

Can you give an example of a prayer that hints towards these socialization processes?

An excellent case in point is the liturgical prayer for Shavuot (Pentecost). One of the main themes in the celebration of Shavuot is the reception of the Torah from God on Mount Sinai. In the 12th century, the Christians claimed that the covenant between the Jews and God had become void with the passion of Christ, and that the Torah had been passed on to the Christians – the 'New Israel' – instead. In response, the Jewish paytanim [i.e. authors of the liturgical poems] composed a liturgical poem based on Midrashic sources, describing how God used the Torah to create the world, thus implying that the connection between the Torah and the Jewish people precedes even the creation of the world, and as such, the bond between God and the Jews is unbreakable. In this example one can see how the paytanim used liturgical poetry to challenge Christian beliefs and theological claims, and at the same time strengthened the Jewish faith.

Such liturgical poems are often accompanied by illustrations, and, as can be seen in numerous handwritten prayer books, these drawings contain hidden messages as well. Hence, studying these liturgical poems with their commentaries and illustrations is an interdisciplinary enterprise that combines history, theology, literary studies and art.

Your research also touches upon the relationship between Jews and ex-Jews in the Middle Ages. Could you please say a few words on that topic?

My book, Apostasy and Jewish Identity in High Middle Ages Northern Europe: 'Are you still my brother?', explores the relationship between Jews who kept their faith, and Jews who converted to Christianity in the Middle Ages. Throughout the 11th and 12th century, the Jews who remained Jews were mainly trying to bring the ex-Jews back into the fold. But the 12th and the early 13th century was a challenging period for the Jews of Eastern Europe, featuring the violence of the Crusades and the emergence of blood libels. Consequently, by the end of the 13th century, the idea was not so much to bring the ex-Jews back to the community, but rather to keep them as ‘distant brothers’. I would submit that the historical circumstances and the ever-growing tensions between Jews and Christians had a huge effect on the attitude of Jews towards their converted brethren.

You have also explored the role of Jewish women in your book, Jewish Women in the Middle Ages – A Quiet Revolution. Were there any surprising outcomes of your research?

Although the cheder [i.e. Jewish elementary school] was for boys only, in the 11th and 12th century Jewish girls were able to receive a solid good education at home. In addition, contrary to the assumption that women-only prayer services are a modern Jewish phenomenon, it appears that according to our sources, women-only prayer services were performed as far back as the 13th century!

How has your time been at the IIAS so far?

Being at the IIAS reminds me of my sabbatical time at Cambridge University, where there is a friendly, social environment, and you can't help but bump into all your colleagues as you walk around the building. It’s fantastic! Not to mention that my current research requires access to manuscripts in the National Library of Israel [located on the Givat Ram campus of The Hebrew University], so the IIAS has given me a great opportunity to further my research in the optimal academic environment.


Read Less

Miriam Jacobson

This week’s Featured Fellow is Miriam Jacobson, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, and a member of our Research Group, "Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe". We spoke to Miriam about the Renaissance, love tokens, and mummies…

Read More

How would you describe the research that you're working on?

I'm working on my second full book monograph project, 'Renaissance Undead: Reanimating the Past in Early Modern England'. I'm a scholar of Renaissance and early modern literature in English, and my expertise in my field specifically looks at travel and trade, and the role of classical antiquity in Renaissance literature and culture.

In this book, I'm exploring the notion of Renaissance, the rebirth of the classical past. I'm looking at uncanny moments where something that was dead and buried, usually an object or a body part, might be cajoled into bringing back the past. Each chapter in the book looks at a different object that is used to bring back the past in different ways. Each of these moments of resurrection or reanimation, of raising the dead or bringing back the past, is a highly sensory experience. The senses, which is the theme of my Research Group, are the key to understanding this period.

What are some objects that you're exploring?

One chapter, on the theme of restoration, is about mummy – ground-up human remains that were used in medieval and early modern medicine. The most prized version of this came from the pyramids at Giza. Mummies were imported to Europe and sold in apothecary shops as a cure for everything. They also appeared in culinary and cosmetic recipe books, so it was very widespread. I discovered that they were interested in the ingredients used to preserve the mummies, particularly bitumen, which is a really sticky, resinous substance that you can still buy on eBay as a homeopathic remedy. Europeans thought that the only way they could access this substance was by digging up ancient Egyptian cadavers and extracting it. It's really, really weird. So this chapter is looking at the trade in mummia from a historical point of view, but also questioning what this tells us about early modern people's relationship to the past, if the past could be ingested and incorporated.

I have another chapter on the theme of resurrection, looking at lace bracelets – love tokens – that were made from human hair in the early modern period. There was a practice to bring your hair to a lace maker, to be woven into lace. You can see these big lace cuffs in the Victoria & Albert Museum – it’s amazing! A lot of these bracelets have been lost to time, because they decompose quite easily, but they feature in a number of lyric poems by John Donne and others. The interesting thing about these bracelets is that in the poems, they're animated with the soul of the beloved. Most of the poems are written from a perspective where the beloved is gone: either the writer has been dumped, the beloved has died, or the writer imagines a time when they have been separated by death. In Donne's poems, these hair bracelets become tools at resurrection day to bring back the beloved. He has this Harry Potter-esque belief that every part of the body contains a part of the soul, so if he has his beloved's hair bracelet, it doesn't matter if she dumped him, or if she died, because her body will return to him on resurrection day, looking for its missing part. So the hair bracelet becomes a vehicle for resurrection.

How did you first get into this whole area of research?

My PhD supervisors were really interested in material culture, studying objects from the early modern period, and looking at what humans' relationships were to those objects. Material culture includes exploring material texts: treating the book as an object and the ink on the page as something in three dimensions, rather than as an abstract idea. I got into my research through that, when I realized that I could do something that wasn't just textual analysis. I've always thought of classics and the Renaissance period as very interdisciplinary, and if I'm going to be writing about Shakespeare, I can't do that without thinking about it in more than one dimension. It's a little bit anthropological, a little bit like museum studies, and part of it is that I wish I had been an art historian!

How has your experience been at the IIAS so far?

There's not a day that goes by that I don't feel tremendous gratitude for the opportunity to be here, and for the culture of inquiry here, and the conversations that we're having which are operating at a level higher than I've ever experienced. We have weekly seminars where we're either workshopping something, asking a question and sharing ideas, reading a text together, or listening to an invited speaker, and the conversation is always at the highest level. And there's so much love and respect for everyone.

Four of us in my Research Group are mothers of small children, and so I'm grateful to the Institute for taking a chance on us, because I think that it's difficult for working moms, especially academics, to get an opportunity like this. So I think that the culture of the Institute has just been so supportive, and I'm really grateful for that.

What do you like to do outside of research?

A lot of my research is about travel and trade, and so I really do like exploring new places and walking the city, going to the Old City, tasting new tastes… the senses are how I experience the world. So I'm a huge fan of spice shops and spice markets, and interacting with as many different people as I can. If there weren't a pandemic, I would be going to the theatre a lot. I'm also a musician, and I play the piano.

What kind of music do you like?

All kinds. I play classical. I'm just getting into some Israel music, like Idan Raichel. I'm also into Ladino (Judaeo-Spanish) music. One of the assignments I give my students is to make a Spotify playlist related to one of the texts that they've read, which can be a great way to think through scholarly analysis in a contemporary context.


Read Less

Eric Fournier

This week’s Featured Fellow is Eric Fournier, a professor of History at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and a member of our Research Group, “Purity and Pollution in Late Antique and Early Medieval Culture and Society”. We spoke to Eric about martyrs, heretics, and skiing…

Read More

What research are you working on at the moment?

I've been working on a new project about the use of martyr accounts – passions and texts about martyrs – in a period after the time of Constantine (d. 337 CE) when persecutions had supposedly ended. The martyr texts developed when the Romans were persecuting Christians (mostly 3rd century CE), so the question is why Christians continued to use these texts once the persecutions had stopped.

I've been studying Roman North Africa and early-Christian North Africa for a while, especially the Vandal period. The Vandals were these supposedly barbarian groups who came in and controlled North Africa in the 5th century, and from the Catholic perspective they're seen as heretics. I'm doing a case study of the Vandal period, and a little earlier, in the 4th century after Constantine and the 5th century.

What have you found so far?

There are two things I'm playing with at the moment. The first is that I'm using insights on memory from anthropology and sociology, which focus on identity and community membership, to construct a view of the past. In this case, the martyrs were heroes of the past that were fighting this 'other' – the evil Romans – so there was a polarized view of the world, whereas in reality, people were more cooperative. We used to think of identity in binary terms, and there is now a lot of work to debunk this, and to show that people have various identities and that various elements can be activated in different contexts. I'm applying some of these insights to texts authored by bishops and theologians, who saw the world in black and white and believed that everyone needs to be Christian, and they used these texts to push their Christian identity agenda.

I’ve also found that the different Christian groups share the same heroes. In North Africa, the two popular saints are Perpetua and Cyprian, and they are reused over and over again across centuries by different groups, even in their conflicts against each other. The same texts and heroes are used as models for themselves and their own communities, by all of these Christian groups. I think that scholars have been obsessed with these groups fighting each other – Vandals and Romans, Catholics and Arians, heretics – and we don't see the similarities they share. So that’s part of what I'm studying – these heroes and the texts about them that they all share, despite their use in hostile contexts.

How does your research link to the themes of Purity and Pollution?

One of the disputes, between Donatists and Catholics especially during the 4th and early 5th century, was all about purity. During persecutions, Christians were not the target, as in trying to eliminate them, rather Romans were trying to coerce all inhabitants of the Empire to perform state rituals. This involved offering a public sacrifice of an animal, or burning incense, which Christians objected to, and yet many Christians did it. Christian elites and authority figures called this lapsing, and this created a dispute over how to readmit lapsed Christians into the community. One faction was more understanding, and said that doing a little penitence (well, years really) is enough to come back into the fold, whereas the zealous Donatists said that these lapsed Christians could not return until their deathbed. But the real fight was whether someone who lapsed during the persecution could become a bishop. The new bishop of Carthage, a role similar to the head of the church in North Africa, was labelled a lapsed bishop, and Donatists decided to elect their own bishop. Over a century, across all of North Africa, there were two bishops in many towns, because of that initial purity question.

Within my larger project about the lives of saints, there are Donatist passions with passages about purity and pollution, which links to the identity theme of imposing a polar perspective on the world. That’s what they're really pushing in these texts with these passages using the language of contagion and disease. If you're in the other group, you carry this pollution and spread it to the people, so it's very important for them to maintain this purity, which Donatists attempt to do by rebaptizing Christians baptized by their opponents (Catholics).

How did you become interested in this area of history?

Once I discovered Roman history, I became very excited about the period of early Christianity and the late Roman empire, especially because I come from a Catholic background. I found it fascinating that historians started looking at religious texts of this period from an anthropological perspective, to understand cultures and mentalities, in contrast to the monks and theologians who mostly had been reading these texts at face value for centuries. This transformation of perspectives was energizing to witness.

People have this image of history as unchanging; you study facts, and events, and dates, and you just memorize them. But my research has pushed me to realize that history is actually what historians think of the past. Each generation has its own perspective, and this changes over time. Once you see it in what you're reading, you can't unsee it. That’s the most fascinating part of history to me by far.

How has your time been at the IIAS?

Having the opportunity to devote myself completely to research is something that I've been craving, because I usually teach four classes a semester, so time for research is few and far between. But also, it's been great to have the opportunity to exchange ideas and meet new people. I realized that we had some overlap with the other research group here at the IIAS, "Sensing the Truth": some of their members are also using similar theoretical literature on memory and trauma, and are working on themes of persecution, albeit in different periods. Cross-pollination between fields is always inspiring and invigorating, so that’s been great. Even in our own seminars, having external speakers, and studying the same topic from different periods and perspectives, and brainstorming, and playing with ideas… that’s what I really enjoy.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I ski (in the winter, at home), and play tennis a lot. Yaniv Iczkovits and I realized that we both play tennis, and we've been hitting the courts at least once a week here on campus. That’s been really fun.

I also love to travel. Before I started grad school, I saved up some money and went travelling, with the goal to visit a site or a museum every day for three months. I started in Rome, and toured Italy, Sicily, Tunisia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and then finished my trip here in Israel. In Syria, I went to places that have since been destroyed and we can no longer return to, such as Palmyra. In hindsight, I feel very fortunate that I was able to visit these places, but I never imagined that I wouldn't be able to go back to these places, which is tragic.

Now that I'm back in Israel, and studying early Christianity, it's fascinating to see all these really important historical sites. When my wife visited about a month ago, we rented a car and went to places such as Beit She'an, Galilee in the north, and Timna Park in the south. By North American standards, Israel is a really small country. Everyone was telling us, you’re crazy for driving six hours in one day, but for us it's not that big of a deal!

You also spent 10 years as a ski instructor – how did that come about?

Skiing was our family activity growing up, and so I took a lot of lessons and had finished all the courses by age 15. At 16, my mom gave me a newspaper clipping of an ad that the local ski hill was hiring ski instructors, so I registered for the training and started working there. I continued throughout my studies until I started my PhD. It was a pretty good job, and it allowed me to continue skiing while being paid for it!

Read more about Eric's Research Group here


Read Less

Emilie Murphy

This week's Featured Fellow is Emilie Murphy, a lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York, and a member of our Research Group, "Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe". We spoke to Emilie about sound, life in Jerusalem, and TV appearances...

Read More


What research are you working on at the moment?

My main project is called The Reformation of the Soundscape in Early Modern England. The central premise is that sound is the key way that religious knowledge was disseminated in early modern England, and I'm looking at that in a few different ways.

I'm finishing an article on the role of sound and hearing in the accounts of Anglophone travelers, which argues that travelers discuss the things they've heard to bolster their credibility, just as much as when they discuss what they've seen. People talk about eye-witnessing, and what I'm exploring is 'ear-witnessing'.

I'm also looking at the reception of The Whole Book of Psalms, which was the most popular book in early modern England. Just before I came to Israel, I went to several archives and photographed surviving copies, looking for signs of ownership and use. One of the main things I've found so far is how much of a treasured object this was in the home. There's one amazing copy that was passed down through the women of the family, and it has lots of autobiographical women's writing. The women wrote their initials next to particular psalms that they liked, underlined parts of psalms, and wrote religious verse and prayers in some of the blank spaces. It supports the existing scholarship on the significance of the psalms in people's lives during this period.

Lastly, I'm finishing a piece on language learning by early modern Catholic women who became nuns in exile. All of the work is informed by a sensory methodology, which is the theme of the Research Group. That's what ties it all together.

How did you venture into researching nuns?

My PhD thesis was on English Catholicism, including English Catholics who chose to leave England and live on the continent. Thousands of English women travelled during this period to join convents, and music was such an important part of convent life. My postdoc was on women's writing, and one particular archive that I worked with was at a Benedictine convent in Brussels, Belgium. Their archive is filled with several hundred letters from a period where there were many disputes in the convent. The nuns kept writing to their archbishop to inform him of the problems with the abbess in the convent, but the abbess was censoring and circumventing a lot of the mail. There was a lot of drama in this convent, which is great for historians, because often records are left when there is drama!

How do you recreate or rediscover historic sounds?

The problem with studying sound is that it is very ephemeral, so you have to rely on how a sound is described on paper, whether in literal sheet music, or in references to melodies. One of the popular genres in early modern England was the ballad, where a verse would be written on a page, and then the tune is written at the top as "To the tune of…". Occasionally you have the melodies written down elsewhere, so historians can figure out what the melody is, but in many cases, the melody has been lost – but it informs us that the text was sung, and to a tune that was also used in other texts. In my work I'm not trying to reconstruct how something sounded exactly. I'm more interested in the way a particular sound has made someone feel, and their impression of a sound.

You were on an episode of Countryfile a few years ago – how did that happen?

A researcher from Countryfile contacted me because they were doing an episode on Northamptonshire, and they found out that I was researching the architect of the Rushton Triangular Lodge, a man called Thomas Tresham. I was asked to talk on the show for a few minutes about the symbolism of the lodge, and as I was chatting to the researcher, I also shared that I was working on some symbolic Catholic music that was associated with Thomas Tresham. So that developed into a larger segment on the program where I brought a group of singers from York, and we performed the piece in the lodge, which was very exciting. It was a fun experience. Although on my first foray into television, I foolishly decided on my outfit before I checked the weather, and I wore something that was not warm enough at all for a freezing day in January! But no regrets. The camera didn't catch my shivering.

How has your experience been at the IIAS?

I haven't had this level of dedicated research time for over five years! I'm so grateful to be able to sit in my own beautifully-equipped office, and to have these conversations with colleagues, and chat about issues with what I'm working on. It's been really nice.

How is life in Jerusalem?

It's so hilly! It’s the hilliest place I have ever been to in my life. But it's amazing to visit the places described by the travelers whose narratives I'm reading, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Some of the English-speaking travelers I'm researching went on tours of Jerusalem led by Franciscan friars 400 years ago, and they still do those tours today! So it’s an incredibly historic place, and it's really wonderful to experience it.

I hadn't been to Israel before, and one of the reasons why my husband and I wanted to come with the kids for a year was just to see what life is like here. People talk about Israel and the Middle East back in the UK, but I think most of them have never actually been here. So we wanted an opportunity to experience living here – and it's been good!

What do you like to do outside of work?

Music is also a big part of my extra-curricular life, and pre-corona, we used to go to a lot of gigs and concerts. I like a whole range of music, from 16th-17th century early music, performed by groups such as The Sixteen, to more normal contemporary stuff, such as indie, folk, and pop. My two favourites at the moment are the British groups KAWALA and Oh Wonder.


View the summary of Emilie's Countryfile episode here.

Read Less

Yaniv Fox

This week's Featured Fellow is Yaniv Fox, a senior lecturer in General History at Bar-Ilan University and the organizer of our Research Group, "Purity and Pollution in Late Antique and Early Medieval Culture and Society". We found out about medieval heretics, rebaptism, and 3D printing…

Read More


What research are you working on at the moment?

I'm exploring the ways in which early medieval bishops in Gaul and Spain used biblical exegesis to define heretics and heretical communities living in their midst, particularly Arians. They would weaponize the language of the bible to condemn heresy, and by doing this, they gave their communities the tools to more clearly define themselves: who is part of our community, and who is not? Who is the right kind of Christian, and who is not? And this was all happening during a time where there was a battle for hegemony between various strands of Christianity in the West.

How did you get into that field?

The best explanation I can give for my interest in early medieval history is because I played Dungeons & Dragons as a kid! This particular strand of inquiry started when I came across a heretical community in Gaul and Spain called the Bonosiacs. They appeared for a brief period in the 4th century in what is now Bulgaria and Serbia, and then they disappeared and reemerged a century later in Burgundy and Spain, so I was curious as to why these heretics vanished from one place and reappeared in another. I then started looking at the use of heretical language: when are people called heretics and what kind of terminology is used to refer to these heretics? This led me to investigate how the language of purity and pollution is used in the writings of early medieval bishops to talk about incorrect faith, or the pollution of faith by heresy. The two strands converged, and this is the result!

So is that what inspired you to create the Research Group?

Exactly. Purity and pollution seemed to be a recurring theme in the way that people talked about heresy, using these paradigms of hygienic language, and of defilement and uncleanliness. So I started reaching out to scholars whose fields were linked to this question, which led to the formation of the group: six scholars are now tackling this question from different perspectives, time periods, and geographical locations.

Can you share an interesting medieval purification ritual?

The most talked about ritual is rebaptism. A person would be baptized as an infant or as an adult to Catholicism, and if this person decided to cross into Arianism, he would have to be rebaptized – in essence, undoing the first baptism. For Catholics, rebaptism was the iconic emblematic act of heresy, because baptism was perceived as a one-time ceremony that undoes original sin. In Catholic eyes, to rebaptize was to undermine Divine grace.

What is your experience of the IIAS so far?

Academically, it's invigorating. The early medieval community in Israel is small, and so I'm not usually able to talk about the micro aspects of my research with close colleagues because they're from different disciplines. So being here, surrounded by people who are also researching medieval history, has been really great. Every lunch, and every informal coffee in the hallway, leads to interesting discussions. We're also closely collaborating on the organization of our upcoming conference, and we've taken some field trips together, so our group dynamic has evolved from a professional relationship to a friendship, which is really nice.

What do you like to do outside of work?

First of all, I have 3 kids, so that takes up a lot of my time! In terms of hobbies, I'm an avid runner, and I do 3D-printing. My wife got me a 3D printer for my birthday a few years ago and I've been printing away ever since. During the first lockdown when things started to break around the house and all the stores were closed, I printed a door knob replacement that I designed, and since then, I've printed all kinds of things for the house.

Can you recommend us a good book that you've read recently?

Haggai Erlich's "Yam Suf: HaYam Ha'atzuv" ["The Red Sea, the Sad Sea"], which is a chronological review of the Red Sea. Unlike the Mediterranean Sea, which allowed communities dwelling along the coast to exchange ideas and trade, the Red Sea historically has had the opposite result of being an unbridgeable obstacle between societies. The book spans early medieval history to the Israeli-Egyptian wars in the 1950s and 1960s and shows how the Red Sea has acted as a barrier – hence the name, "The Sad Sea".

I also enjoyed "The Sweet Spot" by Paul Bloom, which explores why people do things that are painful or uncomfortable, and what we can learn about human psychology from looking at those who climb mountains or do things that terrify them. It’s a very interesting read.

Do you have a favourite musician?

Music is very connected to the time in your personal history when you were really into that musician. So when I hear Metallica, I immediately think of high school, and when I hear Fleet Foxes, I immediately think of my post doctorate at University of Cambridge. There's music for every chapter of my life, but if I had to choose, there's one singer/songwriter called Laura Veirs. She's a folk rock musician with great music and lyrics.


Read more about Yaniv's Research Group here.

Read Less

Yaakov Mascetti

This week's Featured Fellow is Yaakov Mascetti, a senior lecturer in Comparative Literature at Bar-Ilan University and the organizer of our Research Group, "Sensing the Truth: Changing Conceptions of the Perceptual in Early Modern and Enlightenment Europe". We found out about metaphysical poetry, life at the IIAS, and the challenge of being productive.

Read More


What are you working on during your residency at the IIAS?

My project is a new direction in my scholarly work. I have been studying the Renaissance since I finished my doctorate, and the trajectory of my research has led me to focus on sensorial perception in literature during this period, whether in sermons or political speeches. I am looking at the ways in which metaphysical poets and religious figures such as John Donne or Lancelot Andrewes used their linguistic skills to educate listeners through the senses, and how written and spoken words help make concepts tangible. Some of these sermons provide the listeners with a sweet taste in their mouth; they listen to the sermons and they taste the text of the scriptures and the sweetness of the words.  

We have a considerable number of scholars in our group who specialize in the senses, so I'm working on learning as much as possible from my fellow colleagues!

Metaphysical poetry sounds complex – how would you define it?

Metaphysical poets were a number of poets who followed John Donne (1572-1631) and imitated his poetry style using powerful descriptions of feelings, experiences and dogmas to express love, not only of a man for a woman but also of a man for God. It's extremely demanding and thus not very popular. By the 18th century it had almost disappeared, but it resurfaced with T.S. Eliot who placed these poets back on the scholarly map in the 20th century, and they have been at the forefront ever since. They’re still exotic and very, very hard to understand, but certainly more popular than in the past.

In the 1750s, Samuel Johnson was very critical of metaphysical poets because they take “the most heterogeneous ideas [which are then]… yoked by violence together.” A person with Johnson’s sensibility would have failed to appreciate the beauty in a poetic comparison of love and the union of two people to a flea sucking the blood from two human beings, as John Donne does in his poem, 'The Flea'. It's a very powerful metaphor, but it's also demeaning and forces you to both deal with the disgust and try to understand what the poet is expressing. Overall, metaphysical poetry is a very thick, really tasty smoothie made out of philosophy, theology, cosmology, and all sorts of discourses of the early modern period. But it’s certainly not for all palates…

How did you first get interested in this field of research?

I'm originally from Italy and I did my BA in a state university in the Italian Renaissance town of Perugia – I actually started studying chemistry, and then switched to literature. The professor I chose for my final thesis was obsessed with John Donne, and he passed on this obsession to me. After I moved to Israel, and returned to academia after a five-year break, I decided to continue working on John Donne.

When did you move to Israel?

I moved here 25 years ago. First I was in a religious kibbutz in northern Israel, called Sde Eliyahu. I was almost certain that I was going to be a kibbutznik and work in agriculture for the rest of my life. Then I met my wife, and she had no intention of staying on a kibbutz, so after we got married I started my PhD and returned to academia.

The academic community is grateful that you did! How's the IIAS so far?

It's very intense, but it's wonderful. It's just like a dream come true. The standards are extremely high, and the infrastructure provides a lot of flexibility. Plus, having a Hebrew University faculty card allows me to order books from the library. The encounters, the collegiality of the atmosphere… the place is amazing.

Do you have a favourite spot in Jerusalem?

I love the First Station complex. I like the vibe of that whole area from Derech Beit Lechem all the way down to the First Station, and my son always goes to the nearby Silo Café for honey & ginger tea.

What was your experience of working during the pandemic?

It was very difficult. I tried to work on my projects, but having no library access and needing to download everything was complicated. I baked bread. Everyone was baking sourdough bread, including myself… it was the only thing you could do. That, and not going crazy.

On Twitter, my colleagues kept using this horrific term: 'being productive'. I couldn't understand how to deal with this concept. The productivity of humanity is a topic that I'd like to research at some point: how productive are we supposed to be; how much are we supposed to contribute and feel that we're doing something? The productivity theme is much more common in Anglo-Saxon academia and in America, where they have this puritan work ethic of always needing to work and produce output. And me, I'm an Italian living in the Middle East. In terms of work-ethics, it couldn't get any worse!

What do you like to do outside of work?

I have always loved to run. That’s one of the things that kept me mentally healthy (whatever that means!) during the pandemic. I also love cooking and photography – mostly portraits and urban photography.

And finally, recommend a good movie:

One of Bernardo Bertolucci's last movies, 'Little Buddha'. It works on two narrative tracks: one is the story of Siddhartha and his journey from privileged prince to enlightened Buddha, and the parallel story is that of three children who are believed by local Buddhist monks to be the reincarnation of the late Dalai Lama. It's a beautiful, very well-made movie.


Read more about Yaakov's Research Group here.

Read Less
yaniv iczkovits

Yaniv Iczkovits

Our first Featured Fellow is author and screenwriter Yaniv Iczkovits, this year's Artist in Residence at the IIAS. Yaniv has published four novels and one novella, winning multiple awards for his work, and has been nominated for this year's Sapir Prize for his most recent novel, 'Nobody Leaves Palo Alto'. He is now working on developing TV content based on his novels for Keshet and KI, Yes, Endemol Shine and more.

We took the chance to find out about what projects Yaniv is working on during his time at the IIAS, his journey to becoming an author, and his stint at the University of Oxford (plus some music recommendations).

Read More


What are you working on during your residency at the IIAS?

I'm adapting my most recent book, Nobody Leaves Palo Alto, into a TV series on the Israeli TV network Keshet, and I'm working on my new book.

What's the book about?

It's about three very close friends from Sighet, a remote town in Romania, that were separated during the Holocaust. Each character took his own path, and now they are reunited in their home town after 40 years, with each one on his own journey.

I originally wanted to write about my grandfather who was from Satu Mar, which is very close to Sighet. Although I couldn't find any information about my grandfather, I discovered that he was on the same train as Elie Wiesel, who was from Sighet. So I started to read about Elie Wiesel, which led to this project.

When did you realize that you wanted to be an author?

I think that usually authors come from one of two paths. The first is coming from a family with parents who are oriented towards the arts and music. This wasn’t the case for me – my mother is a teacher and my father is an engineer, so my childhood wasn't about books, or art in general.

The second is that they start writing because of meaningful or shocking events they have experienced that need to be processed. For me, it was the army. Most people go on post-army trips to India and South America, but I went back to my house and started writing. That was my 'trip'. My first novel was really bad, because I didn't know anything about the craft of writing, and I wasn't able to publish it. I had to decide whether I wanted to study writing, and improve, or pursue another profession. When I learnt more about writing I became increasingly fascinated by it and I wanted to become a writer. Many people tried to discourage me, because in Israel it is not always lucrative, but once I had fallen in love with it, I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else.

You spent some time at the University of Oxford – what was that like?

It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I studied with Iranians, Syrians, Lebanese… people who were my enemies just a year before, and at Oxford we were sitting together and exchanging ideas. It was an amazing experience.

I had to learn about the formalities, and the study culture. I remember that I took a course on Heidegger and they told us that by the next lesson we needed to read the first part of Being and Time which is 300 pages of really intense philosophy, and I thought, "Are you kidding me? No one can read Being and Time!" But by the next lesson everyone had indeed read the first 300 pages of Being and Time. I was shocked!

Out of the books that you've written, would you say you have a favourite one?

In terms of success, my two most recent books have been the most successful: The Slaughterman's Daughter has been translated into 15 languages, and No One Leaves Palo Alto is now being adapted for television. But when someone tells me, "your first book was the best", I really appreciate that, because I feel that success is not the only indicator of the quality of the books.

All my books were written at different times in my life. Obviously I have evolved as an author, but in a strange way, I don't feel that this means my most recent book is much better than my first book; evolving as an author means that the book is going to be different, not necessarily better. I could call my second book – Adam and Sophie – a failure, in terms of the fact that sales were low, and the reviews weren't great… but sometimes I feel that it is my best book. If you were to take me back to 2009 and ask me if I would still want to publish it, knowing that it would fail, my answer would definitely be yes. I don't regret it.

Outside of writing, what do you like to do in your free time?

I love to do lots of sports – tennis, running, and on weekends I like to take my daughters on all kinds of hikes. I also love reading, obviously. Plus listening to music and podcasts.

Who's your favourite musician?

I would have to say Tom Waits. Try his album, 'Closing Time'.

What's your favourite thing about being at the IIAS?

It's an amazing experience. It’s a huge honour to be here with all these smart people. I get to meet a lot of interesting people from many disciplines, and hear their stories and their areas of research, and just from talking to them I've already got some ideas for future writing projects!



Read Less