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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

 

 

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Featured Story -"Minorities in Contact in the Medieval Mediterranean"

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  What is a minority? How did members of minority groups in the medieval Mediterranean world interact with contemporaries belonging to other groups? In what ways did those contacts affect their social positions   and identities? The essays collected in this volume approach these questions from a variety of angles, examining polemic, social norms, economic exchange, linguistic transformations, and power dynamics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The terms 'minority' and 'majority' in their contemporary senses are modern inventions. Nevertheless, they are commonly applied to pre-modern societies, even by professional historians. This new collection of essays by distinguished scholars explores the applicability and limits of the term in one historical setting, albeit a broad one: the lands around the Mediterranean Sea in the medieval period.

The editors argue that the term 'minority' retains utility, despite its drawbacks. For example, it is useful as a term to describe the mutual dependency of various pre-modern people groups—many of them defined by their religious affiliation—upon one another. Those who wielded power around pre-modern Mediterranean often belonged to ethnic or religious demographic minorities. Conversely, subject populations were often fractured into a kaleidoscope of shifting and overlapping identity-groups, none of which was a demographic majority. 'Minority' thus helpfully denotes a condition of dependency and subordination in which any group might participate, in different ways and in different degrees. It is less accurately used, however, as a static, permanent descriptor for a particular group. The essays in the volume offer case studies that shed light on these questions in relation to two major themes. The first theme is interactions among subordinate, dependent, and marginal groups, rather than between them and the dominant, central groups in a given society. The second theme is the seeming paradox of 'minority' group members who rose to political power and influence. The authors of the essays in the volume contribute ground-breaking studies of notions of 'minority' in relation to these two themes in a variety of localities, from early Islamic Syria to late-medieval Portugal, among many of the region's myriad religious and ethnic sub-groups.

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Featured Story - Conversion to Islam in the Pre-modern Age

coverUriel Simonson (University of Haifa) and Luke Yarbrough (UCLA), organizers of the 2020–21 IIAS Research Group  “Cultural Brokerage in Pre-modern Islam,”  are celebrating the publication of a new book that they co-edited with Nimrod Hurvitz (Ben Gurion University) and Christian Sahner (University of Oxford).

Their book, Conversion to Islam in the Premodern Age: A Sourcebook, contains 57 primary-source passages that shed light on processes of conversion across the first millennium of Islamic history.   The selections are introduced and translated, from a dozen languages, by more than forty leading scholars.

The co-editors have contributed sweeping introductions on conversion to Islam as a historical phenomenon spanning eras and far-flung locales.

 

 

 

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Many of the selections in the sourcebook illustrate the kind of cultural change—namely, cultural brokerage—that Simonsohn, Yarbrough, and their Research Group are examining this year. “Cultural brokerage” has been invested with subtly different meanings in different academic disciplines. It involves the mediation of cultural change by agents who are deeply embedded in particular historical settings. This mechanism is amply attested in cases of conversion. For example, contributor Daphna Ephrat (Open University of Israel) translates excerpts from a hagiography about the thirteenth-century Sufi master ʿAbdallāh al-Yūnīnī, known as the “Lion of Syria.” Al-Yūnīnī was said to have led several Christians to convert by performing “miracles” that reflect his deep acquaintance with the local culture. In one instance, he reads a greedy Christian peasant’s mind, generously giving him all of his own possessions, which the peasant had been secretly coveting. The peasant converts to Islam in response. This account presents al-Yūnīnī as a cultural intermediary in the sense proposed by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: a figure who assigns value to particular aspects of culture, such as religious values, and convinces others to follow her or him. Tales like this one would have affected the way that contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims imagined the roles of gift-giving and performances of supernatural intuition in catalyzing religious change.

Cultural change is not, of course, always welcomed, particularly when it involves change as potentially profound as religious conversion. Another selection, provided by Ulrich Rebstock (University of Freiburg), highlights another side of conversion: its gradual and uncertain progress in particular regions, here the Songhay Empire on the Niger River. The author of the text is a Muslim firebrand of the fifteenth and sixteenth century named al-Maghīlī. In the text, al-Maghīlī attacks the allegedly insincere and backsliding converts that he observed in this region. In terms of “cultural brokerage,” the North African al-Maghīlī is imposing a new level of severity within what had clearly been a more fluid West African Islam. The people he criticized, meanwhile, were, by their practices, gently adjusting what it meant to practice Islam in their own West African setting.

The Research Group “Cultural Brokerage in Pre-modern Islam” brings together experts on pre-modern Islamic thought, administrative practice, advice literature, gender, trade, empire, and more in order to fine-tune a theory of “cultural brokerage” that is sensitive to the specific dynamics of Islamic history.

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Featured Story - Artist in Residence 2020/21 - Agi Mishol

Agi Mishol, one of Israel’s most prominent and popular poets, is the 2020/21 Artist in Residence at the IIAS.
We are delighted to share with you her recent poem, Corona in the Countryside II, which has also been translated into German and English.

Corona in the Countryside II

Now that death creeps round
and I’m peeled down
to a worn-out sweat suit,
down to lumps of cookie crumbs
and afterwards the striped toothpaste
that bursts from the tube

Featured Story - New Directions in the Study of Javanese Literature

Study of Javanese Literature Javanese dance lecture

Our Research Group, New Directions in the Study of Javanese Literature, has been engaged in both intra-group activities, and outreach events aimed at the academic community and in some cases the general public.

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The main focus of our intra-group activities is the group’s weekly reading sessions. Each group member is responsible for three sessions in which he/she leads the group in reading a text of choice. Our illuminating discussions have ranged from script usage to poetic meters to ideas of authorship, and of course the texts’ contents including, for example, Islamic mystical poetry and a history of particular forms of dance. Furthemore, our bi-weekly seminars are the forum for group members to present their larger project for their IIAS fellowship, brain storm about the books they plan to produce and receive feedback from others.

In addition to its individual and collective research projects, our Group aims to raise awareness of our field of study, broadly defined to include Javanese literature but also Indonesian languages, cultures, history and arts, to the academic community and beyond. As of beginning of December, 2018,  we organized ten outreach events.

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News 12-11-2018

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