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Keynote: Losing time in nonsense: Arabic Epic literature and Reading and Writing for Fun among Jews in Egypt and the Levant

In his commentary on the Mishnah, the Jewish community leader, physician, and philosopher, Moses ben Maimon famously derided the reading of the “books found among the Arabs” which recounted the behavior of kings, genealogies, and songs as “a loss of time in nonsense.” In this paper I propose to explore both indications of Jewish interest in Arabic epic literature, such as Sirat al-Antar, or Sirat Dhat al-Himma, and why such narratives, usually Muslim in origin, would have attracted a Jewish readership. I will argue that in part, Jews were drawn to these tales because these epics contained tales of distant Jewish lands and warriors. Miriam Goldstein has noted in her studies of Judeo-Arabic versions of the Toledot Yeshu, the Jewish retelling of the life of Jesus, found in the Cairo Geniza, that this text was sometimes found with retellings of biblical and extra-biblical accounts of the Jewish past, such as the martyrdom narratives in Maccabees. These fragments in the Cairo Geniza will be examined in the light of Jewish, Muslim and Christian reading habits and as potential forays into Jews writing their own “adventure literature.”


Alexandra Cuffel is Professor of Jewish Religion and History at Ruhr Universität Bochum (Germany). She received her PhD from New York University. She is the author of two monographs, the first, Gendering Disgust in Medieval Religious Polemic, was published by University of Notre Dame Press, the second is forthcoming this year from ARC Humanities Press, and is entitled Shared Saints and Festivals among Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Medieval Mediterranean. She is also the co-author of a variety of edited volumes, and author of numerous articles. Her specialization is Jewish- Christian-Muslim relations in medieval Europe and the Islamicate World.


  • June 19, 2023
  • 16:30 - 17:30
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