Marina Rustow got the phone call informing her that she was officially a genius while shopping for clothes with her 4-year-old.
Rustow, 46, a Princeton University professor who has plumbed unexplored depths of the Cairo Geniza, this year became the first academic expert in Jewish studies to win one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants” since the 1990s.
Being an official genius hasn’t changed everything. “I’m still going to be a mediocre Scrabble player,” Rustow said. “I’m not very good at reading maps.”
The recognition has brought new notice to Rustow’s academic work. She believes that this attention will allow others to benefit from her methods as well as her specific scholarship, which in recent years has specialized in examining overlooked fragments from the Cairo Geniza, a trove of ancient documents uncovered in an Egyptian synagogue.
While most of the scholarship on the Cairo Geniza has focused on its Hebrew texts, Rustow has specialized on Arabic fragments. Her discoveries have provided a key not only to how Jewish communities intersected with the Fatimid Caliphate, which ruled much of North Africa from the 10th through the 12th centuries, but also to how the Caliphate itself operated.
She has shed new light on the cooperation of Islamic factions and sects who were previously assumed to be at loggerheads.
“Our best source for the kind of fine-grained picture of how government worked in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries in the Middle East comes from the attic of a Jewish synagogue,” Rustow told the Forward.