Shelomo Dov Goitein
Goitein, c. 1978.
|Died||February 6, 1985 (aged 84)|
|Alma mater||University of Frankfurt|
|Academic advisors||Josef Horovitz|
|Notable students||David Ayalon|
Shelomo Dov Goitein (April 3, 1900 - February 6, 1985) was a German-Jewish ethnographer, historian and Arabist known for his research on Jewish life in the Islamic Middle Ages, and particularly on the Cairo Geniza.
Shelomo Dov (Fritz) Goitein was born in the town of Burgkunstadt in Upper Franconia, Germany; his father, Dr. Eduard Goitein, was born in Hungary to a long line of rabbis. The name Goitein points probably to Kojetín in Moravia as the city of origin of the family. He was brought up with both secular and Talmudic education. In 1914 his father died and the family moved to Frankfurt am Main, where he finished high school and university.
During 1918-23 he studied Arabic and Islam at the University of Frankfurt under the guidance of the famous scholar Josef Horovitz, while continuing his Talmudic study with a private teacher. He left the university with a dissertation on prayer in Islam. In the year 1923, Goitein fulfilled his lifelong dream and immigrated together with Gershom Scholem sailing to Palestine, where he stayed for thirty-four years. He lived four years in Haifa until he was invited to lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which had been inaugurated two years earlier. In Jerusalem, he married Theresa Gottlieb (1900-1987), a eurhythmics teacher who composed songs and plays for children. They had three children, Ayala, Ofra, and Elon.
In 1957 he moved to the United States where he felt more able to remain focused on his studies. He settled in Philadelphia and worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He died on February 6, 1985, the day his last volume of the series A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (vol. 6) was sent to the publisher.
In 1918-23, Goitein attended the universities of Frankfurt and Berlin and studied Islamic history under Josef Horovitz. His Ph.D. thesis was "on prayer in Islam." He also pursued Jewish studies, and was a leader in the Zionist Youth Movement. In 1923 he immigrated to Palestine, where he taught Bible and Hebrew language at the Reali School in Haifa. In 1927 he wrote a play called Pulcellina about the blood libel killings in Blois in 1171. In 1928, he was appointed professor of Islamic History and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was founder of the School of Asian and African studies and of the Israel Oriental Society. In 1928, he began his research of the language, culture and history of the Jews of Yemen. In 1949, he did research in Aden, questioning the Jews who gathered there from all parts of Yemen before being flown to Israel. In 1938-1948, he served as a senior education officer in Mandatory Palestine, responsible for Jewish and Arab Schools, and published books on methods of teaching the Bible and Hebrew.
From 1948, Goitein began his life's work on the Cairo Geniza documents. An especially rich geniza with a large volume of correspondence was discovered in Old Cairo containing thousands of documents dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Since Jews began every letter or document with the words "With the help of God," the papers reflected all aspects of everyday life in the countries of North Africa and bordering the Mediterranean. The documents included many letters from Jewish traders en route from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen and ultimately to India. The papers were mostly written in Judeo-Arabic characters. After deciphering the documents, Goitein vividly reconstructed many aspects of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, publishing them in a six-volume monumental series, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza (1967-1993). Although the documents were written by Jews, they reflect the surrounding Moslem and Christian environments not only in countries bordering the Mediterranean but all the way to India. This has thrown new light on the whole study of the Middle Ages.
Goitein's lengthy correspondence with the Nobel Prize-winning author S.Y. Agnon was published by his daughter, Ayala Gordon, in 2008. Agnon's wife, Esther, had studied Arabic privately with Goitein while she was a student at the University of Frankfurt. When Goitein moved to Jerusalem, he and Agnon became close friends. Most of the letters are from the mid-1950s onwards, after Goitein left Israel, a move of which Agnon was highly critical.
Two editions of his bibliographies are available:
1. Attal, Robert. A Bibliography of the writings of Prof. Shelomo Dov Goitein, Israel Oriental society and the Institute of Asian and African Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1975. It includes among other articles an introduction by Richard Ettinghausen, as well as Goiteins own article:"The Life Story of a Scholar", 547 publications are mentioned.
2. Attal, Robert. A Bibliography of the writings of Prof. Shelomo Dov Goitein, Ben Zvi Institute Jerusalem 2000, an expanded edition containing 737 titles, as well as general Index and Index of Reviews.
3. Udovitch, A.L., Rosenthal, F. and Yerushalmi, Y.H. Shelomo Dov Goitein 1900-1985 Memorial comments, The Institute of Advanced Study Princeton, 1985