Joel Blecher: “The Maimonides Madrasah: Islamic Secular Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Damascus”


May 18, 2009 | 4-5 PM | Free & Open to the Public
Humanities 1 Building, Room 202, UC Santa Cruz
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A visitor to the last standing Jewish day-school in Syria, the Maimonides Madrasah, will notice the logo of the Syrian Arab Republic’s Ministry of Education proudly chiseled above the entrance. The secular state stakes out an overt presence in many other Jewish sites in Damascus. The very centerpiece of the Syrian National Museum is a historical reconstruction of a 3rd century Jewish synagogue. Last summer, the state provided Syrian readers curious about Syrian Jewish history with an alternative to the usual anti-Semitic polemics: a comprehensive state-mufti approved history of Damascene Jewry published in Arabic, replete with photographs. If Syria is a predominantly Muslim society and one of Israel’s staunchest enemies, why does the state play such an active role in preserving Jewish institutions and representing their history? In doing so, how does the state simultaneously limit, even fossilize, them? This talk framed Syrian Jewish life and heritage in the context of Syrian secularism. It also addressed some theoretical questions regarding religious minorities and the on-going construction of secularisms in Islamic societies.

Joel Blecher is a graduate student in Islamic Studies at Princeton University’s Department of Religion. He studied at the University of Damascus in 2006-7 and has undertaken several research and translation projects in Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia since then. Some of his recent work has focused on problems of consensus, authority and religious reform in medieval and modern Syria and the Arabian Peninsula.

This talk was the first in a series of events on Jews in Muslim lands made possible by a grant from the David B. Gold Foundation.

Co-sponsored by the Mediterranean Seminar. Staff support provided by the Institute for Humanities Research.

Posted in Events.


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