Historian of Jewish Life in Medieval Egypt Wins MacArthur 'Genius Award'

Also among the 24 new fellows of the MacArthur Foundation are Jewish writer Ben Lerner, healthcare activist Gary Cohen and artist Nicole Eisenman.

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MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient Marina Rustow.
MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient Marina Rustow.Credit: MacArthur Foundation

Marina Rustow, a Princeton University historian specializing in Jewish life in the medieval Middle East, is one of 24 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation's 2015 fellowships, known colloquially as the "genius awards."

The fellowships, which were announced on Tuesday, award exceptionally creative people who are "committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world." The fellowships come with a $625,000 stipend, allocated quarterly over five years — no strings attached.

“We take ‘no strings’ quite seriously,” said Cecilia A. Conrad, the foundation’s managing director. “They don’t have to report to us. They can use the funds in any way they see fit.”

Rustow, 44, bases her work on documents and fragments of documents retrieved from the Cairo Geniza, a storeroom in Cairo's ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in which documents were discarded for over a millennium, starting in 870 BCE.

"Deploying her considerable prowess in languages, social history, and papyrology, Rustow is rewriting our understanding of medieval Jewish life and transforming the historical study of the Fatimid empire," the foundation wrote in its profile of Rustow,

Three other Jews from various disciplines were also among the recipients of the prestigious fellowships.

Novelist, poet and critic Ben Lerner, 36, a professor at New York City University, was chosen for his exploration of "the relevance of art and the artist to modern culture with humor, compassion, and intelligence." He is the author of three collections of poetry and the novels "Leaving the Atocha Station" (2011) and "10:04" (2014).

Nicole Eisenman, 50, of New York, is described by the foundation as "an artist who is expanding the critical and expressive capacity of the Western figurative tradition through works that engage contemporary social issues and phenomena."

After a career that began with jobs like painting patinas on headboards at a bed factory and murals in hotel lobbies, Eisenman’s paintings now sell for about $75,000 each, according to the New York Times.

At 59, environmental health advocate Gary Cohen is one of the older fellowship recipients. As founder and head of the Healthcare Without Harm grassroots cooperative, Cohen was praised by the foundation for having "led a paradigm shift in the perceived responsibility of health care providers, from a narrow, patient-centered duty of service regarding individual health to a broader obligation to also “do no harm” to surrounding communities, their residents, and the global environment."

"These 24 delightfully diverse MacArthur Fellows are shedding light and making progress on critical issues, pushing the boundaries of their fields, and improving our world in imaginative, unexpected ways,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. “Their work, their commitment, and their creativity inspire us all."

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