Martin Jacobs

Martin Jacobs

​Professor of Rabbinic Studies
PhD and Habilitation, Free University of Berlin
research interests:
  • Jewish History in the Medieval and Early Modern Mediterranean World
  • Religious and Cultural Encounters Between Jews and Muslims
  • Medieval Travel Writing and Representations of the "Other"
  • Premodern Jewish Notions of History and Geography
  • Sephardic Diasporas
  • Rabbinic Literature and Culture

contact info:

mailing address:

  • Washington University
    CB 1121
    One Brookings Drive
    St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

Professor Jacobs is a cultural and intellectual historian of the Jews of the Mediterranean world during the medieval and early modern periods.​

Born and raised in Germany, he earned both his PhD and Habilitation in Jewish Studies at the Free University of Berlin. Early in his career, he taught as a visiting lecturer at the University of Jordan, in Amman (1998-1999). Later Jacobs held visiting fellowships at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1999-2001), the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (2001-2002, and 2011-2012), and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies (2003). During the 2018-2019 academic year, he will be a fellow at the Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Michigan.

Jacobs is the author of three monographs and numerous articles whose topics range from rabbinic literature and culture to Jewish-Muslim encounters, medieval travel literature, and Jewish historiography.

His most recent book was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 2014. Titled Reorienting the East: Jewish Travelers to the Medieval Muslim World, this study explores the Middle East as it was experienced, envisioned, and elaborated by Jewish travelers and writers during a period that, from a European perspective, is broadly considered the late Middle Ages but extends into early modern times (ca. 1150-1520). At the same time, the book appraises travel writing’s role in corroborating and challenging any sense of a clearly-defined East and West at the heart of Jewish constructions of identity and difference.

His second book similarly engages with Jewish encounters with Islam — in both a real and purely literary sense — but focuses on a different kind of primary sources. Islamische Geschichte in jüdischen Chroniken (published by Mohr Siebeck in 2004)  investigates various Hebrew chronicles from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and their accounts of Muslim history. While Christian authors of the Renaissance period writing on Muslim history have already been extensively discussed by others this is the first study of comparable Jewish literature.

Jacobs's first book, Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen (published by Mohr Siebeck in 1995), is devoted to a central chapter of Jewish history during the late Roman era, the institution of the Jewish Patriarch (Hebrew: nasi), and offers a methodological case study in how to evaluate rabbinic literature as a historical source.

Reorienting the East

Reorienting the East

Reorienting the East explores the Islamic world as it was encountered, envisioned, and elaborated by Jewish travelers from the Middle Ages to the early modern period. The first comprehensive investigation of Jewish travel writing from this era, this study engages with questions raised by postcolonial studies and contributes to the debate over the nature and history of Orientalism as defined by Edward Said.

 

Examining two dozen Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic travel accounts from the mid-twelfth to the early sixteenth centuries, Martin Jacobs asks whether Jewish travelers shared Western perceptions of the Islamic world with their Christian counterparts. Most Jews who detailed their journeys during this period hailed from Christian lands and many sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean aboard Christian-owned vessels. However, Jacobs finds that their descriptions of the Near East subvert or reorient a decidedly Christian vision of the region. The accounts from the crusader era, in particular, are often critical of the Christian church and present glowing portraits of Muslim-Jewish relations. By contrast, some of the later travelers discussed in the book express condescending attitudes toward Islam, Muslims, and Near Eastern Jews. Placing shifting perspectives on the Muslim world in their historical, social, and literary contexts, Jacobs interprets these texts as mirrors of changing Jewish self-perceptions. As he argues, the travel accounts echo the various ways in which premodern Jews negotiated their mingled identities, which were neither exclusively Western nor entirely Eastern.