This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

School Days*

My duties as an academic frequently involve the reading and evaluation of application forms, especially from students seeking admission to the various programmes offered by our department.

The art of composing applications and curricula vitae has become a business for professionals; and reading them has correspondingly come to demand subtle skills of critical analysis.

Earlier eras also knew of competition among students to be accepted into prestigious academic faculties or professional schools, and some letters of application have been preserved from earlier centuries.

As scholars of Jewish history have come to expect, the most promising source of such documents is the Cairo Genizah, that inexhaustible repository of books and documents that was maintained for centuries by the Egyptian Jewish community, whose contents have been scattered among libraries and museums throughout the world.

One such letter was composed in twelfth-century Cairo by the father of an aspiring medical student, addressed to a distinguished physician in hope that the latter will accept the petitioner's son to be trained under his tutelage.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, the letter was far more elegant than the standardized applications that pass by my desk. It is introduced by carefully selected biblical verses extolling the virtues of humility and peace, and then proceeds to proclaim the glories of the recipient. The physician is addressed in very personal terms, as the hope is extended that he will live to see his only son married and continuing in Papa's learned footsteps. The letter even includes holiday greetings for the upcoming Passover--which will hopefully be celebrated in the rebuilt Temple of Jerusalem!

The applicant then digresses into a philosophical discussion about the inherent striving of the human soul for self-improvement.

Only now that the groundwork has been carefully prepared, does the letter come to its main point. Having heard that a vacancy has recently been created, will the esteemed teacher consider accepting his brilliant and eager son for the position?

And just in case the student's qualifications are not sufficient of themselves to guarantee his acceptance into the programme, the father assures the master that he will be willing to pay a considerably higher tuition than his previous student...

We can better appreciate the eagerness that emerges from the letter letter if we keep in mind that the addressee was not just any Professor of Medicine. Although it is not stated explicitly, all the circumstantial evidence points clearly to the identity of that individual--"Rabbi Moses the prince and noble...the judge distinguished in all matters"--as being none other than the great Maimonides!

I do not know how Maimonides reacted to the application, though I strongly suspect that it would have been with liberal sprinklings of sodium chloride. For then, as today, the real student did not always live up to the images projected by their letters of reference.

This truism is aptly illustrated by another letter contained in the Genizah, written by a certain medical student to his chums. In it, Natanel Hallevi ben Moshe, a member of an affluent family, apologizes for the fact that he will be unable to socialize with his companions for the foreseeable future, because he has been severely "grounded" until his studies showed improvement.

The "grounding" in this instance had a positive side to it since it was reinforced by a sizable bribe from his father. At any rate, the unfortunate student does appear to have resigned himself with equanimity to his imprisonment, in spite of his tendency to fill his letters with quotations from Job. He reports that he is devoting himself to his studies--in medicine, grammar, Talmud and theology--and only occasionally sneaks out to an illicit rendezvous with his companions.

We do in fact hear from this student in later documents. He grew up to serve as the head of the Yeshivah of Eretz Israel (which at the time had relocated in Cairo) from 1160 to 1170. Concerned parents, take note!

Aspiring physicians in Cairo could not obtain employment in their profession without producing a police certificate of good conduct. Admittedly, this was probably not so much an indication of their unsavoury reputation as it was of the grave responsibilities that they bore. At any rate, the Genizah records suggest that those certificates were often obtained through bribes and connections.

The high spirits that we now associate with the student life-style are not encountered as frequently among European Jews, perhaps because they did not indulge in secular studies; but some testimonies do exist.

What appears to be a Hebrew drinking song--a modest Jewish "Carmina Burana"--survived in some Ashkenazic prayer-book in the guise of a Hanukkah hymn. Its lyrics consist of lively exhortations to continue feasting and drinking day and night even if it requires the selling of house, field and cattle.

Well, I must conclude this column now since I have to compose some imaginative letters of reference for my students.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, September 4, 1997, p. 8, as: "The elegant art of letters of reference."
  • Bibliography:
    • L. Ginzberg, Students, Scholars and Saints, New York and Philadelphia, 1958.
    • S. D. Goitein, Jewish Education in Muslim Countries, Jerusalem, 1962.
    • S. D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1972.