FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Jennifer Grayson, Ph.D.


Jennifer Grayson, Ph.D.

Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of History



Jennifer GraysonWhat is it like to teach at HUC/Cincinnati, and how do you engage with both rabbinical and graduate students?

I teach a core two-semester sequence in medieval and early modern Jewish history to both rabbinical and graduate students, as well as some electives. Last year, I co-taught “Philosophies of History” with Dr. David H. Aaron, and next year, I will offer a course on “Jewish Travelers in the Middle Ages.”

I love teaching Jewish history to rabbinical students. Rabbinical students grapple with all sorts of questions — about the concept of Jewish peoplehood, the extent to which Judaism should adapt and draw from the surrounding culture, how to respond to anti-Semitism, etc. A Jewish history class is an ideal setting for exploring these ideas — after all, Jews have been grappling with the same questions for millennia!

I serve as an academic advisor for rabbinical students, and I also advise sermons and senior theses. It’s especially exciting to work with rabbinical students to share concepts from class with their student pulpits, or otherwise reflect on how their understanding of Jewish history might inform the shape that their rabbinates will ultimately take.

I don’t advise graduate students directly, but I’ve supervised a few independent studies for graduate students based on their interests and research needs. Right now, I am leading an independent study in Classical Arabic for a PhD student interested in researching Jewish narratives preserved in early Islamic literature.

What is it like to teach at Xavier University through your unique joint appointment?

At Xavier, I have an appointment in the history department, and I teach a range of classes to undergraduates on Jewish history and the history of the pre-modern world. Most of my students come in with no background in any of this material, and it’s a privilege to introduce students to these fascinating topics that they maybe have never even considered before.

In this role, I, along with my fellow joint appointee, Dr. Christine Thomas, get to serve as something of a bridge between Xavier’s students, HUC, and the Cincinnati Jewish community. Before the pandemic, I took my students on “field trips” to the Archaeology Center at HUC, the American Jewish Archives, and the Holocaust and Humanity Center. HUC graduate students have also given guest lectures in my Xavier classes.

My teaching at Xavier is also a fun opportunity for me to teach about things that I find fascinating (and tangentially related to my own research) but would not fit directly into the HUC curriculum. My current seminar on medieval travel, for example, delves into topics as varied as Viking settlement in North America; Arabic-speaking merchants in T’ang China; and the history of the Silk Road.

Tell us about your current research or project?

Broadly speaking, my research deals with Arabic-speaking Jewish communities in the medieval middle east.  I work with documents from the Cairo Geniza — a treasure-trove of medieval manuscripts discovered in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Cairo — as well as other medieval chronicles originally written in Hebrew or Arabic.

My recently completed book manuscript, At the King’s Gate: The Jews of Abbasid Baghdad, 750-1258, examines the relationship between Jewish government officials, rabbinic leaders (including the Babylonian exilarch and the Babylonian geonim), and the Muslim government in Abbasid Baghdad over a period of five hundred years. Ultimately, I discovered that medieval Jewish and Islamic institutions of leadership intersected more than previous scholars assumed. Jews have never lived in a vacuum but have always been influenced by and influenced the societies and cultures around them.

I’m now shifting gears from political history to the history of women and gender. I am beginning work on what I hope will be a monograph on the history of childbirth among Jews in medieval Egypt, based on Cairo Geniza documents, rabbinic responsa, and medical treatises. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about whose voices and experiences our sources privilege, and how it might be possible to recover the experiences of those whose voices are marginalized in the written record.

What do you do in your free time?

A month before the lockdown began, my partner and I fortuitously got a dog. We spend a lot of time taking her on long walks in Cincinnati’s many beautiful parks. I love live music and theater, and I’m looking forward to once more being able to enjoy in-person performances of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Cincinnati Ballet after we all get vaccinated and the pandemic is under control.