Norman Golb, Notable University of Chicago Semitics Scholar, is dead.
A figure who began his life in a densely packed immigrant neighborhood in Chicago and rose to become one of the world's leading Hebrew manuscript and Semitics scholars has passed away days before his 93rd birthday. Norman Golb was born in Albany Park in 1928. His parents, from the Ukraine, met after their families had settled in that northwest Chicago neighborhood along with thousands of other Jewish immigrants.
A part-time actor in the Yiddish theater, Golb's father Joseph sustained his family during the Depression by working as a barber, and later for the City of Chicago's water department. Golb's mother Rose née Bilow was a homemaker and part-time sales clerk at the old Fair department store. Golb received his first advanced training in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic texts, as well as Latin and Greek, at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute (1948–50). He went on to study archaeology, the history of ancient Palestine, and several of the newly found Dead Sea Scroll texts at Johns Hopkins University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1954, at the age of twenty-six.
After a year spent studying Arabic at Dropsie College (Philadelphia) and two years in Jerusalem, Golb lectured in Hebrew and Semitic Studies at the University of Wisconsin (1957–58). He then moved to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he taught Arabic, Hebrew, and medieval Jewish philosophy for five years (1958–63).
In 1963 he was appointed to a position in the University of Chicago's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and at the Oriental Institute, in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic studies. In 1988, he was named Ludwig Rosenberger Professor in Jewish History and Civilization.
Golb did pathbreaking historical research for over half a century. He was a master in three main areas: the Dead Sea Scrolls and Judaism in late antiquity, the Jews in the Arab world during the Middle Ages, and medieval European history.
His linguistic and palaeographical expertise, as well as his versatility in Jewish history were exceptional, indeed unique. He made numerous discoveries, including the first documentary proof that Khazars converted to Judaism, and the presence of a major Jewish community in medieval Rouen (France).
In 1985, Golb was awarded the Grand Medal of the City of Rouen. In 1987 he was granted an honorary doctorate by the University of Rouen, and was awarded the Medal of the Region of Haute Normandie. In 2006 he was granted honorary citizenship by the commune of Oppido Lucano (Basilicata, Italy) for his research on Obadiah the Proselyte and related topics.
Golb's discoveries also became the basis for the international best-selling novel The Convert, by the award-winning Flemish author Stefan Hertmans.
Golb received many research awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships. He spent long research stays working on the famous Cairo Genizah documents in St. Petersburg and the Cambridge University Library; he was made a life member of Cambridge University's Clare Hall. His scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls was pioneering and highly publicized.
Golb was one of the last surviving figures in a generation of American Jewish intellectuals who came from working-class roots and ended up enriching world knowledge and academic debate to an extraordinary degree. He and his wife Ruth (Magid), a special education teacher in private practice and Chicago's public schools, were also active in city and local Hyde Park affairs for well over a half-century, while maintaining close ties to friends and colleagues in England, France, and Israel.
Norman Golb is survived by his wife; by three children: Joel, Judith Golb, and Raphael; by a granddaughter, Dana Vowinckel; by a sister, Harriet Baker, and by two nieces and many cousins.
To keep everyone safe and healthy, the interment service will be private. To attend the funeral live stream Wednesday 3PM, please visit our website.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the charity of your choice
Arrangements by Chicago Jewish Funerals - Skokie Chapel, 847.229.8822, www.cjfinfo.com
Published by Chicago Tribune on Dec. 30, 2020.