SACRED TRASH: THE LOST AND FOUND WORLD OF THE CAIRO GENIZA
by Adina Hoffman and David Cole
For generations, the Jews of Old Cairo deposited their damaged, worn out, or otherwise unwanted texts in the community’s geniza: a narrow, windowless room above the women’s gallery of the ninth-century Ben Ezra Synagogue. Because they bore the name of God, Hebrew religious documents were considered too sacred to destroy; instead, they must be treated with reverence and allowed to “decay of their own accord.” The general practice with genizot was periodically to empty them and bury the material in the cemetery. But, for whatever reason, the Cairo Geniza was never emptied. For nearly ten centuries, the community kept adding to it. At the time of its discovery by European scholars in the late nineteenth century, the Cairo Geniza held hundreds of thousands of ancient scrolls and manuscripts, most dating back to the early Middle Ages.
In addition, because the Jews of Old Cairo did not limit themselves to storing only the sacred texts, but instead had apparently saved anything written in Hebrew, the Geniza documents dealt with all kinds of subjects. Letters, poems, wills, ketubot, invoices and receipts, leases and other contracts, prayers, pages of Scripture, magic charms and curses, Rabbinic tracts, court depositions — all were included, all piled up to the rafters of a six-and-a-half-by-eight-foot room. The pages were mashed and fused together, and coated with centuries of dust, sand, and clumps of tumbled whitewash. And yet, an entire world of medieval Jewish life was contained in those pages. Eventually, they would transform scholars’ understanding of Jewish history, literature, ritual practice, economics, family life, travel, and many other subjects.
In Sacred Trash, husband-and-wife co-authors Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, who met while working on the editorial staff at Tikkun in the late 1980s, have produced a fascinating hybrid — part historical adventure, part bibliographical paper trail and scholarly prospectus, and part poetic meditation. The first third of the book recounts the history of the Geniza and its discovery and removal to Europe. Then, with the hoard safely ensconced in various libraries, the book moves into a long discussion of the laborious process of sorting, cataloging, and reassembling the fragmentary texts. The authors incorporate capsule descriptions of the lives and quirky habits of many of the scholars involved, as well as a number of the all-but-forgotten historical figures the Geniza has brought to light. Finally, woven throughout are reflections on the workings of memory and history.
Central to the story is Solomon Schechter, later famous for his role in the development of Conservative Judaism in America. In the 1890s, however, he was working as a lecturer at Cambridge University, where he counted among his many friends a pair of slightly eccentric widowed Scottish sisters, who enjoyed traveling to the Middle East and collecting ancient manuscripts. One day, they invited Schechter to examine some unidentified fragments they had recently purchased on a visit to Cairo. Schechter was transfixed by a dirty scrap of paper (one sister described it as looking “as if a grocer had used it for something greasy”), which he realized contained a passage from the Hebrew original of the Book of Ecclesiasticus. Also known as the Wisdom of Ben Sira, this second-century BCE apocryphal text had previously been available only in Greek and Syriac translations, and a glimpse of the original Hebrew was electrifying.
Schechter made plans to travel to Egypt in search of more. He had heard rumors of a large ancient geniza in Cairo, from which a few previous scholars had plucked occasional items, and he arrived in December 1896 determined to collect whatever he could. After patiently schmoozing the Grand Rabbi, the leading families of the local Jewish community, the British authorities, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue beadles, he was finally granted access to the Geniza itself, with authorization from the Rabbi to take whatever he liked. “As a matter of fact,” he would later write, “I liked it all.”
The work of gathering and packing the material was arduous. The room was small and dark, and accessible only via ladder. In addition to the dense heaps of manuscripts, it was filled with dust and mildew, rodent droppings, and biting insects. Schechter suffered from coughing fits, and he was perpetually caked in what he called “Genizahschmutz.” But at last, after nearly a month, the room was empty, and eight big wooden crates were packed and shipped to the Cambridge Library. There, for nearly five years, until he left for New York in 1902 to take up the position of President of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Schechter would work day and night, squinting through the dust, breathing through a respirator, sorting the avalanche of documents into categories.
To Schechter, this material served as a vital bridge between recent European Jewish life and its ancient Middle Eastern roots. A figure like Ben Sira, living and writing in Palestine at the end of the biblical period, on the cusp of what would grow into modern Rabbinic Judaism, provided a link in the chain of continuous Jewish culture. In addition, as an outsider within Cambridge’s staunchly Anglican community, Schechter had long been alert to the hints of anti-Semitism that ran through the era’s Christian biblical scholarship. The discovery of so many ancient Hebrew texts, from the collection of an authentically ancient Jewish community, offered a chance to reassert a Jewish perspective on the field. “It is for me,” Schechter would write to a friend, “a simple question of history. We ought to recover our Bible (Apocrypha included) from the Christians.”
For twentieth-century Hebrew writers, too, the material served as a crucial missing link. A sprawling, centuries-long tradition of sacred and secular poetry was uncovered, bridging the gap between the roots of ancient Hebrew literature in the Bible and its modern rebirth among the Zionists. Major figures such as the sixth-century liturgical poet Yannai, of whom almost no work had survived, were entirely rediscovered. An astonishing eight hundred poems by Yannai have been brought into print since the discovery of the Geniza — although this has only been made possible by truly heroic bibliographical and editorial labors.
The bulk of the Geniza material, after all, consists of fragments, sometimes mutilated, often only partially legible, and there are other similar fragments (from Cairo, as well as other genizot) scattered in many other collections in cities and libraries around the world. To collect eight hundred poems by Yannai, the soft-spoken Galician scholar Menahem Zulay spent twenty-five years at the Institute for Hebrew Poetry, first gathering Photostats of as many manuscripts of unidentified Hebrew verse from as many different collections as possible, then beginning the massive task of cataloging and cross-referencing them, in order to begin to reassemble the splintered texts, to reconnect the “dry bones” and restore them to life. And this is only one among the many examples discussed by Cole and Hoffman of the tireless scholarship needed to unlock the Geniza’s bounty.
Another major area of discovery has been the ordinary daily life of medieval Cairo — along with the wider Mediterranean culture — as revealed through invoices, court records, business letters, contracts, and so on. The German-Israeli scholar S.D. Goitein would spend almost thirty years assembling data from these tantalizing but piecemeal and scattered records to create his magisterial five-volume cultural history, A Mediterranean Society. He called the Geniza: “a true mirror of life, often cracked and blotchy, but very wide in scope and reflecting each and every aspect of the society that originated it.”
This was a society with interesting parallels to our own. For one thing, Jews and Muslims lived in close, sometimes strained, but generally productive coexistence. “Until around 1200,” as Cole and Hoffman note, “over 90 percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in the East and, after the Muslim conquest, under the rule of Islam.” Thus, the story of the Geniza, its discovery, and the profusion of material it brought to light can provide a useful corrective to the familiar, northern, Ashkenazi-centric account of Jewish history many of us have grown up with. We may be used to thinking of Judaism as “a straight shot from the Bible to the shtetl, followed by a brief stopover on the Lower East Side,” but the insight offered by the Geniza into the life of Jewish communities in Muslim Spain, Crusader Palestine, and medieval Cairo offers a richer and more complicated picture.
To accommodate that complexity, Cole and Hoffman have woven together an impressive number of sources, in Hebrew and English, numerous illustrations, a range of eras and locales, and a cast that teems with scores of distinct individuals, each receiving his or her own moment in the spotlight. Because there is no single central figure or continuous narrative thread, at times the book becomes slightly diffuse and even rambling. Still, a theme that Cole and Hoffman return to repeatedly is the power of slow, patient scholarly labor, the value of even tiny fragments of information, and the ways in which discoveries can erupt from the unexpected. You might say one of the major lessons of the Geniza is that any knowledge is valuable — all knowledge is valuable — and no piece of information is unimportant if you know how to make use of it.
The hero of the book is the unassuming scholar: the mild-mannered archivist, bibliographer, cataloger, indexer, editor, or translator, who works in obscurity (often both literal and figurative), who will probably not see the end of the project, but who nevertheless does not stop. Cole and Hoffman do their part to name and recognize these quiet cultural heroes, and to celebrate the fruits of their meticulous toil. And the harvest is still ongoing, at academic institutions around the world, as Geniza documents continue to be sorted (with computer assistance now) and laboriously reassembled. New discoveries continue to be made from the trove of what was, at one time, considered only trash.