Treasures from the Trash

by Adina Hoffman and David Cole
Schocken, 2011

bookFor 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.


Solomon Schechter studies documents from the Cairo Geniza in the mid 1890s. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Ben Ezra

Schechter slowly won the trust of those in charge of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo (above) in order to gain access to hundreds of thousands of ancient scrolls and manuscripts from the early Middle Ages. Credit: Creative Commons/Christopher S. Rose.

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.


One thought on “Treasures from the Trash

  1. Archives of ethic or other origin tell us so much if we listen to their stories attentively with love, yes?

    Bring flesh to dry bones is something Jewish to me, it’s task that of life giver to old things past and to bring them up for others to share with their families and friends is important work and needs the keen eye of discernment of spirit to undertake successfully and with a sens of God’s gratification, not our own that pervades the essence of our research.

    The outcome of study of scriptures, inklings on parchment once , now prized possessions of grey haired and wrinkled old people with an insatiable desire to seek out the past and to put new flesh on old bones, prospectors of evidence of things that came before are those with such an interest. Thanks to the gift of God to us, the creatures made so lovingly for the purpose of living as inventions of a benevolent creator with only our happiness in mind but also the wisdom that knows how plans for human happiness go awry in the annealing of time in human affairs.

    The little pieces of hand written Jewish notes are worth their weight in precious gold to the lonely prophet, Jewess with a mission or young thirsty mind for wisdom of the ages gone by, little things written of so long ago mean so much to us and for a great reason, we love our ancestors forever and that should teach us something about who we are today and why.

    We are what we consume if human bonding rites observed over time mean anything to our cultural similarities and also our differences as they are shaped by input to our minds eye the soul of a human being in concert with it’s subconscious mind and with the ancestral notes we carry in our DNA and other parts of our as yet (un) discovered anatomy, enzymes phermones and the pumps that displace this matter to others to be read for it’s signature identification as to like and kind or of different kind and pursuasion, we read others , even in our deep past by understanding whom they are reletive to us which is placement in the cosmos of our very souls in God’s creative medium for instruction by God’s hand to God’s glory forever, which is a big thought that we carry around but cant quite discern the gravity of unless we understand the past and who we were before who we are now, how we changed and why, when things happen after other things happen humanology is fascinating from this beginners learning cirve of ignorance seeking wisdom as creations of the wisest ever in our world, God is the center of all things if we are adherant nothing to us if we are not or an negative to be dispelled as falsity and a detriment to human kind for it’s misunderstood status as an undefined diety with only our human efforts to describe it’s other worldly efdifaces which we transcribe as like in kind to us Human in looks and perfected in grace as we seek to be.

    The little hand written notes are no different than the American Native Stones I study all of my adult life for many years now and every bit as fascinating to me as well as anyone interested in their human reletives past, as any curious, healthy person would be, we need to be interested in the parchments of every culture to discern who they were, why they were there who with when and how it came to be that they mived or shifted slowly from place to place and what was happening around them then, through the years and where they are now, why and what faces them as their main task at hand, All of these things we ponder as we review some old piece of paper and look as deeply into it’s meanings as we can and then some, for we are creatures of a wise God who has gifted us with the tools to undertake our journey of life well in ernest and with the passion of curiosity that lives forever, as we must feel we do to be glorification of our creator in the flest bones of dust and spirit of pure gold should we accept the full armor of God and do the work for which we are created and that would be to make the creators children happy, we can at the very least make it a present comfort to those in need in these terse times. Love is what draws us to the dead, forgotten and dusty corners of some archive where we search for the answers for todays questions, how can we not be curious about such an epic people, the Jews

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