GUIDED BY JUDAISM’S REVERENTIAL regard for — and fidelity to — the dignity of the written word, many Jewish communities, right up to the present day, keep a geniza, or repository for discarded sacred texts to gather dust or disintegrate. Such repositories, often in synagogue attics or cellars, hold anything bearing the name of God, texts with scribal errors or physical damage, or sometimes anything written in Hebrew characters.
These storerooms have functioned both to protect a text’s sanctity and to hide away heretical texts. Concealing both the sacred and the censored, the geniza, as one scholar put it, serves “the twofold purpose of preserving good things from harm and bad things from harming.” Whether for the purposes of preservation or banishment, a geniza offers a dignified way of consigning a text to oblivion.
But as the essayist Adina Hoffman and the poet and translator Peter Cole make clear in Sacred Trash, for antiquity and sheer wealth of forgotten treasure, none compared with the geniza of Cairo’s Ben Ezra synagogue (first built in the eighth or ninth century), which had accumulated the largest collection of medieval manuscripts in the world. Their book offers an elegant history of one of the great modern feats of cultural resurrection: the rediscovery of the Cairo geniza, which served as what Hoffman and Cole call “an inadvertent archive” for almost 10 centuries.
In May 1896, on returning from a trip to Cairo, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson — Scottish twin sisters and self-taught maverick scholars — brought home to Cambridge a few Hebrew fragments and showed them to their eccentric friend Solomon Schechter, Cambridge’s reader in rabbinics. Much to his astonishment, the savant recognized one stained leaf as belonging to the Hebrew original of the apocryphal, epigrammatic second-century BCE book of Ben Sira (later known by its Latin name, Ecclesiasticus). The work had been known only from its Greek and Syriac translations; no copy of the Hebrew original had been seen for almost a thousand years.
In fevered excitement, Schechter set off to Cairo on a secret mission to the source of the remarkable manuscript. Aided by his charismatic force of personality, and not a little baksheesh, he was at last admitted into the synagogue’s geniza. Undaunted by legends that the place was protected from prying eyes by curses or scorpions or poisonous vipers, he clambered up a ladder and crawled through a hole in the women’s gallery and into a room haphazardly filled with moldering manuscripts undisturbed for generations. “It is a battlefield of books,” he said of the vertigo he felt at that moment,
and the literary production of many centuries had their share in the battle, and theirdisjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by a general crush, are squeezed into big unshapely lumps. … These lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work, in which the very existence of either angels or devils is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behavior and not interfere with Miss Jair’s love for somebody. The development of the romance is obscured by the fact that the last lines of the amulet are mounted on some I.O.U., or lease, and this in turn is squeezed between the sheets of an old moralist, who treats all attention to money affairs with scorn and indignation.
Wading waist-deep into this hoard of history, smothered in the dust of centuries — he called it “genizaschmutz” — Schechter sifted for four weeks. In the end he salvaged some 190,000 fragments, shipping them back to England in eight wooden crates. With consuming passion, he would spend the next five years sorting through them.
Schechter was only the vanguard of a dedicated host of scholar-hunters who over the next several generations gave their lives to the painstaking and patient study of the geniza. Hoffman and Cole deftly bring to life these imaginative historians who like pointillist painters slowly built up a vivid portrait of a lost world, including Israel Davidson, Menahem Zulay, J.H. Schirmann, Ezra Fleischer, and S.D. Goitein (who condensed a lifetime of erudition into the five volumes of his magisterial A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza).
The literary spadework and toiling labors of decipherment and cataloging are ongoing. While some two-thirds of geniza shards ended up in Cambridge, the rest were scattered between 75 collections, including at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (with 26,000 fragments), Oxford’s Bodleian Library (5,000 pieces), Saint Petersburg, Paris, Philadelphia, Budapest, and Jerusalem – not to mention private holdings. All these are now being digitized in a kind of great ingathering; Hoffman and Cole call it “the largest, most ambitious manuscript computerization project of any kind, anywhere.”
What treasures has this cache of the past yielded up to the present?
There is, first of all, a torrent of religious texts: Torah scrolls, theological tracts, prayers, esoteric incantations and amulets, epistles to Mesopotamian rabbinical academies, correspondence in the hand of the great 12th-century sage Maimonides, weaves and cross-weaves of rabbinical rulings and rebuttals, elegies and homilies, marriage contracts and writs of divorce, manuscripts by Karaite heretics and other sectarians, Hebrew Bibles in Arabic characters, truncated lines of Talmud, an 11th-century certificate by a rabbinical court testifying to the kosher status of certain cheeses produced on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, and palimpsests of biblical passages on paper or vellum.
These rub elbows with priceless literary artifacts: tens of thousands of hitherto unknown poems that shed new light on the Golden Age of Andalusian Hebrew literature. There are entire cycles of lost poetry — by the sixth-century poet Yannai, for example, and the 10th-century Dunash ben Labrat — and dozens of letters by or about the 12th-century poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi.
No less precious are the secular ephemera which came to the forefront as the study of the genizaevolved: letters to and from the far reaches of the medieval Jewish world that had collected in the Nile basin, wills and bills, merchant contracts, trousseau lists, children’s primers, Hebrew grammars, prescriptions, petitions, a letter describing the Khazar kingdom’s conversion to Judaism in the eighth or ninth century, and eyewitness accounts of the Crusader massacres in the Holy Land in which one can hear the heavy footsteps of catastrophes still to come. There is even a 16th-century letter by a woman named Doña Soro to her husband, the scribe Solomon, complaining about his absence from home and his failure to answer her letters:
You will also adversely affect the fortunes of your adult daughter, Rachel, who is a beautiful, fine and modest woman, for people will draw attention to the fact that a scribe of character and seniority has abandoned his wife and daughters for a number of years, preferring to travel to distant parts, and has apparently gone out of his mind. All of these fragments, which had so long lived in inextricable intimacy, come down to us in a polyglot mingling of Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, Latin, Ladino, and Yiddish (including two narrative poems that represent the oldest Yiddish texts ever discovered).
Sacred Trash tells this story with narrative vigor and lightness of learning, especially in reporting on how the Cairo geniza offered a wide-angle glimpse into a lost world of Jewish life under medieval Islam. The authors remind us that until 1200 or so, more than 90 percent of the world’s Jews lived in North Africa and the Middle East. Old Cairo was “the very navel of the medieval world,” as Hoffman and Cole call it, “linking East and West, Arab and Jew.” In its medieval heyday, Goitein said, the city was “a mirror of the world.” Thus the geniza caught a cross-section of a prosperous and cosmopolitan hub at a pivotal period, at the high tide of its religious and cultural ferment. For this reason, the rediscovery of the geniza may be even more important — because more representative of the life of its times — than the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Not for nothing did Goitein call the geniza “the Living Sea Scrolls.”) Its discoverers revolutionized the study of Mediterranean Jewish life at the very moment that Jewish life in Arab lands was drawing to a close.
Among its other virtues, Sacred Trash deftly illustrates that even as the people of Israel were exiled, so was its far-flung literature. In both cases, and against all odds, a half-forgotten dispersed detritus was preserved until it could be rescued from near-oblivion by an unprecedented gesture of recovery and reanimation, one that has afforded us the rare chance to listen in to the persistent din of a people’s millennial dialogue with God, with its cultural environs, and with itself.