Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole (Nextbook/Schocken)

On January 23, 2012, Reuters reported that 150 ancient Jewish scrolls and documents had been discovered in Afghanistan “and most likely smuggled” to private dealers in London. Dating from the 11th century, the cache’s commercial records appear to be written in a Judeo-Persian language associated with merchants who worked the Silk Road trade. Judicial decrees, poems, and some liturgical works comprise the rest of the documents. A post-doctoral fellow at Oxford University’s Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies said that the discovery would illuminate the culture of Afghan Jewry.

BenEzraSynogogue.jpegThe Reuters reporter described the find as a “hoard.” But consider that on January 28, 1897, Solomon Schechter made off with 190,000 Hebraic documents from the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Fustat, the old section of Cairo where a large Jewish community thrived. As Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole write in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, the items included “ten centuries’ worth of one Middle Eastern, mostly middle-class Jewish community’s detritus – its letters and poems, wills and marriage contracts, its bills of lading and writs of divorce, its prayers, prescriptions, trousseau lists, Bibles, money orders, amulets, court depositions, shop inventories, rabbinic responsa, contracts, leases, magic charms, and receipts.” Schechter shipped everything to his post at Cambridge University and spent the next five years sorting the materials before heading to New York to become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Sacred Trash is the story of antiquarians who continued cataloguing for the next sixty years, uncovering different aspects of the past each time the collection was approached anew.

But first: What is a Geniza.?

The authors explain that “‘Geniza’ is a barely translatable Hebrew term that holds within it an ultimate statement about the worth of words and their place in Jewish life.” Liturgical manuscripts, even those superseded by newly authorized versions, could not be thrown away and were amassed to deteriorate on their own. “Implied in this latter idea of Geniza,” they write, “is that these works, like people, are living things, possessing an element of the sacred about them – and therefore when they ‘die,’ or become worn out, they must be honored and protected from profanation.”

The prohibition to destruction pertained to anything written in Hebrew. The community saved up its paper and stuck it in the Geniza. But the Ben Ezra Geniza was unique in its relative inaccessibility and size, “a windowless box of a room on the synagogue’s second floor” reached only by ladder. It was “filled to the actual rafters.” Rumors of its existence had circulated among Hebraicists in Europe, and some of its contents were removed, scattered about, and sold by dealers to collectors before Schechter arrived.

Schechter.jpegBut Schechter’s haul was unprecedented. He was motivated not only by competition with rivals at Oxford but by a wish to block what he called the “brutal vivisection” of Jewish history, a largely Protestant and “distinctly anti-Jewish bias … which perceived much of Jewish history as a continual falling off from the heights of early revelation and prophetic vision to a preoccupation with ceremony and legal sophistry.” Christianity (like Islam) is a religious paradigm that affirms the primacy of believing. But Judaism seems to say: once there was a great revelation, and now our responsibility is to interpret what it means. Thus, the immanence of words. Schechter felt that the discovery of medieval documents testified to the ongoing development of Jewish culture and thought.

GenizaDocument.jpegLeavened by the authors’ lively and empathic portraits of inspired scavengers, Sacred Trash taps into this obsessive drive to keep digging, keep interpreting the mysteries, one of which is the persistence and survival of Judaism itself. The first studies of the Ben Ezra materials focused on pietism, liturgy, Biblical translations, and apocrypha. But in successive waves, scholars assembled remarkably detailed descriptions of daily life “from the time of antiquity until around 1200 [when] over 90 percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in the East and, after the Muslim conquest, under the rule of Islam.”

For instance, the German-born Arabist and ethnographer, S. D. Goitein, discovered “nine-hundred-year-old attitudes toward messianism, remarriage, homosexuality, foreign travel, and pigeon-racing, and plumbed ancient correspondence and business accounts for clues about excommunication, social drinking, the price of flax, the Judeo-Arabic terminology for so-called sweating sickness, the total absence in this older Middle Eastern world of the Bar Mitzvah ritual, and the prevalence in the same context of good, hot take-out food.”

GenizaDocument2.jpegIn the 1930s, a young research assistant named Jefim Hayyim Schirmann followed a trail through the Geniza manuscripts that led him to a Moroccan-born 10th century poet named Dunash ben Labrat. In time, Schirmann assembled a new perspective of Hebrew poetry that had been written “at the northwest end of the Mediterranean and deep inside the Diaspora … in a radically innovative and even shocking manner, developing what amounted to a new body of literature from the unlikely alloy of Arabic literary modes and motifs on the one hand, and scriptural Hebrew and Jewish mythopoetic materials on the other.”

The underlying assumption of Sacred Trash is that Schechter’s assertion about the vitality of Jewish thought is validated by the Geniza materials. But continuity is not equivalent to development. Perhaps only the work of the Judeo-Spanish poets represents new modes of art and thought. Nevertheless, the authors’ stories play out energetically whether one agrees with Schechter or not. Or maybe I’m wrong about the underlying assumption. Maybe the authors are simply taken with the passing of batons between committed Judaic scholars. Cole and Hoffman write:

ColeHoffman.jpeg“Looking back across the millennia of registration and effacement that the Geniza documents embody, one is tempted to say that this -- the systole and diastole of dismissal and deliverance, of composition and copying and translation and erasure, of rejection and retrieval – is the true Isis- or maybe Ezekiel-like mystery at the heart of the enterprise.”

The work continues. The Friedberg Genizah Project, established in 1999, intends to “digitize in full color and high resolution every Geniza scrap in existence.” There are thousands of pages of medieval “magical” content that have only recently been examined closely – “incantations, fumigations, talismans, angels, curses, and cures.”

In 1938, Menahem Zulay published The Poems of Yannai, the last Hebrew book to be produced in Nazi Germany. A classical Jewish poet, Yannai was resurrected by way of the Geniza documents. After the Holocaust, Zulay spoke of the “remnant of a vital faith and naiveté into which every true scholar must tap … without faith there’s no enthusiasm, and without enthusiasm there is no transcendence. The soul withers and one’s vision narrows. Scholarship finds itself mired in trivia and the great goal is forgotten.” Quite clearly, this enthusiasm inhabits and enlivens Sacred Trash.

[Published April 5, 2011. 286 pages, $26.95]