Forgotten fragments transform Jewish history

This review appears in the September 2011 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County, Florida) and L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties, Florida). It also appears in the October issue of The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. Nextbook/Schocken. 304 pages. $26.95.

When I was a young graduate student in English, an assigned text was The Scholar Adventurers, by Richard Altick. This inspiring tome revealed the romance of the research enterprise. Turning scholars into heroes, Prof. Altick’s book was a “good read” for any educated person. Sacred Trash has the same allure. Without leaning on fictional hooks like the Indiana Jones series, it still engages in much the same way. Hoffman and Cole almost manage to turn Solomon Schechter into an action figure. 

The Cairo Geniza, at once dump and treasure trove, was a repository of manuscripts discarded and yet not destroyed – the accumulated written detritus of centuries. Located in an ancient synagogue in Old Cairo (Fustat), these scraps held the largely unknown, untransmitted history of Jewish civilization during the Middle Ages – and even earlier.  Hoffman and Cole tell key stories stretching over 100 years – from the late Nineteen Century up until our own time – of scholar adventurers acquiring, preserving, classifying, interpreting, and gleaning astounding knowledge about the continuity of Jewish experience.  We can no longer think of Jewish history “as a straight shot from the Bible to the shtetl, followed by a brief stopover on the Lower East Side.”

The authors begin with their colorful portrait of twin widows, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, who in the early 1890s made important antiquarian discoveries at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. In 1896, the sisters returned from a trip to Cairo and other places during which they purchased a bundle of antiquarian documents. They believed that their Cambridge neighbor, the eminent scholar Shneur Zalmon (Anglicized to Solomon) Schechter, could help them identify the documents. Schechter, a man of wide-ranging learning who was now about fifty, eagerly examined their findings. He quickly “identified one vellum leaf as a rare and valuable page from the Palestinian Talmud.” After seeing other remarkable items, Schechter was hooked. He would have to make his own journey to the Cairo Geniza.

Having begun “in medias res,” the authors now hold Schechter’s mission in check while they provide the background of sporadic scholarly interest in this most important geniza; lesser archival dumps; and important established collections. Then they explore Schechter’s motivations and the particular areas of his scholarly interests that would drive him to make this arduous journey.

The story of Solomon Schechter at the Cairo Geniza is brilliantly told, including as it does his many important discoveries and his dedication to relocating as much as possible to Cambridge University. There were many obstacles to overcome, but the mission was an enormous success. The long, patient work of cleaning, restoring, sorting, cataloging, and interpreting the import of these thousands upon thousands of disintegrating documents occupied Schechter upon his return to Cambridge. And this work was ongoing even after Schechter agreed to move to New York to head the newly founded Jewish Theological Seminary.

Authors Hoffman and Cole

This monumental scrapheap of Hebraic literature (sacred and profane) was so large that it continued to occupy a great number of scholars over several generations. Hoffman and Cole are judicious in selecting the most interesting scholarly personalities and their most stunning discoveries and achievements. The authors’ delightfully-crafted chapters include one on palimpsests: parchments that had been reused by obliterating older writing, restoring the surface, and writing anew. Restorations of the original writings have often revealed rare texts and remarkable information.

Shelomo Dov Goitein. Certainly not a well-known name, it belongs to a man who saw promise in the least regarded categories of Geniza refuse. While others valued traces of liturgy, rabbinic law, and midrash, Goitein saw in the secular, household writings labeled as rubbish the keys to the daily lives of forgotten communities. Personal and business letters, plans for a fund-raising drive, court records, financial accounts – what were these but the raw materials of a civilization? Goitein’s mult-volume masterwork, A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza, is, so far, the capstone of Geniza scholarship achievement. It brings dead centuries to life, and the Hoffman-Cole duo brings Goitein’s ambitious labor to life.

One cannot comment on this splendid book without noting, as the authors do at length, the role of Salman Schocken, founder of Schocken Publishing, in facilitating the work of Geniza scholars, in part through his Institute for the Study of Hebrew Poetry. How appropriate that Sacred Trash bears the Schocken imprint.

This is an enormously engaging and carefully focused narrative of scholarly adventure achieving astounding results.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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