An epic encounter with a lost Jewish memory
It was a treasure trove that lay unrecognized for 900 years, and in the century since Solomon Schechter identified the significance of the Cairo Geniza - which is described eloquently in two new books - scholars have only begun to scratch its surface.
Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza
By Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole Nextbook/Schocken, 288 pages, $26.95
It was a wise editor who contracted Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole to explore the Cairo Geniza, a repository containing hundreds of thousands of fragments from ancient and medieval writings − from bank statements to theological treatises − which were discarded into a small room in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue and left to rot for eternity. (Or, as it turned out, for about 900 years, until scholars recognized their worth).
Among the Geniza manuscripts, written in Hebrew letters though not necessarily in the Hebrew language, we have inherited a marvelous library of lost medieval poetry. Cole, a renowned poet and translator, and Hoffman, a writer whose most recent book was the lovely “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century” ((2009, bring a great deal of insight to the Geniza’s poetic material; the chapters of their jointly authored “Sacred Trash” that deal with poetry are among the strongest in the book.
But there’s something larger at play here, for the life of the Geniza itself, its pedigree, its dislocations, its disappearance into the underworld and its heroic re-emergence, is itself the stuff of poetry, an epic. And like all epics, it takes many people, over many years, to sort out and transform its sprawling, noble subject into a popular narrative. To this end, too, husband-and-wife team of Hoffman and Cole have turned their considerable powers.
Even before the Geniza manuscript scraps were salvaged, dusted off, sorted and allowed to speak for themselves, before they were liberated from oblivion at the turn of the 20th century, the state of their confinement possessed an eloquence of its own. Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter, the hero-liberator and first prophet of the Geniza, described the scene of manuscripts piled high in the moldy attic room:
“In their present condition 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. Again, all these contradictory matters cleave tightly to some sheets from a very old Bible. This, indeed, ought to be the last umpire between them, but it is hardly legible without peeling off from its surface the fragments of some printed work..."
And on it went: layer upon filthy layer of incongruous works surviving the centuries together in an ever-tightening embrace. Schechter had the imaginative capacity to view the Geniza manuscripts not as mere piles of discrete scraps but indeed as a single, dynamic entity in itself. Even though he hadn’t yet investigated the manuscripts, and would not live long enough − nor, as an individual, be humanly able − to even scratch their surface, Schechter appreciated the existential significance of the Geniza’s tangled state. And so do Hoffman and Cole. The story they tell is of a Geniza that cannot nor should ever be fully untangled, a thing best understood as a permanently interconnected whole, a kind of literary ecosystem.
It has taken generations of such people, scholars and writers, explorers all, to begin the massive collaborative effort to map out the world contained within and around the Geniza. Hoffman and Cole − working, appropriately, in collaboration − unfold this saga with dramatic flair, peppering their narrative with the Geniza’s own distinct voices, from the ancient and medieval to the modern and contemporary. Skillfully they embed the dramas contained within the old texts with the contemporary dramas of the people handling the texts. We learn that, as with many other major discoveries, the person generally credited with the find − in this case, Schechter − was perhaps the most successful but not the first or the only person on the trail. Joined in the hunt were treasure seekers, Oxford rivals, prescient amateur scholars and other colorful “geniza-hounds,” to borrow a phrase from Cole and Hoffman.
Layered upon the intimate snippets of correspondence that emerged from the Geniza − letters from great rabbis, star-crossed lovers, mothers and their children − are the letters of the modern Geniza scholars, to wives and colleagues, as the pain and ecstasy of the work proceeded. We hear the breathless Solomon Schechter fire off this note to colleagues dated May 13, 1896:
“The fragment I took with me represents a piece of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus. It is the first time that such a thing was discovered. Please do not speak yet about the matter till to-morrow.”
Decades later, in the 20th century, the discoveries widen to include not only lost Biblical works but also the quotidian lives of regular people. We meet an 11th-century woman nicknamed “Wuhsha,” Arabic for “Object of Yearning” or possibly “Wild One,” a wealthy pawnbroker whose steamy love affair, sting operations and court depositions have emerged vividly from the dust of the Geniza. We learn that the scandalous Ms. Wuhsha was ejected from a major synagogue one Yom Kippur − but that she nevertheless willed this synagogue a healthy donation to be used “for oil so that people may study at night.”
Amulets, trousseaux lists
The range of material is breathtaking. Court documents, contracts, commentaries, magical amulets, religious edicts, manifestos, liturgical and secular poems, wills, petitions, prescriptions, high fashion trousseaux lists. Drafted in Hebrew characters on vellum or rag paper, these documents were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, Persian, Latin, Ladino. There are even a few personal letters written in Yiddish.
Cole and Hoffman have a humane grasp of the adventure and the pathos, the curious combination of brilliance, persistence, and dumb luck involved in Geniza scholarship. While they share a passion with the modern-day Geniza scholars who are their subjects, they also maintain enough distance to appreciate their limitations, jealousies and noteworthy quirks. This makes for a fine story, gripping and occasionally funny.
At certain points the authors connect the cosmopolitan setting of the Geniza to our own world. After describing a fascinating 11th-century debate over “mixed marriage” − in that case between rival Jewish sects − the authors note, “these seemingly marginal contracts, tracts, letter and appeals show us the ways in which dissension has at time come to define what Jewishness means and who, when push comes to shove, is considered a Jew and who isn’t − thus linking, after a fashion, Lower Egypt and the Upper West Side, ninth-century provincial Persia and nineteenth-century reform-minded Berlin.” It is valuable that they provoke readers in this way, and valuable also that they do so sparingly.
As they approach the end of their book, the authors admit that they haven’t even begun to begin. They haven’t, they write, adequately dealt with Biblical literature. “Another Geniza book, or three,” they admit, “could be written around what we’ve left out.” This confession turns out to be a lesson: that the problem of what has been left out of “Sacred Trash” is not truly a problem but rather the unavoidable consequence of dipping into the Geniza’s seemingly fathomless ocean of possibilities. Apparently the deeper one swims in this ocean, the sharper this lesson becomes. Of “A Mediterranean Society,” the multi-volume, several-thousand-page scholarly masterpiece that emerged over decades from Geniza sources, S.D. Goitein, its author, said it was “only a sketch.”
There is a tendency among the obsessed to speak in occult terms about the Geniza, about specters and miracles. “Suddenly,” wrote scholar Ezra Fleischer, “with the Geniza’s discovery, [tens of thousands of recovered lost poems were] released like spirits or ghosts through the square opening of that sealed room at the end of the women’s gallery of the Ben Ezra synagogue.” With the Cairo Geniza, it is difficult to avoid the uncanny, disorienting experience of encountering lost memory − it is a testament to Cole and Hoffman that they have fleshed out these ghosts, and patiently constructed a vivid, human saga every bit extraordinary as a miracle.
Avi Steinberg is the author of “Running the Books,” a memoir of his adventures as a prison librarian, published last year by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.