Friday, November 13, 2015

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole

A friend introduced me to the reviews of Adina Hoffman in the The Nation, in which she discusses the work of Olivia Manning. Hoffman has the most exquisite sensibility toward the conflicts in the Levant that one ignores her opinion only at their own loss.

I was interested in whatever else she wrote so I came upon Sacred Trash about the 1896 discovery of the Cairo Geniza, a cache of documents stored in a small room in Cairo that are the original documents of ten centuries of societal interaction:
"one Middle Eastern, mostly middle-class Jewish community’s detritus—its letters and poems, its wills and marriage contracts, its bills of lading and writs of divorce, its prayers, prescriptions, trousseau lists, Bibles, money orders, amulets, court depositions, ship inventories, rabbinic responsa, contracts, leases, magic charms, and receipts.

…For reasons that remain obscure, in the case of the Palestinian Jews of Fustat, of Old Cairo—who worshipped in what would eventually become known as the Ben Ezra synagogue—the tradition of geniza was, it seems, extended to include the preservation of anything written in Hebrew letters, not only religious documents, and not just in the Hebrew language. Perhaps, as one scholar has proposed, 'the very employment of the Hebrew script…sanctified written material.' Another theory holds that the Jews of this community may simply have piled up papers in their homes and periodically delivered whole cartfuls to the Geniza without bothering to separate sacred from secular writing. Or maybe, as another writer has suggested—in an effort to make sense of the hodgepodge of texts that have turned up in the Fustat Geniza—the impulse to guard the written word may have gone beyond piety and evolved into a 'generalized aversion toward casually discarding texts of any kind.' Whatever the explanation, for most of the last millennium, hundreds of thousands of scraps were tossed into the Ben Ezra Geniza, which came to serve as a kind of holy junk heap."

Hoffman and Cole tell the story of how the cache of documents was found and what happened to it after that. They introduce us to the "active imaginations" of several people who could see what riches the cache held, as well as those who wanted to use the documents for their own personal aggrandizement. But mostly it is the chatty story of thrilling discoveries and talented scholars who were able to realize what they held. In 1999 the Toronto currency trader and avid bibliophile Albert Freidberg established a non profit whose aim to to inventory and digitize every Geniza scrap in existence. Eventually full-color photographs of the documents will be available on the Friedberg website.

In the final pages Hoffman and Cole write that rummaging in the Cairo Geniza is not unlike rummaging in the attic of history. They pay tribute to the scholars who take on the work of realizing the value of the documents for us today.
"…We’ve known all along that we’d find things that some would consider rubbish and others treasure. This, though, is what literature does, what writers do—and when it comes to it, what faith is. And as this book makes clear, it is also what the scholars of the Geniza have done, in a quietly heroic way, for more than a century now. If, with Cynthia Ozick, we think of history as ‘what we make from memory,’ then these scholars have quite literally be making history by re-remembering it, by putting it back together syllable by syllable under the intense pressure of powerfully informed and at times visionary imaginations."

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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