The Romance of the Buried Texts
By BaltimoreJewishLife.com/Davida Braunstein
Posted on 11/14/11 | Comments (0)
The story of the discovery of the Cairo Geniza is breathtaking. This hidden treasure trove of sacred Torah writings, love letters, poems, business contracts and all manner of historical records remained largely hidden until about a hundred years ago. Its finding is considered to rival, if not surpass that of The Dead Sea Scrolls. Certainly this story captures the imagination. As we all go about the daily business of storing our shaimos, do we stop to think how others will view what they find in the future?
The Cairo Geniza, located within a secret room in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, or Old Cairo, contained over a millennium of manuscripts and notes, mixing sacred with mundane in one gigantic hodge-podge. Determined and dedicated scholars spared no expense or personal risk to uncover and sort through this "holy mess." They battled decay, disease, and sometimes each other, to reveal the glory of the truth of the Jewish people.
Essayist Adina Hoffman and Poet/Translator Peter Cole adeptly tell the magnificent stories within a story in their remarkable book, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of The Cairo Geniza. Renown Jewish Orthodox author James Kugel (How to Read the Bible) praises their "extraordinary tale of intellectual adventure and lasting scholarly accomplishment," adding that it is "carefully researched and beautifully written."
The Geniza contained original manuscript drafts from Maimonides, (The Rambam) the famous Gaonim, Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the poetry of Yehudah Halevy, and other ancient, important Hebrew texts and writers referenced in The Talmud. Yet alongside the profound and mystical were also a thousand years of everyday life recorded in notes, ketubahs, gittin, letters, bill of sale's, legal documents... the breadth and detail of the contents of the Cairo Geniza is enormous. It revolutionized the study of Medieval Jewry - considered The Golden Age, rich in Torah scholarship and lifestyle.
BaltimoreJewishLife.com had the opportunity to ask the authors, Hoffman and Cole, how the Geniza is particularly relevant to the Orthodox Jewish community? Their response cut to the heart of what makes the Geniza so fascinating: "The very notion of Orthodoxy isn't really relevant in the Geniza context, since really all the Jews of the Middle Ages are what we’d now consider religious. In that sense, every single scrap of paper or parchment found here is potentially of interest to Orthodox Jews today... It’s also critical to realize that the Judaism of the Middle Ages was basically an Eastern—as opposed to Eastern European--religion. Scholars estimate that at least ninety percent of the world’s Jews during these years lived in the East and eventually under the rule of Islam. These were Arabic-speaking Jews who didn't live in ghettos, but interacted in an involved way with their Muslim and Christian neighbors."
We have a gorgeous, complex, and at times, unexpected and surprising history. The Cairo Geniza, a relatively small store room, has proven to be a window to our own world, the world of our people.
Sacred Trash was recently published by Nextbook and Schochen/Random House in a joint venture entitled Jewish Encounters. Ms. Hoffman is an award winning writer and Guggenheim Fellow. She is also the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood. Mr. Cole has received numerous honors and awards including the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the "Genius Award.") His most recent book of poetry is Things on Which I’ve Stumbled—whose title poem revolves around the Cairo Geniza. Also related is his The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, which received the National Jewish Book Award in Poetry.
They will be speaking in Baltimore on Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, this evening, Monday, November 14th. The free lecture and discussion will be held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in the social hall from 7-8:30pm.Read More: