Five years ago, I got the thrill of a lifetime when, as a collections manager for the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, I placed a 10th-century parchment fragment into a display case for a Bible exhibition. This fragile fragment was a palimpsest, a layered text on which an earlier writing had been replaced by a later one. The first was a sixth-century copy of a Greek translation of a section of the Book of Kings by the famed second-century writer Aquila. The later text was a 10th-century copy of a liturgical poem fragment by the seventh-century Palestinian Jewish poet Yannai, a precursor to the poets of the later Golden Age in Spain. The fragment was found in the famed Cairo Geniza, a repository of sacred texts, and is just one piece in a collection that has become the greatest archival find in Jewish history.
Like that famous palimpsest, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza is a multi-layered work that provokes admiration and excites the imagination on many levels. From its descriptions of linguists, Jewish scholars and others who were involved in the discovery and interpretation of the nearly 400,000 known fragments found in the Geniza, to discussions of the documents themselves, the book opens a window on Jewish life, customs, history, religion and, most importantly, the sense of identity among Jews in the Middle East between the ninth and 14th centuries. There are so many documents because this particular Geniza came to include any writing in Hebrew script—in any language—preserving everything from prescriptions to money orders as well as rabbinic responsa.
The book introduces several daring Eastern European Jewish intellectuals who unraveled the many mysteries behind the collection over decades. Foremost among them, Solomon Schechter, a Romanian-born scholar and rabbi, followed the trail of odd, ancient Jewish documents appearing in the antiquities market in the 1890s back to their primary source: the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which has stood for 1,000 years in a section of Old Cairo, formerly called Fustat. Within the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the huge cache of paper and parchment fragments was hidden in a room off its women’s gallery.
It was Schechter who first identified the long-lost original Hebrew version of the ancient book of Ben Sira (a collection of proverbs and ethical maxims) composed in the second century B.C.E., around the time the Dead Sea Scrolls were written, which until then had only been known through later written Greek translations. He had a particular interest in Ben Sira; as Hoffman and Cole point out, Schechter recognized that the Hebrew version of the text reflected a dynamic and continuing creative religious development in Second Temple times that would extend into the Middle Ages. Triumphantly, he proclaimed his interpretation in opposition to the anti-Jewish bias reflected in Protestant scholarly circles in which Second Temple rabbinic Judaism was seen as somewhat sterile and in decline.
Hoffman and Cole also describe in detail the evolution of Jewish liturgical poetry from as early as the eighth century through the Golden Age of Spain four centuries later, mentioning luminaries such as Judah Halevi. The new form of poetry drew inspiration and technique from the surrounding Arabic culture and its rich poetic traditions. The Geniza has left us actual fragments in the handwriting of the poets themselves—autographs more than 900 years old!
The authors uncover yet another important aspect of Jewish life. Documents from the Geniza reveal a Jewish community composed of different streams of Judaism. There is rabbinic Judaism alongside more narrowly defined sects such as the Karaite community, which practiced a religious tradition based on the Torah rather than on later rabbinic developments. All were equally considered part of Cairo’s Jewish religious community, an unusual instance of tolerance among Jews with differing traditions.
Hoffman and Cole give special attention to the work of another Geniza scholar, Shlomo Goitein, through whose eyes we are able to see the fullest view of the flourishing Jewish world of the Middle Ages. The documents portray a dynamic, vital community that was thriving, despite limitations as a restricted minority, from contacts with the mysterious Jewish Caspian kingdom of the Khazars, to trade with India by Jewish merchants based in Fustat, to the daily workday of the urban Jews involved in almost every conceivable trade.
The Geniza documents enable us to focus on both the elite and ordinary Jew, whether in Cairo, Palestine or Spain. Through the so-called unimportant Geniza fragments, covering the trivia of daily life, Goitein was able to piece together his encyclopedic vision of Jewish life in all its complexities. Moses and Abraham Maimonides, father and son, for example, are revealed as having total dedication to serving their people as communal leaders—holding positions as physicians, judges, writers and spiritual leaders. But Goitein also finds riches reflected in the desideratum of daily life among the common people: accounts of women’s trousseaux that reveal the taste and character of women of the time, social drinking, the price of flax, marriage and sexual practices, food tastes and clothing for all occasions.
The Geniza also gives women of the period a voice. The wife of the early poet Dunash ben Labrat has left us a beautiful poetic love letter to her husband from 1,000 years ago. Wuhsa, an independent single mother, is as controversial as she is influential in the Fustat Jewish community. And finally, we meet a troubled Jewish mother named Rachel Zussman, born in Prague but living in 16th-century Jerusalem, who wrote in Yiddish to her successful son in Egypt to express her concern for him and her own maternal needs: He should visit her.
Hoffman and Cole bring us full circle at the end of the book, describing recent portions of the same Ben Sira Hebrew text that was Schechter’s first major discovery a century ago, suggesting that more significant fragments may yet turn up and that these treasures of the ancient world will prove to be an expanding universe.
Our contemporary society stresses the need for privacy. We are told to shred our private documents to protect our identities and personal information. Thank heavens the Jews of Fustat had no such concerns. To our wonderment, they have left us all the precious scraps of their very full lives
Rocky Korr managed the storage and maintenance of Asian collections at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC for more than 40 years.