From Cairo to Córdoba: The Story of the Cairo Geniza | The Nation


From Cairo to Córdoba: The Story of the Cairo Geniza

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Schechter’s acquisition of the Cairo Geniza for Cambridge, and his organization of its massacre of manuscripts into an archive, made many other future branches of research possible. In the years before he assumed the presidency of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City and leadership of the Conservative movement of American Judaism, he cultivated an astonishing number of them. But his most passionate ministrations were aimed, through the reconstruction of texts like the Hebrew Ben Sira, at the revivification of a Jewish scriptural tradition whose “brutal vivisection,” as he saw it, was being carried out by the Christian Higher Critics of his day. “What inspired Ben Sira,” wrote Schechter, thinking perhaps also of the inspiration for his own herculean efforts in the Geniza, “was the present and future of his people.”

Sacred Trash
The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.
By Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.
Buy this book.

About the Author

David Nirenberg
David Nirenberg is on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His Judaism and Christian Art:...

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The archive Schechter brought to Cambridge would continue to produce biblical revelation, but the attention of the next generation of explorers—according, at least, to Hoffman and Cole’s account of that next generation—was oriented toward a different scriptural marvel discovered in the Geniza: poetry. Whole worlds of Hebrew verse would be almost entirely lost to us were it not for the poems buried in this one graveyard, and the scholars who exhumed them felt empowered with the kiss of life. “Each photostat is a prayer congealed, each page a poem frozen in place,” wrote Menahem Zulay. “The dust of the generations has to be shaken from them; they have to be woken and revived; and the workers are busy; and a day doesn’t pass without resurrection.” Zulay was writing of his monumental reconstruction of some 800 poems written by the sixth- or early seventh-century poet Yannai, whose hymns studded the synagogue services of Palestinian Jewry for centuries before those services were reshaped by the adoption of Babylonian rites, and the poems deformed, forgotten and finally buried in early thirteenth-century Cairo. That reconstruction, published in 1938, was the first to display to modern eyes a medieval cycle of Jewish liturgical poetry in its full glory, and the last Hebrew book to emerge from a press in Nazi Germany.

Peter Cole is himself an inspired writer, translator and resuscitator of verse. His previous book, The Dream of the Poem, opened English-language readers to an entire world of Hebrew poetry that emerged under the tutelage of Arabic verse among the Jews of Spain. So it should not surprise that the chapters he and Hoffman devote to the poetry of the Geniza are especially rich. But neither liturgical poetry nor the poetry of Yannai, for all his gifts (his systematic use of end rhyme, for example, is the earliest in Hebrew literature, and precocious in the poetics of both Near East and West), is the subject of their finest pages. Those are reserved instead for the poetic treasures translated for us in The Dream of the Poem, treasures that were, like the Judeo-Arabic in which so many of the Geniza’s texts were written, themselves the product of Jewish life in Muslim lands: I mean, of course, the Hebrew poetry of what the Muslims called Al-Andalus, the Jews Sefarad and we (somewhat anachronistically) “medieval Spain.” For although Cairo is far from Córdoba, its closets tell us more about the “Golden Age” of Hebrew poetry than does any archive in the magnificent Islamic city in which that poetry was born.

The authors’ description of the scholarly project gives us a good sense of its importance, not only for the history of Hebrew poetry but for the living literature of the present as well:

a concatenation of discoveries stretching into the twenty-first century has only enhanced the aura of wonder surrounding the poetry’s origins. Against staggering odds, patient and tenacious scholars have reunited torn pages or separated leaves or even just stray lines of manuscript fragments…. not only new poems and new collections of poems, but new poets, new kinds of poems and poets, and the often extraordinary life stories of some of Hebrew literature’s finest writers have been introduced into the modern literary mix.

These scholars, write Hoffman and Cole, “in-
jected Andalusian poetry into the blood-
stream of modern Hebrew cultural life.” Once again, the past as discovered in the Geniza is put to work animating the Jewish present.

The poets and their poems are indeed thrilling. The Moroccan-born Dunash ben Labrat (circa 920–990) studied under the great sage Saadia Gaon in Babylon, where he developed a system of adapting Arabic poetry’s rules of quantitative meter to the Hebrew language. (“Nothing like it has ever been seen in Israel,” his illustrious teacher is reputed to have said, without stipulating whether these words were praise or blame.) Dunash took his system with him when he migrated to the Caliphate of Córdoba, where his synthesis—for which his own words might serve as motto: “Let Scripture be your Eden, and the Arabs’ books your paradise grove”—immediately spawned a school. But there were also those who accused him of “destroying the holy tongue…by casting it into foreign meters,” and bringing “calamity upon his people.” In the end, for reasons we do not know, Dunash was exiled from Al-Andalus, and his poems, all but for a few stray lines, were lost.

* * *

Lost, that is, until the Geniza was found. From the patient rearticulation of its severed limbs there emerged not only poems by Dunash but details of his life, his poetic community, even his wife. At times Hoffman and Cole work a little too hard to manufacture excitement for this process of textual reconstruction: “As if in a made-for-TV National Geographic special,” they write of the discovery that two fragments of a poem fit together. But the result is exciting, and the reconstituted poem is beautiful, a miniature full of the pathos of parting:

Will her love remember his graceful doe,
 her only son in her arms as he parted?
On her left hand he placed a ring from his right,
 on his wrist she placed her bracelet.
As a keepsake she took his mantle from him,
 and he in turn took hers from her.

Beautiful, and also probably unique: the union of fragments reveals the poem to be not by Dunash but by his wife on the occasion of his exile, making it the only known poem by a woman surviving from the 500-year history of medieval Hebrew verse.

The last chapter of Sacred Trash is dedicated not to scholars of poetry but to a historian: specifically, to Shlomo Dov Goitein, whom we might call the re-founder of Geniza studies. Goitein was the first to realize, circa 1955, the significance of the trash within the trash: not the sacred fragments of eternal Scripture or the lost poetic links of an immortal literary tradition but the tattered remnants of quotidian life. There were IOUs, canceled contracts, letters about prices of linen and rumors of drought, amulets and shopping lists: in short, the tens of thousands of documents crammed into two trunks for half a century and stowed in an attic only because an early librarian had opposed on principle the burning of anything, no matter how useless, of such antiquity. Out of the contents of these trunks and other archives, Goitein wrote what would eventually become the five volumes of his A Mediterranean Society, a pluralistic history of medieval Muslim, Jewish and Christian social and economic life that gave historians their first sense of just how interconnected—we might say how globalized—this medieval world was, and how fluid the relations between members of its various faiths.

Goitein’s history has proven resonant, not only because it taught a new generation of historians how to explore a vast world of documentation from the distant past but also because Goitein worked hard to make that past relevant to our present. His was not a lachrymose medieval world overflowing with persecution but a “brimming history of life,” a life Goitein characterized as a “symbiosis” between Arabs and Jews. Goitein compared the symbiosis he discovered in the Geniza with that of the world in which he found himself as he wrote his master work—the United States of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s—and found them similar. The Geniza world was a “religious democracy,” “a vigorous, free-enterprise society” of “relative tolerance and liberalism.” “We do not wear turbans here [in the United States],” he wrote; “but, while reading many a Geniza document one feels quite at home.”

Goitein gave us the history of a medieval Jewish community, one thriving in Muslim lands, and tied by countless bonds of exchange—cultural and social as well as economic—to the vast world in which it found itself, a world stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, but cradled in the tolerant and cosmopolitan waters of the Mediterranean. This vision is shared to some extent by all the heroes of Sacred Trash, from Schechter to Goitein, and it’s a commonality at least partly because it is also shared by the authors, themselves active in Jerusalem as impresarios of literary integration. Hoffman and Cole’s polyglot press, Ibis Editions, publishes writers in Arabic, Hebrew and other languages of the Levant.

The vision is certainly an appealing one, and all the more so today. Its resonance is evident not only in books both popular and scholarly but also in political projects like the “Union for the Mediterranean,” whose joint declaration, signed in 2008, proclaims, “Europe and the Mediterranean countries are bound by history, geography and culture. More importantly, they are united by a common ambition: to build together a future of peace, democracy, prosperity and human, social and cultural understanding…. in a renewed partnership for progress.” This same ambition, I do not doubt, helps motivate Hoffman and Cole’s treatment of the past. To harness history to the needs of the present: this has always been one of the duties of the historian, a duty Hoffman and Cole fulfill as admirably and responsibly as did the scholars they are writing about. (Which is not to say that the resulting histories are the only ones possible, or that citizens of the Geniza would feel at home were they to wake up in their pages. I doubt that the elderly Maimonides—who wrote of Judaism under Islam as “dead” and “ailing,” and saw in the communities of Christian Europe “our only hope for help”—would have described his world in Goitein’s terms of liberal symbiosis.)

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