From Cairo to Córdoba: The Story of the Cairo Geniza
But political worries are not the only (or even the principle) ones that surface in Hoffman and Cole’s exploration of previous explorations of this past. Another seems to be what we might call the status anxiety of the historian: granted that historians are “resurrecting” the past, in what way do they participate in the immortality they create? Of those who (like himself) restored the Hebrew poetry of the Geniza, Ezra Fleischer rather graphically wrote, “All these acts are the achievement of a dedicated host of scholars—early and later—great and less great, who devoted their lives to the study of the Geniza and wearied in their labor, sweating blood in their efforts to sort its treasures, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, their eyes weakening, their hairlines receding, and their backs and limbs giving out as they grew old and frail—each in his way and at his own pace.”
Hoffman and Cole’s commentary places more emphasis on questions of eternity: “Risking desiccation for an ultimate vitality, and anonymity for the sake of another’s name, the work of the Geniza’s redeemers…brings us back in uncanny fashion to the glory of ‘the famous’ whom…Ben Sira singles out for the highest praise—‘those who composed musical psalms, and set forth parables in verse.’” But they are too honest to leave toiling scholars among the famous. Their efforts, they continue, “also recall the fate of [those] a few verses later, ‘who have no memorial…and perished as though they had not been.’” What hope then, do historians have for eternity? Hoffman and Cole cite Ben Sira once more, speaking of those who “maintain the fabric of the world, and the practice of their craft is their prayer.” Through toil in the Geniza, scholars “become links in the chain of transmission…back to the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and from that spirit to its source. And so, in their way, they too partake of eternity.”
I have arrived at my only perplexity with this delightful book: I can’t quite understand what the authors mean by “eternity,” “fame,” “vitality,” “memory” or any of the other terms with which they try to evoke (rather than explain) what it is they think history should strive toward. Worse for me, I can’t shake the feeling that, for Hoffman and Cole, historical scholarship is desiccating unless aimed at some “ultimate vitality,” some higher end that infuses it with the vivifying force necessary to achieve a desired immortality. It seems that for them this end can in part be political. They often point, for example, to the progressive politics of their Geniza heroes on questions of Palestine. But it also seems that at its highest and most sublime, this “ultimate vitality,” this immortality, can only be poetic. History is demoted to a handyman whose calling is to restore lost links in the Hebrew literary canon. Clio, to shift metaphors, is reduced from a muse with her own rites to a priestess of Euterpe.
Being a historian and not a poet, I may perceive a hierarchy even where it is not intended, as in the comparison with which the authors describe the great historian Goitein’s first encounter with Geniza manuscripts:
This little handful of nine-hundred-year-old documents that had traveled the long distance from the Nile basin to behind the Iron Curtain would turn out to be for Goitein what the Archaic Torso of Apollo was for Rilke, an inanimate yet somehow living presence insisting: You must change your life.
The simile is stunning, and I would not lose a word. But it does reinforce my melancholy feeling that for the authors it is poetry and not history that animates the past. Or perhaps better put: that it is easier for them to fantasize the immortality of the poet than that of the historian. But why, I want to ask, do we need to fantasize either to celebrate the wonders of Geniza history?
“Let us now praise famous men/and our fathers in their generation,” wrote the poet Ben Sira, exhorting us to a form of piety that has often gone by the name of history. He went on to sharpen the ambivalence:
There are some that have left a name,
so that men declare their praise.
And there are some who have no name,
who have perished as though they had not lived.
Hoffman and Cole have raised the “fathers” of Geniza scholarship from the dust heap, and brought them to life as never before. So it seems slightly paradoxical that even as they do so they reinforce the notion that historians, unlike poets, perish as though they had not lived. Does the contradiction stem from their commitment to the continuity of a poetic tradition, or from the implausibility of any professional pretensions to eternity in our modernity? I do not know. What I can say with certainty is that Sacred Trash has made history beautiful and exciting. And yet I will still feel anxious every April 28.