From Cairo to Córdoba: The Story of the Cairo Geniza

From Cairo to Córdoba: The Story of the Cairo Geniza

From Cairo to Córdoba: The Story of the Cairo Geniza

Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash offers a precious meditation on how the discovery of hidden hoards of history can transform our worlds.


April 28 is “Take Our Daughters to Work Day”: not a major holiday, but one that makes me anxious. What bothers me is not the principle or the task—I don’t have a daughter—but the more general question it poses to an earnest medieval historian like myself. What is my work? How can I make that work visible, its interest tangible? Since the early nineteenth century the artist’s studio has been a space of excited visitation—Eugène Delacroix’s Paris digs are an early example. But the solitary sitter in the historian’s study attracts no voyeurs. What thrill is to be found in hours of stillness, the occasional rustle of paper, the all too intermittent clicking of computer keys?

Some forms of spelunking in the past are more easily sold as exciting. Archaeology, for example, cloaked in the romanticism of discovery, can wield the whip of Indiana Jones. But the historian is a figure of boredom and untimeliness: remember, history is the vocation of the only ghost on the faculty of Hogwarts, a prof so absent-minded he fails to notice that he has died, droning spectrally on. If the making and the makers of history are so uninteresting, then what of the made? What claim does history, especially that of the distant past, have on our attention?

Few university professors write on such questions, perhaps because they have the privilege of working in institutions that do not demand the daily justification of their existence. Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole are not university professors; but they are scholars deeply learned in the past; intellectual activists passionately engaged with the present; and at the same time writers who live by their pen. They are, to coin a phrase, “public scholars,” which is also to say that they are among the last specimens of a species virtually extinguished by a modern world. The book they have just given us, Sacred Trash, is equally rare: a precious meditation on the ways in which the discovery of long-hidden hoards of history can transform our worlds, and a literary jewel whose pages turn like those of a well-paced thriller, but with all the chiseled elegance and flashes of linguistic surprise that we associate with poetry.

Buried treasure is what the book is about, albeit treasure of a peculiar kind. Hoffman and Cole tell the story of a closet, one that was 18 feet deep, 8 feet long and 6½ feet wide. The existence of this thousand-year-old closet in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Cairo was always in some way known by the synagogue’s congregants. But it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that Europeans stumbled upon its contents—hundreds of thousands of pieces of paper, parchment and papyrus written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Greek, Persian, Latin, Ladino, Yiddish, Syriac, Arabic, Coptic and even Chinese. (Still more textual material was found buried in the community’s courtyard and cemetery, with competing European agents acting like rival guilds of grave robbers.) The discovery necessitated a remapping of history that continues to this day.

Of course, burial does not treasure make. But in the case of our Cairo closet even the etymology of its Hebrew name points to something rare and strange. “Geniza” first enters Hebrew under Persian domination, and is perhaps borrowed from the Persian ganj (kanj): hoard, or hidden treasure. In the biblical books of Esther and Ezra, it means both the king’s treasuries and his archives, and both senses pass into the Hebrew of the Talmud, where it designates something stored up, or concealed away. But the Hebrew root is also used for the burial of human bodies, as when nignaz—“here lies hidden this man”—is written on gravestones; its Arabic cognate janazah means “funeral.” Within the semantic field of geniza, texts and bodies lie in such close proximity as to be indistinguishable.

* * *

The relationship between text and body holds in another sense as well. Just as the burial of corpses serves both to demonstrate piety for the deceased and to protect the living from the dead, so the burial of texts served a dual purpose. Some texts entered the Geniza for a well-earned rest, worn out by long service to the pious. Others were imprisoned there because they were feared to be heretical or corrupting. Still others, perhaps the vast majority (at least at the Ben Ezra Synagogue), were tossed in by force of habit, simply because they were penned, if not in the Holy Tongue, then in the Hebrew script with which the Jews of Egypt wrote so much of their Arabic (a mixture known in the trade as Judeo-Arabic). But as in the cemetery, no force of habit can exorcise the ambivalence (or double valence) of the Geniza’s task: “preserving good things from harm,” as one scholar put it, “and bad things from harming.” It is a place of both piety and danger. This ambivalence is nicely reflected in two venerable rumors (documented as early as 1488) about the Ben Ezra Geniza: that it contained a magical Torah scroll copied by none other than Ezra the Scribe, and that it was protected from prying eyes by a plethora of scorpions and a poison snake. Hoards require their dragons, even when the treasure is text.

In the event, the rumors turned out to be exaggerated, the second far more than the first. The Geniza’s first known European visitor, Heinrich Heine’s great-uncle Simon van Geldern, survived his visit in 1752, as his diary entry on that occasion makes clear: “I was in the Elijah synagogue and searched the Geniza.” Van Geldern mentions neither scrolls nor snakes (nor, for that matter, much of anything else besides giving baksheesh). A little more than a century later, in 1859, the Talmudist and traveler Jacob Safir was able to see the scroll of Ezra (which he did not deem genuine), but he “did not find any fiery serpents or scorpions, and no harm came to me, thank God.” As for Solomon Schechter, who “discovered” the Geniza in 1896 and claimed it for Cambridge University and scholarship, we have his own description of what he saw when he climbed up a ladder to peer down into this textual charnel house from its only opening, high up in a wall of the synagogue’s women’s gallery:

It is a battlefield of books, and the literary production of many centuries had their share in the battle, and their disjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by a general crush, are squeezed into big unshapely lumps…. These lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work, in which the very existence of either angels or devils is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behaviour and not interfere with Miss Jair’s love for somebody. The development of the romance is obscured by the fact that the last lines of the amulet are mounted on some I.O.U., or lease, and this in turn is squeezed between the sheets of an old moralist, who treats all attention to money affairs with scorn and indignation. Again, all these contradictory matters cleave tightly to some sheets from a very old Bible. This, indeed, ought to be the last umpire between them, but it is hardly legible without peeling off from its surface the fragments of some printed work which clings to old nobility with all the obstinacy and obtrusiveness of the parvenu.

Endless scribbling, but nary a snake in sight.

This does not mean that there were no dragons to be slain. One of the beauties of Sacred Trash is the way it shows us how each generation of Geniza scholars discovered its own monsters to tilt after in this trove. Solomon Schechter’s dragon was biblical criticism, and though he did not find a Torah scroll copied by Ezra the Scribe in his treasure, in the very first Geniza fragment he held in his hands he descried something almost as marvelous: the Hebrew text of a biblical book hitherto known only from its Greek translation, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a k a Ecclesiasticus.

From Ben Sira, Hoffman and Cole have selected an apt epigraph for their volume—“Hidden wisdom and concealed treasure, what is the use of either?”—but Schechter extracted something even more important from the ancient text: an argument against what he perceived to be the anti-Judaism of biblical scholarship in his day. Schechter was especially worried about a cutting-edge school of German scholarship, known as “source criticism” or “Higher Criticism,” that sought to reconstruct the history of how and when Scripture was produced, redacted and transmitted. It was not the tools of source criticism that worried him—he often used the same tools himself—but some of the uses to which they were put. According to Schechter, the “Higher Criticism” (which he sometimes called the “higher anti-Semitism”) became an attack on Judaism.

Julius Wellhausen, for example, is famous as the father of the “documentary hypothesis” (identifying several strands of authorship—the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly—and periods of composition for the Pentateuch), which dominated the scientific study of the Hebrew Bible until the late twentieth century. But one of the animating goals of his titanic scholarship was to prove that “there have never been more audacious inventors of history than the rabbins…. This evil propensity goes back to a very early time, its root the dominating influence of the Law, being the root of Judaism itself.” From this evil root (according to Wellhausen) the propensity only became more poisonous, so that after the destruction of the first temple in 587 BC “the warm pulse of life” had gone from Judaism. “The soul was fled; the shell remained.” There was no continuity, he wrote, between the religion of the Old Testament and the dead legalism of the Second Temple and its rabbinic descendants.

In the Wisdom of Ben Sira, Schechter thought he had found an antidote to Wellhausen’s poison: a late Second Temple text beloved by the early Talmud’s rabbis, yet spiritual in its moral engagements—far from the desiccated legalism with which Judaism was taxed by its Higher Critics, and even poetic in its praise of God:

All wisdom comes from the Lord
 and is with Him forever.
Who can number the sands of the sea,
 and the drops of rain, and the days of eternity?…
Who can find out the height of heaven,
 and the breadth of the earth, and the deep, and wisdom?

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.”

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.)

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.

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