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.