The ProsenPeople

Interview: Chanan Tigay

Tuesday, December 06, 2016 | Permalink

with Daniel Estrin

For Jewish Book Month, Jewish Book Council spoke with Chanan Tigay about his debut book, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World's Oldest Bible, about the author’s quest to find a lost biblical manuscript, and to solve the historical riddle of its alleged forger, nineteenth-century Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira.

Daniel Estrin: Your book seeks to solve a real-life mystery of a lost ancient manuscript. How did you come across this story?

Chanan Tigay: I first heard of Moses Wilhelm Shapira from my father, a Bible scholar and rabbi who spent 15 years writing a commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy for the Jewish Publication Society. We were sitting around the Shabbat table one Friday night. I’m a journalist, and I started talking about some articles I had recently written—they had discovered Noah’s Ark again, which seems to happen at least annually. It was a team of Chinese Evangelicals this time, and they had come out with the news that they discovered wooden beams that had been a portion of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. It became a big story in the news, as it tends to be, and then within days, of course, a guy who had been a part of the expedition came forward and admitted that it was all a hoax. I was telling my family about some articles I had written about all this, and the interviews I was doing. When I was finished, my dad said, “Hey, speaking of Biblical hoaxes, there was this guy named Shapira who in 1883 showed up at the doorstep of the British Museum claiming to have the oldest copy of a portion of the Bible in the world.” And then he went on to tell the story in fairly light detail, because he knew the general outlines but he was not an expert on the case. Like many bible scholars, he knew the contours of the story—which immediately attracted me.

DE: That led to a four-year quest to solve the case. At what point did you decide to write a book about it?

CT: Initially, I was just interested in it the way I might be interested in astronomy. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to write about it. But being a journalist and a writer, there’s always that spark when you hear something interesting that gets you thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a good story.” And the more I dug, the more I realized this story had endless, unexpected twists and turns. At that point, I realized I could write something about this, but the initial thought was that it would be an article about the case. Very gradually, I came to the idea that it might actually be a book. I think that happened when I came to the realization that I wanted to hunt down Shapira’s missing Deuteronomy manuscript. At that point, it sort of solidified itself as an idea for a book.

DE: What has been the prevailing wisdom about Shapira's scrolls and why did you doubt it?

The prevailing wisdom pretty much until today had been that Shapira himself had forged the manuscript of Deuteronomy—a very odd manuscript, I should add, with many, many variant readings from the traditional text of Deuteronomy, including a shuffling of the Ten Commandments, and the addition of a new commandment. The idea was that Shapira had forged this manuscript; that he tried to sell it to the British Museum; that he had been caught; that, humiliated over having been caught, he had killed himself; and then, once that happened, that the manuscript had made its way to Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s auctioned it off: it was purchased by a British book dealer named Bernard Quarich, and Quarich, it was believed, sold the manuscript to an English-Australian nobleman named Sir Charles Nicholson. Nicholson lived in Australia, but at the end of his life lived in the north of London. His large estate burned down in 1899, and, the thinking went, the great likelihood was that Shapira’s manuscripts went up in flames along with the rest of Nicholson’s home.

The more research I did, the more it seemed to me that this theory was, at best, unlikely—or that I could think of other possibilities of what had happened to Shapira’s scrolls that were at least as likely if not more so.

DE: There are other detectives out there who have been on this hunt, too. You mention a particularly dedicated one, an Israeli documentary filmmaker named Yoram Sabo. Why did you think you could find answers when others hadn't?

CT: Initially, I didn’t. When I first met Yoram Sabo and he put out the faint possibility that he and I might work together, my instinct was to go for it. Because I felt like he had a 30-year head start on me, and there was no way I was ever going to catch up to him, that’s just seemed impossible. This guy was the Shapiramaniac as far as I could tell. He’d been searching for three decades at that point and so I didn’t think I was likely to be the one to find it. So I wanted to work with him. And ultimately that didn’t work out, so I was left with two possibilities: one was to quit, and the other was to say, hey, if he hasn’t found it in 30 years, maybe he’s not going to find it, and maybe what I need to do is start looking for different approaches, different angles from which to search, angles no one else has tried before.

DE: You traveled to seven countries, across four continents over the course of four years. Sometimes you wondered whether a trip was a "colossal waste." You mention "grasping at straws," and a "series of extreme long shots." Trip after trip, and archive after archive, led to a lot of dead ends. I found myself wondering: did you ever lose faith that you would find anything?

CT: I did, for sure. Here’s the thing: you’re right in saying it was dead end after dead end. But the other side of that was, each one of those dead ends taught me something new. Even if it was a tiny little new fact, often times it gave me some new insight, some new avenue that I thought I could follow up, that maybe then would hold out the hope of making a great discovery in the end. And so, even though stop after stop I didn’t find what I was looking for—and yes, that was extremely frustrating, because I wanted to find it, because I was spending time and money trying to find it, and because I had a publishing house waiting for this book that wanted me to find it, so there was a lot of stress and a lot of weight on my shoulders—I was always learning something new and potentially important.

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Daniel Estrin is an American journalist in Jerusalem. He has reported on archaeology for The Associated Press, NPR and The New Republic.

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The Best Books about Jerusalem from Memoir, Fiction, and the Bible

Thursday, April 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Chanan Tigay shared his 5 favorite books to re-read. With the release of The Lost Book of Moses: The Search for the World’s Oldest Bible, Chanan is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I am an American, Jerusalem-born.

Which is to say that, while my parents—born in Buffalo and Detroit, respectively—spent a Sabbatical in the Holy City a few decades back, I happened. Ever since, Jerusalem has maintained a powerful grip on my imagination. I love the mix of old and new, east and west, Arab and Jew. I love the hidden alleyways. I love the hidden history. And I’m fascinated by the history that’s not so hidden—the ancient walls, the bullet-scarred buildings. And the hummus—I’d move to Jerusalem just to eat lunch each Friday at Pinati.

I can get around Jerusalem without a GPS, know where to have copies of my keys made, and still refer to the Inbal Hotel as it was previously called: the Laromme.

I thought I knew a lot about the city. But in writing my new book, which is set in part in Jerusalem of the nineteenth century, I realized there was much I did not know. According to the archaeologist Eric H. Cline, the much-contested City of Peace has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times, and captured and recaptured 44 times. Squeezing onto the Number 4 bus at 9:00 on a Sunday morning, it can sometimes feel like every day in Jerusalem is a microcosm of the city’s tumultuous history—a series of small battles to be faced down and overcome. But strolling the street s of Rehavia on Shabbat, it’s hard to imagine a more peaceful spot on earth.

Jerusalem has always been, and remains, dynamic—it is a symbol, yes, but also a strategic asset. A beacon on the hill, and also a bunker. And no matter how much I think I know about the city of my birth, there is always more to learn.

In that vein, here are three of my favorite books about Jerusalem:

A Tale of Love and Darkness: Although Amos Oz’s classic memoir is not strictly about Jerusalem (as a young man, Oz leaves Jerusalem for a kibbutz), the City of Peace is the stage upon which the unforgettable drama of the author’s difficult childhood plays out, complete with cameos by literary luminaries like S. Y. Agnon and Shaul Tchernichovsky. This isn’t an easy book, but it’s a beautiful one—training its unparalleled lens on Jerusalem as the British Mandate came to its end and the State of Israel emerged in its place.

The Book of Kings: Although archaeological remains of Jerusalem’s past are a constant feature of its present—walk through Jerusalem for an hour and try not to stumble over some relic or site of historical value—there’s one important spot where that’s not the case: Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. We’ve got its western retaining wall, of course, but that’s about it. If you’re interested in conjuring a vision of what the Temple looked like way back when, though, the best place to start is the Bible’s Book of Kings. The writing’s not quite Amos Oz (The porch in front of the nave of the house was twenty cubits in length, corresponding to the width of the house, and its depth along the front of the house was ten cubits…) but it’s full of specifics.

KeCheres HaNishbar: Shulamit Lapid’s wonderful fictional treatment of Moses Wilhelm Shapira, the Jerusalem antiquities dealer at the heart of my own nonfiction book. Shapira was a highly complex man—at once obsequious and pompous, honest and deceitful, loving and self-centered, brilliant and naïve, Jewish and Christian, European and Middle Eastern—and Lapid captures him with style and sophistication.

Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

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Chanan Tigay's Top 5 Books to Re-Read

Monday, April 11, 2016 | Permalink

With the release of The Lost Book of Moses: The Search for the World’s Oldest Bible from HarperCollins tomorrow, author Chanan Tigay is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

There’s an old joke that goes something like this: Gentiles leave, but never say goodbye; Jews say goodbye, but never leave. When it comes to Jews and their books, at least, I think there’s some truth here.

Indeed, among the aspects of Jewish tradition that most appeal to me is our tendency to read the same books over and over—and over. We read the entire Torah through once each year. And when we finish, we don’t waste a single moment—as soon as Deuteronomy’s done, we roll immediately back to “In the beginning.” Tradition wants us always to be in the middle of a good book. Last month we read Esther twice. This month we’ll do the same with the Haggadah. Eicha, or Lamentations: once a year. Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes: once a year. Song of Songs: once a year (unless you go to one of those shuls that reads it once a week).

We may leave our books for a while, but we never say goodbye.

As a writer, this repetitive reading appeals to me. Indeed, there are a number of books I return to year-in, year-out for inspiration, instruction, or pure enjoyment. My familiarity with them offers a great sense of well-being as I read and re-read. Opening their pages for the umpteenth time, these books make me feel like I’ve come home. “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it,” Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) tells us of the Torah. “Everything” is not to be found in the books that I turn over and over. Still, with each turn, I feel that I gain some new insight. If I’m stuck in my own writing, they may offer a path forward. If I’m spent, they may inspire. If I’ve already seen that day’s Sports Center twice, they offer entertainment.

They’re not all Jewish books per se. But the act of reading and re-reading them feels to me profoundly Jewish. And so: my Top 5 Books for Re-Reading here, in no particular order:

Barney’s Version: This is Mordecai Richler’s last, and (to my mind) best novel. Cranky, funny, inventive, touching, hockey-obsessed (of course), and did I say funny? Richler seems always to be left out when critics invoke the pantheon of great twentieth-century North American Jewish writers. I can’t understand it. To my mind he’s at, or near, the very top. It’s arguable, of course. But for me, that list should include Richler, along with Roth, Ozick, Malamud, Bellow, and Paley.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Katherine Boo’s real-life portrait of life in a Mumbai slum is so psychologically astute that, to use a backhanded compliment I hate, it reads just like a novel. And it’s not just beautiful and perceptive: it changed the way I think about poverty.

Among the Thugs: Bill Buford’s harrowing and hilarious account of his years infiltrating England’s soccer hooligans. There is no more perceptive writer on matters of mob violence and lager, athletic spectacle and gastric heroism—and none funnier. And his sentences: no one else writes sentences like these, so alive the pages crackle. Buford is sui generis, a term most of the characters in this book would not know.

Holy Days: In this powerful nonfiction tale about life inside the ultra-Orthodox community, Lis Harris writes with deep insight, keen observation, and sly humor about what was, when the project began, a world with which she was deeply unfamiliar. Harris serves as the reader’s proxy, alternately receptive and skeptical—and riding shotgun on her journey is as enlightening as it is entertaining.

The Lost City of Z: David Grann is a top-notch reporter and a dynamic writer, but above all, he’s a storyteller of the first order. Whether he’s writing about a man (wrongly?) convicted of arson, an art sleuth, or, as in this book, the search for a mythical Amazonian city, you simply can’t not be interested. Like the fearsome animals that lurk in rivers forged by the book’s explorers, Grann yanks you in and never lets go.

Chanan Tigay is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Middle East, 9/11, and the United Nations for numerous magazines, newspapers, and wires. He is a professor of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University.

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