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30 Days, 30 Authors: Matti Friedman, winner of the Natan Book Award

Thursday, December 07, 2017 | Permalink

Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

This week, we are featuring the finalists and winner of the Natan Book Award at Jewish Book Council

Today, Matti Friedman, winner of the 2018 Natan Book Award at the Jewish Book Council for his forthcoming book Spies of No Country (Fall, 2018) and the author of  The Aleppo Codex and Pumpkinflowers, writes about a newly translated book that you should be reading. 

I thought I’d dedicate these few words to a (dead) Jewish writer and a (very much alive) translator, and a new co-production of theirs that’s worth attention.

The great French novelist Romain Gary was once well-known in America, but has been largely forgotten since his suicide in Paris in 1980. Gary, who flew with the Free French air force in WWII and went on to write a series of celebrated books that made him a major literary figure at home and abroad, was a fascinating and slippery character. He wrote a famous work (The Life Before Us) in the voice of an Arab orphan and under a pseudonym, Emile Ajar, denying that he was the writer and employing someone else to pretend to be Ajar. He worked with an American translator, John Markham Beech, who didn’t exist, and was none other than Gary himself. And though a patriot and cultural champion of France, Gary was born a Lithuanian Jew named Roman Kacew.

Due in part to legal and family complications — a specialty of Gary’s — his last and perhaps best book, The Kites, was never translated into English. It did appear in Israel in a Hebrew translation, however, and became wildly popular; this is the version that I read. It is a knowing, sad, and sweet book about a French peasant boy’s love for a girl, and for France, during the years when Normandy was occupied by the Nazis.

The writer and translator Miranda Richmond Mouillot (A Fifty-Year Silence), who has spent many years in a village in rural France, happened upon Gary’s book, was smitten, and set out to solve the legal puzzle that would allow a translation to proceed. (The story, which Mouillot told me when I met her in Paris in 2014, could be a book in itself.) The result, just published in October by New Directions, is wonderful. Mouillot’s work perfectly captures Gary’s mix of romantic memory and sharp but sympathetic observations of human nature.

Gary didn’t play up his Jewish sensibilities. But they’re present here for anyone looking — in the character of an earthy and resourceful Parisian madame, for example, and in the book’s strange and abrupt ending with an expression of admiration for the real-life pastor André Trocmé, who saved Jewish children in the war in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Whether you’ve been waiting 37 years for this translation to finally appear, or whether you’re hearing Gary’s name for the first time, The Kites should be high on your reading list.

2018 Natan Book Award Winner Matti Friedman

Monday, November 13, 2017 | Permalink

Matti Friedman’s 2016 book Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story was chosen as a New York Times' Notable Book and as one of Amazon's 10 best books of the year. His first book, The Aleppo Codex, won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize, the ALA Sophie Brody Medal, and other awards, and was translated into seven languages. Matti’s work as a reporter has taken him from Israel to Lebanon, Morocco, Moscow, the Caucasus, and Washington, DC, and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and elsewhere. He is a former Associated Press correspondent and a regular contributor to Tablet Magazine. He was born in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem with his family.

Matti's manuscript, Spies of No Country, winner of the 2018 Natan Book Award at the Jewish Book Council, is an account of the exploits of a small group of men who became Israel's first spies. The members of the "Arab Section" were Jews from Arab countries with blurry identities that enabled them to cross ethnic lines during wartime. Their story offers a very different take on Israel's creation and on what the country is today. It will be published in Fall 2018 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

See the full list of Natan Book Award awardees here.

Why Be Jewish? | Matti Friedman

Wednesday, October 05, 2016 | Permalink

For the first week of the year 5777, Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series features writers who were touched by Edgar M. Bronfman, z”l, and his dedication to Jewish life the world over. Read more about Edgar M. Bronfman’s vision and legacy in his final book, Why Be Jewish?: A Testament.

When I was 16, along with two dozen other kids who had just finished 11th grade, I went to Israel on the Bronfman Youth Fellowship. I spent that summer of 1994 laughing, arguing, and talking, talking, talking with the others, including some who are still my dearest friends today. We shut up only to sleep for a few hours every night, and to sit still as a small cadre of sensitive teachers, people gifted with patience for the tiring and tiresome 16-year-olds we were, carefully inserted some very good ideas into our unformed brains, showed us some valuable texts and places, and generally treated us with more respect than we deserved.

This was one of the crucial occurrences in my life, but that wasn’t clear to my 16-year-old self. For all I knew, maybe when you grew up every summer was like this. Of course there hasn’t been anything like it since.

The thinking that brought me to Israel as a teenager originated in, of all places, the mind of a tough Canadian-born baron of commerce, Edgar Bronfman, who died in 2013. It was the result of a long and strange journey for Edgar, the conclusions of which are laid out in his last book, Why Be Jewish? Reading the book as an adult, I appreciated anew that the ideas I now take for granted actually came from the program he created and the teachers he chose—the idea that that “tough questioning, skepticism, and outright rebellion are at the very heart of Judaism,” that Jewish life is a tapestry with many threads, and that faith isn’t the only one or even the most important one, and that ignoring this tapestry would be a grievous loss not for Judaism, whatever that is, but for me.

When I was 16, or even 26, I didn’t devote much thought to the fact that someone like Edgar would think that teenagers he’d didn’t know were worth his time and money. Now that strikes me as incredible, and as one possible response to the challenge in this book’s title. Why be Jewish? I’m not someone who has a good answer to that question. But one might be found in my discovery at 16 that Jewish life was a kind of life where some distant person who had never met me—someone like Edgar Bronfman, or a rabbi who lived in Egypt or Germany 1,000 years ago—cared for some reason about what I thought, and who I’d grow up to be.

The full name of Edgar’s program was the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. Edgar was a New Yorker and wasn’t interested in Zionist indoctrination or aliyah; his program could have been in the Catskills. But it wasn’t, and for me the last word ended up being the most important, my escape hatch from the question of Edgar’s title and its existential anxiety. That summer I found a living, shouting, cursing society where Judaism—or some hybrid version livelier than any I knew—had somehow become a mainstream culture, where Jewish life had been disconnected from money and class and intellect, where that tiresome hyphen (American-Jewish, Jewish-American) had been annihilated. It was a place where “Why be Jewish?” was a question that made no sense, or as much sense as “Why be Chinese?” would make in China. Why would people in China not be Chinese? After that summer I made a brief visit home to finish high school, came back to Israel when I was 17, and stayed.

Why Be Jewish? displays Edgar’s restless mind and his concern for young people who are grappling with angry questions, as he did in his unhappy synagogue in Montreal as a child, and reaching the wrong conclusions as he did. The book makes clear his determination to make a difference in the world, and reflects his fear that without good answers to the question of the title, the days of non-Orthodox Judaism in the Diaspora are numbered. At the book’s close, the author, aware that the end is near, offers thanks for a life lived in conversation and argument with Jewish ideas. But he doesn’t leave it there, because the book isn’t about him or for him. He would be even more thankful, he writes, if the reader finds a way into a shared tradition that “champions the questioner and doesn’t scorn the doubter,” and picks up where he left off.

Matti Friedman is a Jerusalem-based journalist and the author of Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story and The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of the Ancient Bible, which won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Matti Friedman

Wednesday, December 02, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Matti Friedman’s work as a reporter has taken him from Lebanon to Morocco, Cairo, Moscow and Washington, D.C., and to conflicts in Israel and the Caucasus. He grew up in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem. The Aleppo Codex, his first book, was published in May 2012 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature, was selected as one of Booklist’s top ten religion books of the year, was awarded the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for history, and was a finalist in the Religion Newswriters Association’s award for best book of the year. Editions have been published or are pending in Israel, Australia, Holland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Russia and South Korea. 

 His second book, Pumpkinflowers: A War Story, will be published by Algonquin Books in April, 2016.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Matti Friedman

Monday, October 14, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next several weeks, we're giving you the opportunity to get to know this year's Sami Rohr Prize finalists and hopefully, in the process, add a few books to your reading list. Last week, Sarah Bunin Benor, author of Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism, wrote about studying in her college library and how it changed the course of her career

Today we hear from Matti Friedman, author of The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible (Algonquin Books). Last year, Matti guest blogged for our Visiting Scribe series and, among other things, discussed the codex versus the Kindle.

Before we begin, a description of the Aleppo Codex in Matti's own words (from our Twitter Book Club in 2012):

@MattiFriedman: The Crown is in the gallery underneath the scrolls, which are like the Lady Gaga of ancient Hebrew manuscripts #JLit

@MattiFriedman: In that analogy, the Crown is like an awesome indie band that only cool people know about #JLit

Below, Matti shares the book that helped inspire him to write non-fiction, offers an annotated list of book recommendations, and imagines his future granddaughter:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

The hardest part of writing a good piece of narrative non-fiction – and also the most gratifying part, when it works – is creating a story with the power to draw readers in and drag them along to the very end, but at the same time remaining faithful to a level of journalism that would stand up to rigorous fact-checking. You're trying to achieve something like the effect of a novel without the novelist’s tools of imagined scenes, characters and dialogue.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

Twelve years ago or so I picked up a book from one of my parents’ bookshelves, and it was River Town, an account by Peter Hessler of a Peace Corps tour in a city on the Yangtze. It helped me understand that if you were good enough, you might be able to have adventures and explore the world and then spin those experiences into stories that would be valuable to other people. I was reporting before that, but Hessler’s book made a big impression.

Who is your intended audience?

Smart people.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m working on a new non-fiction project about which I’m still being cagey, beyond saying that it’s about Israel but not about the Six-Day War, settlers, or Mossad agents.

What are you reading now?

Promise and Fulfillment, Arthur Koestler’s book from 1949 about the birth of Israel. It’s amazing to see how things looked so early on without the benefit of hindsight or perspective. When he looks ahead from that moment in time, the things he gets wrong are at least as interesting as the many things he gets right.

Five books you love to recommend

This week it would be, in no particular order:

  • The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussel’s book about the writing of World War I and how four horrific years rewired our collective brain in really interesting ways.
  • O Jerusalem, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. A bit dated, but still a gripping work of journalism about my city.
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. John le Carré’s masterpiece. Enough to make you miss the Cold War.
  • The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. That is a guy with jet fuel in his pen.
  • Genesis. For ideas, plot, character, and sheer power and economy of language, still pretty much unmatchable. There are public readings of it every week for the next few months at your local synagogue. Check it out.

  • When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

    I don’t remember. But in my 8th-grade yearbook from Dublin Heights Middle School in Toronto, underneath a very nerdy picture of me, it says, “What I want to be when I grow up.” Next to that it says, “Journalist.”

    What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

    I don't think I've ever considered that question. Like a lot of people who write, I mostly just want to be able to keep writing. Maybe the mountaintop would be my granddaughter looking up from a book in 45 years or so with a surprised expression and saying – Saba, this isn’t bad.

    How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

    I've been reporting on and off since I was 19, and I have filed stories while crouched by sockets in dark hallways and riding on crowded buses with elbows in my ribs. I once scribbled a story on the back of a military rifle target sitting on the ground, then shouted it to an editor over a bad cell connection. A few years of that kind of thing beats the need for talismans out of you. Give me a quiet room and a door my kids can’t open, and I’m set.

    What do you want readers to get out of your book?

    I want them to say: I didn’t know that, and I can’t put this down.

    Matti Friedman has been a correspondent for the Associated Press, where he specialized in religion and archaeology in Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as for the Jerusalem Report and the Times of Israel. The Aleppo Codex, his first book, was published in May 2012 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. It was selected as one of Booklist’s top ten religion books of the year, was awarded the American Library Association’s 2013 Sophie Brody Medal and the 2013 Canadian Jewish Book Award for history, and won second place in the Religion Newswriters Association's award for best religion book of 2013. He grew up in Toronto and lives in Jerusalem.

    The Dangers of Nice

    Friday, July 20, 2012 | Permalink
    Earlier this week Matti Friedman, a reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex, wrote about the codex vs. the Kindle and provided a mini-lesson on Jews from Arab Lands. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    Aleppo Codex (Deut)

    When I set out to write the story of the Aleppo Codex, I imagined that I would be writing an uplifting narrative about how a sacred book was rescued and returned home from the Diaspora to Jerusalem. It was, judging from the information I had at my disposal at the outset, a nice story. But that turned out not to be the case; the existing information was scant, ridden with omissions and often purposely misleading. The reasons for this turned out to be linked to important events in the codex’s recent past, and are, I believe, interesting and instructive for readers of history, and especially of Jewish history.

    In 2008, when I started my own project after happening upon the codex at the Israel Museum, only one book had been written about this manuscript, the most important in Judaism and one of the most important in the world. This book was in Hebrew, and had been published in the 1980s by the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, the academic body that is the manuscript’s official custodian. While I was working on my book, a second came out, this one in English, written by two American scholars and published by the venerable Jewish Publication Society.

    The official story of the Aleppo Codex’s fascinating and tangled history in the twentieth century posited that it had been damaged around the time of an anti-Jewish riot in Aleppo in 1947, leading to the disappearance of 200 of its priceless pages; was hidden in Syria for ten years; and was then smuggled to Israel on the orders of the rabbis of Aleppo’s Jewish community and given to Israel’s second president, Itzhak Ben-Zvi, whose academic institute is still in charge of the manuscript to this day. This is the narrative I knew at the beginning.

    In truth, I found in several years of research, very little of this was true. The codex ended up in the hands of the state of Israel through a series of complicated maneuvers by state authorities – the codex was effectively seized using agents who intercepted a Syrian courier in Turkey. The state protected itself by putting forward a false version of events at a subsequent trial in Jerusalem, records of which were then suppressed. And the striking damage to the codex – some 40 percent of it is missing, including the Torah itself – does not date to the 1947 riot, as the official version would have us believe. The codex was seen whole much later. In fact, there is no evidence that anything significant was missing when it reached Israel in 1957, a fact that was highly awkward and was thus covered up.

    The professors at the prestigious, government-funded Ben-Zvi Institute could not publish that story, because it would embarrass the state and because the institute also had to hide a rather shocking and long-concealed scandal in its manuscript collection. The historians were torn between two roles – they were academic scholars whose job it was to tell the truth, of course, but they were also protectors of Israel’s official narrative, of its institutions and leaders. In the story of the codex these roles could not be reconciled, so they chose the latter. The writer they employed to author their book about the codex was, perhaps tellingly, a novelist, a sweet-tempered man who lacked a journalist’s nose for dirt and who was then ably manipulated and censored by the academics who controlled the codex and its story.

    A reader of that book will find no indication that anyone did anything untoward or was less than entirely honest. There are no agents in Turkey, no lies, no theft, and only the briefest references to a trial. It was a kind of Jewish history acceptable to those who need to be reassured that everyone, especially in Israel, is quite decent and that things are fairly straightforward; the acrobatic exertions that were necessary to turn the true story of the Aleppo Codex into a nice one are evident to an informed reader. As an example of historical writing, it was a travesty.

    The key figure in the seizure of the Aleppo Codex by the state of Israel was an Aleppo Jew, Murad Faham, a cheese merchant who risked his life to smuggle the manuscript out of Syria in 1957. Documents and transcripts of the time make clear that Faham had been instructed to take the manuscript to a specific Aleppo-born rabbi in Israel; the Aleppo Jews would never have dreamed of letting it out of their community and did not think the state of Israel had any claim to it. Instead, Faham turned it over to Israeli state authorities and then gave a different version of his original instructions in court. The documentary record on this key part of the story is conclusive.

    Yet the second book on the codex, the Jewish Publication Society’s 2010 version in English, gives a version of these events that does not tell that story. The one it does tell is contradicted by the court transcripts and other documents. Inconvenient details are glossed over or omitted altogether. The reason for this is not complicated: Though it does not say this explicitly anywhere, the authors were given money by Faham’s family, and the family, in turn, was given a veto over the content. (One of the authors and the donor told me this in separate interviews.) The result, as in the first book, was a kind of history that had been airbrushed in order to offend the minimum number of people.

    And so it happened that in the year 2012, the incredible, uncomfortable story of Judaism’s most important book had never been told before – it had fallen victim to a Jewish weakness for telling nice stories about ourselves.

    I have two thoughts on this. First, I must admit, I’m glad – all of this left me, quite unexpectedly, with the kind of story every reporter dreams of stumbling on. And second, it has made me a more suspicious reader of history, and especially of Jewish history. What else, I now find myself wondering, do I not know?

    Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.

    A Hidden History

    Wednesday, July 18, 2012 | Permalink

    Earlier this week Matti Friedmana reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex, wrote about the codex vs. the Kindle. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    Having just spent four years on a book about the biblical manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex, I can say with some certainty that some of the most important things I learned had nothing to do with the codex at all, but rather with the people who guarded it. I came to think of this as a hidden history behind events in the Middle East.

    The Jewish community of Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria where this manuscript was kept in a synagogue for six centuries, was one of the communities we sometimes think of – to the extent that we think of them at all – as belonging to the lands of Islam. But Islam came to those places only long after the Jews were already there; the Aleppo Jews, for example, were in the city roughly a millennium before Muhammad preached in Arabia and before his adherents arrived in Syria. In Aleppo, and in many cities throughout the Middle East, the Jews were natives in a way that those of us of European descent, with our transient ancestors, can hardly imagine.

    On November 30, 1947, mobs in Aleppo incensed by the UN vote to partition Palestine the previous day attacked the city’s Jews. I interviewed people who remembered the rioters torching synagogues, making piles of Hebrew manuscripts, prayer shawls and phylacteries and setting them alight. Like a different wave of riots in Europe nine years before, this one was a harbinger of the end for a Jewish way of life: Today, Jewish Aleppo has vanished; its residents were among the 850,000 Jews forced out of their ancestral homes in Islamic countries.

    Two Jewish worlds came to an end in the 1940s. We are familiar with the first, which many of us think of simply as the Jewish world: Jewish humor, Jewish cuisine, Jewish writing – all of these terms apply, in North American parlance, to the Jews of Europe. The Jewish world of the Middle East included fewer people and ended in less cataclysmic circumstances. But it was just as Jewish and just as important, and it is just as gone.

    In discussing the modern state of Israel, the Jews of the Middle East are often mentioned as a kind of curiosity, an aside in what we tell as Aleppo-Jewish201914a European story – pogroms, Herzl, Zionism, the Holocaust. In this story, Jews and Arabs first encountered each other in the late nineteenth century; we imagine the Russian-born pioneer encountering the Arab fellah on the rocky soil of Palestine. But that isn’t true, and the Jews who had always lived in the Middle East are not a footnote.

    When Islam began in Arabia, Jews were there, and when the first Muslims began spreading to cities across the Mideast, they found Jews there as well. Jews were recognized by Islam as a protected, second-class ethnic group, dhimmi, sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated. They were generally considered to be effete and without honor. In recent years it has become common to speak of the Muslim Middle East as a haven in which Jews thrived, but this is nonsense; the Islamic world owes its good reputation in this regard to Europeans, who set a standard for mistreatment that is impossible to match.

    Jews had existed in the Muslim imagination for many centuries by the time the first Zionists arrived in the Middle East, and the place they occupied in that imagination made the Zionist project problematic in ways that are still playing out. Jews were inferior to Muslims by definition. They were weak, a subject community, and that made their success in Palestine impossible to accept: Being beaten and outsmarted by a powerful empire like Britain or France was one thing. Being beaten and dominated by Jews – as Arabs were, again and again, before 1948 and in subsequent wars – was a humiliation that simply could not be accepted. It was like being beaten by a girl. The depth of this humiliation, which lies at the root of today’s conflict, is something Israel and its supporters have too often failed to appreciate.

    The dissonance between the very old Muslim perception of the Jew and the reality of the twentieth century came to be explained in the Arab world by turning to conspiracy theories. Jews could not have beaten Muslims fairly; they were nefarious, and here Europeans had plenty of material they were happy to share, and which was translated into Arabic and still enthusiastically circulates across the Middle East. (I have encountered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion at otherwise normal bookstores in Istanbul and Cairo and in an academic bookstore adjacent to the prestigious American University of Beirut.)

    YemeniJewBy the 1950s, most of the Jews of the Middle East were concentrated in Israel, and they played a central role in forging the national life of the country. And yet it has been convenient for all parties, Israelis included, to describe Israel as a European enclave. For Israelis, this claim allows them a sense of superiority. For the Arabs, it allows the erasure of the fate of their own Jewish communities and enables them to portray Israel as a Western invader. It has become cliché, for example, to note that hummus and falafel and other Middle Eastern foods that Israelis consider to be Israeli are in fact a native cuisine appropriated by newcomers. This only makes sense if you don’t understand that fully 50 percent of Israel’s Jews are the people who were kicked out of Islamic countries or their descendants – the cuisine of the Mideast, of course, belongs to them and their countrymen as much as it does to anyone else. When we look at Israel and its neighbors, and at the last Jewish century, we would benefit by restoring this missing history to its place – right at the center of the story.

    Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.

    Codex vs. Kindle

    Monday, July 16, 2012 | Permalink

    Matti Friedman is a reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

    Although it fell, in retrospect, at the mid-point between the launch of the Kindle and the Kindle 2, I don’t think I had more than a vague notion of what a Kindle was on the day in the summer of 2008 when I first descended into a dark room at Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem and, standing in front of a dimly lit display case, encountered its exact opposite.

    I spent much of the next four years writing the story of the object I found in the museum, a manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex – a millennium-old bundle of animal skins that is the oldest and most accurate copy of the entire Hebrew Bible. In these years I was not cut off entirely from the march of technology. I acquired an iPod, and learned to send e-mail from my cellphone. But I never purchased a Kindle or any of its cousins, nor did I fully understand what they augured.

    The Aleppo Codex is a book, one of the most important on earth. I wrote a book about this book. These things seemed clear to me, but when my deadline passed and I finally looked up to find myself staring into the dead electronic eye of the Kindle Fire, I saw that the meaning of “book” had been altered and that I had just spent these years of revolution engrossed in a mirror image of the present.

    To prepare the Aleppo Codex, tanners scrubbed, stretched and cut animal hides into folios that were stitched together by craftsmen. Someone scored a grid of lines onto the pages with a sharp instrument, and a scribe, Shlomo Ben-Buya’a, from the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, used iron gall ink to write the Bible’s more than 300,000 Hebrew words one by one. Its completion around 930 A.D. after years of work represented the final condensation of the Hebrew Bible from an ancient oral tradition to a codified text in black ink on parchment – a book. The codex crowned centuries of scholarship and was meant to be the perfect version of the twenty-four books that made up the Bible, a kind of physical incarnation of the heavenly text in a single manuscript. For Jews, every letter and vowel sound in the Hebrew text is crucial – according to one tradition, the entire Torah is one long version of God’s name, which is another way of saying you do not want to get anything wrong. The codex sanctified, even fetishized, the act of reading: above and below the letters were tiny hooks, lines and circles denoting vowels, punctuation and the precise notes to which the words were to be chanted in synagogue. It was an object of nearly unimaginable value to the people who revered it.

    Aleppo-HighRes2-Neviim4b-Kings2An electronic book exists in an infinite number of copies; there is no original. The Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, existed only in its original five-hundred-page manuscript. There were no copies at all, and for this reason its physical safety was always paramount. In 1099, it was held in a Jerusalem synagogue when the First Crusade arrived under Duke Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond, Count of Toulouse. The crusaders sacked the city, massacred its inhabitants, and seized property. According to a Muslim historian, they burned a synagogue with Jews inside, but historical records also inform us that the Christians saved hundreds of Jewish books to hold for ransom. The Jews’ weakness in this regard was well known, and in some of the correspondences of the time it seems their concern for the stolen books was so great that it rivaled their concern for human captives. The books, each one painstakingly copied, like the codex, by hand, contained priceless and sometimes irreplaceable information. After Jerusalem fell, the Jewish community in Fustat, next to Cairo, raised money and sent 123 dinars with an emissary and instructions to “redeem the Scrolls of the Torah and to [attend to] the ransoming of the people of God, who are in the captivity of the Kingdom of Evil, may God destroy it.” The books, in that sentence, came first.

    By 1947, the codex had been in a grotto in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, for six hundred years. For the Jews of Aleppo, it had become over time less a scholarly resource than a talisman, the community’s mystic power source and a guarantor of its survival: Traditions of great age and import made clear that if the book were ever moved the community would be destroyed. (This, old exiles from that vanished community never tired of telling me, might have sounded fanciful but it did come to pass.) It became as revered as a cathedral’s fragment of saintly hair or bone; even its individual pages, or pieces of pages, came to be seen as valuable. Few had ever seen it, and there were still no copies – requests from scholars abroad to purchase, borrow, or photograph the codex had been turned down by its keepers, the Aleppo elders, who appeared to believe that allowing copies to be made would dilute the book’s power and their own.

    Then came November 29th of that year, when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews. The next day, a mob rioted in Aleppo. The rioters burned Jewish homes and stores. They burned the synagogue. The codex disappeared.

    The Aleppo Codex “was devoured by fire in the riots that erupted against the Jews of Aleppo several weeks ago,” wrote a heartbroken Bible scholar in the Israeli daily Haaretz a few weeks later, in an article best described as an obituary for what he called “this beloved relic of the wisdom of the Middle Ages.” The codex wasn’t lost, it later turned out, but this was the meaning of a single book with no copies: the knowledge inside could be lost forever. Here, then, was a book – a single, physical book – that meant everything.

    Early this year, with my own book squared away, I attended a seminar with a wunderkind web designer who, as part of a PowerPoint presentation on the 21st-century media, showed us a picture of a cloud against a clear blue sky. “The book does not exist,” he declared. People nodded. The book, he said, was in a theoretical cloud somewhere, and all that existed now were the Kindles and iPads and Nooks and the other “gateways to the cloud.” The book had been a step on the evolutionary ladder from those ancient stories told aloud to information beamed invisibly around the world in an instant, available anywhere and present nowhere at all.

    My own book, thankfully, would still be a physical object printed, bound and placed on shelves. I suppose I’m too old – thirty-four – not to care about that. But it was no longer inconceivable that this would not be the case, that a book would have no pages of its own, no cover, that it would be nothing that could ever be kept in a safe, dismembered, kept as a lucky charm, coveted, pursued or stolen as the Aleppo Codex was.

    If this great Brontosaurus of a manuscript, in its glorious, inconvenient physicality, in the extreme and occasionally dark impulses it has elicited from men, has a role in this new world of clouds, perhaps it is to remind us, distracted as we are by the metallic gleam of gadgets, that the information inside a book can be the most important thing we possess: our power source, the guarantor of the survival of our human community. The library is, as Umberto Eco wrote in The Name of the Rose, the scene of a “centuries-old murmuring” among pages: “a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or been their conveyors.” Whether knowledge is encapsulated somehow in disembodied electrons or written on the skins of 10th-century Galilean livestock, the codex remains in its dark room in Jerusalem to remind us that this has not changed.

    Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.