Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

  • Review
By – August 29, 2011
Mys­te­ri­ous trav­el by steam­er and train. Piles of bak­shish paid for the priv­i­lege of crawl­ing through spaces filled with dust, mold, and excre­ment. Intrigue, claim, and counter-claim by out­sized per­son­al­i­ties and rival insti­tu­tions. I have to admit that I nev­er expect­ed to find these packed between the cov­ers of a book on the Cairo Geniza. But I did. Hoff­man and Cole, both acclaimed writ­ers, have done a great ser­vice to the hero­ic century’s worth of efforts expend­ed on what was a holy col­lec­tion of lit­ter. From it has been sal­vaged (so far) the recov­ery of price­less cor­re­spon­dence, poet­ry, his­to­ry, and reli­gious con­tro­ver­sy of far greater breadth and depth than the more famous finds at Qum­ran.

This is no dry cat­a­log of dis­cov­er­ies. Rather, you can feel the dust and devo­tion of char­ac­ters on every page. From the burly, dri­ven, heav­i­ly-accent­ed Cam­bridge Read­er in Rab­binics, Solomon Shechter, to the globerun­ning self-edu­cat­ed Scot­tish Giblew” sis­ters, we are intro­duced to fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple. For more than a cen­tu­ry they have sought after, fought over, and pored over hun­dreds of thou­sands of vel­lum and paper frag­ments reveal­ing a mil­len­nia of Jew­ish prayer, meter, and argu­ment.

Yet, Hoff­man and Cole have not deliv­ered sim­ply a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten book for the lay­man. They have craft­ed that fas­ci­nat­ing mix of intel­lec­tu­al heft and mus­cu­lar writ­ing that is too rarely found today. They eschew foot­notes, instead pro­vid­ing a full bib­li­og­ra­phy and impec­ca­ble sourc­ing, but done in excur­sive text, invit­ing read­ers to con­tin­ue their jour­ney of dis­cov­ery. The reward­ing images are dis­persed cor­rect­ly through the text, bor­row­ing more from today’s wikipedia than yesterday’s cost-effec­tive print­ing. Thanks must also be paid to Schock­en as this vol­ume marks num­ber 19 in their indis­pens­able Jew­ish Encounter series.

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Jeff Bogursky reads a lot, writes a lit­tle and talks quite a bit. He is a media exec­u­tive and expert in dig­i­tal media.

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