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

Schocken Books/Nextbook Press  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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