The Most Famous Geniza

The fascinating tale of deciphering the Geniza documents, fragment by fragment, word by word, and character by character.

israel museum 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
israel museum 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Around the turn of the 20th century, a dryly titled volume, “Notes on the Jews of Fustat from Cambridge Geniza Documents,” offered rather vivid glimpses of a medieval city: Fustat, or Old Cairo.
According to the author, James Worman, a long-bearded, mild-mannered Baptist who would later serve as curator of Oriental literature at Cambridge University, markets flourished in Fustat, “including the Big Market, the Market of the Perfumers, the Market of the Steps, and the Markets of Saffron, Wool, Linen, and Cotton.” Mills and millers occupied the predominantly Jewish district, Musasa. And Jewish worshipers chose among three synagogues – one for the Karaites and two for Rabbanites (one for the Babylonians, and one for the Jerusalemites, or Palestinian émigrés, who maintained the custom of completing the cycle of Shabbat Torah readings in three years rather than one).
A cramped room within the Jerusalemite synagogue, Ben-Ezra, contained the raw materials for Worman’s eventual portrait.
This room, located behind the women’s gallery and reached only by ladder, would become known as the Cairo Geniza. Over the centuries, it served as a repository for damaged and otherwise unusable texts for which permanent disposal was barred by Jewish law.
According to Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, the husband-and-wife authors of “Sacred Trash,” a geniza is “a barely translatable Hebrew term that . . . derives from the Persian ganj (or kanj), meaning ‘hoard’ or ‘hidden treasure.’” While genizot existed across the Jewish world, the storeroom at Ben-Ezra would become the most famous of all for the scope and rarity of its cache.
Yet, even as a handful of scholars had, for decades, suspected the presence of materials of interest there, as a result of cursory inspections of the storeroom, the full-on pursuit of the Geniza did not begin until an encounter in May 1896 between Solomon Schechter (1847–1915), a Romanian-born lecturer at Cambridge University, and the Scottish twins Margaret Gibson and Agnes Lewis (who went collectively by “Giblews”).
Travelers as well as independent scholars, Giblews showed the “burly Talmudist” Hebrew pages from the Ben-Ezra Geniza that Schechter later identified as originals from the apocryphal book of Ben-Sira (or Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with Ecclesiastes). Until this point, the text was only believed to be available in Greek and Syriac translations – the original Hebrew version had been missing for at least a millennium.
Charged by a sense of limitless possibility, and funded by Charles Taylor – a Hebraist as well as an Anglican priest and mathematician – Schechter traveled to Cairo in the winter of 1897. In sorting through the attic documents, he encountered a scene that proved physically as well as intellectually taxing. Certain fragments, he recalled, were “literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others . . . are squeezed into big unshapely lumps . . . [T]hese lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work, in which the very existence of either angels or devils is denied, clinging . . . to an amulet in which these same beings [are called upon not to interfere in a woman’s romantic pining].” Schechter would write home to his wife of his nightly self-cleansing from the accumulation of grime, which he termed “Genizahschmutz.”
Nor were the health effects of Schechter’s visit fleeting: while at Ben-Ezra, he contracted a mysterious illness from which he never fully recovered.
Before departing Cairo, and supported by the city’s Jewish leaders, Schechter packed crates with almost 200,000 fragments from the Ben-Ezra attic and shipped them to Cambridge. Documents ranged from children’s primers to compilations of oral law to “leases, bills, and private letters” and came in an array of languages. Figures such as the Cambridge University librarian Francis Jenkinson and the Semitic languages scholar Francis Burkitt would assist in the initial task of combing through the documents, but their efforts were indeed preliminary: some 80 years would pass before Schechter’s haul was fully inventoried.
Schechter, who must have “cut a remarkable figure as he strode down King’s Parade . . .
[w]ith his bushy, red-tinted beard, unruly hair, and tendency to gesticulate broadly,” marked one of the first and perhaps the most majestic in a long line of characters to throw themselves into the study of the Geniza. And the portraits of these academics grant this book much of its texture.
There is, for example, the Lithuanianborn Israel Davidson, who was already an ordained rabbi at 17 when he immigrated to New York in 1888 and began his secular education in first grade (!) with the goal of learning English. Ultimately he would work under Schechter, who had moved in 1902 to New York to serve as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Only after Schechter’s death would Davidson identify original writing from the 7th century payyetan (liturgical poet) Yannai, who likely lived in the Holy Land and whose verse developed along an acrostic from aleph to lamed. Yannai’s poems for the prayer service have drawn comparisons to Bach’s cantatas for Sunday services in Leipzig, and their use elicited criticism from Jewish leaders who sought a sparer service without ornamentation.
Another memorable figure is Jefim Hayyim Schirmann of the Schocken Institute for the Research of Hebrew Poetry, first in Berlin and later in Jerusalem. A medievalist who focused on Muslim Spain, Schirmann “was tall and walked with a stoop; addressed his interlocutors in the third person; and often improvised his sometimes tedious Hebrew lectures from German notes that he held inside the daily Hebrew paper.”
In his work on the Geniza, Schirmann uncovered a case of mistaken identity regarding a poem about a wine party in 10th century Cordoba. The work had formerly been attributed to the renowned 11th century philosopher-poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, but Schirmann linked the text to its true author, Dunash ben-Labrat, a Moroccan-born poet who “revolutionized” Hebrew verse a century before Ibn Gabirol by imbuing it with Arabic meter and romantic-erotic tropes such as the gazelle. S. D. Goitein, another German émigré in Jerusalem, is considered the only figure to have contributed to Geniza studies on a scale comparable to Schechter. His innovation was to shift the field from an emphasis on “major Jewish trends and liturgy” to the details of everyday medieval life revealed by the documents.
Goitein, who first gained recognition as a scholar of Islam, focused over decades on “court depositions, merchants’ accounts, bills of divorce, and the like” to craft “A Mediterranean Society,” a 3,000-page fivevolume account of Jews in Arab lands in the High Middle Ages still in print nearly 30 years after its completion.
He reported on everything from “the Tuesday and Friday distribution of free bread to Fustat’s Jewish poor to the practice of issuing letters of payment remarkably similar to modern checks” – with the inscription emet (truth) standing in roughly for “for deposit only.” Goitein also described colors with an artist’s precision, such as “partridge-eye-hued and chickpea-patterned silks alongside linens the shades of honey, lead, cream of tartar, gazelle’s blood, asparagus, pomegranate, and pistachio.” Such an emphasis on sensory detail likely resonated for Cole, an awardwinning poet and translator, who has written an ode to the Fustat Geniza titled “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled” (included in a compilation of the same name and published by New Directions). Hoffman, for her part, is the author of a book of essays and a biography of the recently deceased Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali.
The Goitein section, more than any other, liberates the book from the sometimes difficult-tofollow story of the hunt for the Geniza documents. (All those 19th century thinkers jumble in the mind, and I read the book twice to get their roles straight.) The section also brings the medieval world thrillingly to life by illuminating stories such as that of Judah Halevi, the 12th century Spanish poet and philosopher who ultimately set forth for the Promised Land. After a delay in Alexandria, a friend of Halevi’s reports that “[t]he ships bound for al-Andalus, Tripoli, Sicily and Byzantium, and other points East . . . have found a good wind and departed.” (Halevi, by the way, never reached Jerusalem, perishing in unknown circumstances along the way.) It is also in Goitein that Hoffman and Cole – the founders of Ibis Editions, a Jerusalembased press that publishes literature of the Levant – come closest to deriving an ideological message from the tale of the Geniza. Goitein himself, the student of Islam who was also a religious Jew, admired the “Mediterranean society” to which he devoted half a lifetime of scholarship.
To him, the mix of cultures echoed that in the United States, where he emigrated from Israel in the 1950s to teach at the University of Pennsylvania – though he was careful not to idealize the condition of non-Muslim subjects, or dhimmi. Goitein also considered embracing a binational solution to the Israeli-Arab impasse, though he rejected the idea at first and refrained from joining the pre-state Brit Shalom group that advocated this.
All of which brings us to something like the dream of cultural coexistence – a dream that is never stated overtly in the book but is embodied in the mix of titles published by Ibis Editions.
The dream has certainly dimmed in Cairo, at least for Jews, who today number in the dozens. Nor is Fustat the bustling center it was in the Middle Ages. Today, in the authors’ telling, “Women in headscarves pick through heaps of oranges, onions, and greens[;] [s]ludgy-looking Nile fish flap in basins plunked in the dirt . . . men in long robes sit on stools and silently eye the passersby [and] flies and filth are everywhere.” The Ben-Ezra synagogue itself has been restored with funding from Jewish groups.
But, like the Jewish people themselves after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Geniza thrives in its dispersion. Today, the principal collection remains in Cambridge, but others exist in Oxford, Jerusalem, and New York, and online through the Friedberg Geniza Project, named for its funder, a Toronto currency trader.
Scholars, meanwhile, persist in their efforts to decode the Geniza documents, with the flow never seeming to abate.
These scholars, as Hoffman and Cole so passionately tell, are doing their part to make the world whole, fragment by fragment, word by word, and character by character. •
Sacred Trash:The Lost and Found World of the Cairo GenizaBy Adina Hoffman and Peter ColeSchocken304 pages; $26.95