Manuscript of mystery

Matti Friedman's exciting real life detective work recently won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

10th century Aleppo codex (photo credit: REUTERS)
10th century Aleppo codex
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Until 2008, reporter Matti Friedman had never heard of the Aleppo Codex, generally acknowledged to be the world’s most accurate text of Hebrew scriptures.
Written in Tiberias around the year 930 CE, the bound manuscript of just under 500 parchment pages made its way to Jerusalem, Egypt and then 14th-century Syria, where it remained in an Aleppo synagogue until the establishment of the State of Israel. Now the book – minus a chunk of missing pages – is back in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum.
The Aleppo Codex: In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred and Mysterious Books, Friedman’s 2012 Algonquin Books story about the holy book, has won its author the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for 2014. This is the world’s biggest prize package of its kind, and recognizes talented emerging Jewish authors.
Speaking from his home in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood, Friedman speculates as to why his non-fiction work about an ancient manuscript proved so extraordinarily captivating.
“It’s an incredible story; it’s got everything.
At the center is the objectively fascinating perfect copy of the Bible, a window through which we can see 1,000 years of Jewish history and an important part of the mechanism of Jewish survival, because the text has kept Judaism alive in the Diaspora,” he says. “Around that, you have all the elements of a thriller: spies, antiquities collectors, scholars, rabbis, secrets, deception, murder, things that are not what they seem. That mix proved compelling.”
The Aleppo Codex was designated one of Booklist’s top 10 religion books of the year, won the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal and the Canadian Jewish Book Award for history, and took second place as the 2013 non-fiction religion book of the year from the Religion Newswriters Association.
Friedman continues to field media inquiries and requests for speaking engagements concerning The Aleppo Codex, which has also been released in Australia, Holland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Korea and Israel (by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishers as Ta’alumat Haketer, translated by Aliza Raz-Meltzer).
“It has had a longer life than I expected,” the first-time author says. “The interest seems to be building as awareness of the book spreads. Even people with knowledge of Jewish texts and traditions were not familiar with the codex. Now they want to know what it is.”
Formerly a reporter for the Associated Press, The Jerusalem Report and The Times of Israel, Friedman says the Rohr Prize allows him the luxury of devoting all of his time to his second, as-yet-unnamed book project.
“I see this as fuel in my engine. The prize is meant to enable me to produce a lot more in the next five or 10 years than if I had to work at a daily job to make a living,” says Friedman.
Raised in Toronto, at age 17 Friedman moved to Kibbutz Ma’aleh Gilboa in 1995.
He relocated to Jerusalem for university studies after his army discharge in 2000, and never left the city. He and his wife, Naama, who hails from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, have three young children.
Though he acknowledges that winning the prestigious book prize is “a great honor,” Friedman jokes that he cannot get a swelled head because his family keeps him grounded.
“I have three little kids, so I can’t get too high,” he says with a laugh. “My life revolves around taking care of them, not living in the literary stratosphere.”
The Rohr Prize alternates annually between fiction and non-fiction; the 2012 prize went to Gal Beckerman for his first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry.
Beckerman is in some ways the mirror image of Friedman, in that he has Israeli parents but was born and raised in the US.
The two authors met at the prize ceremony two years ago and Friedman says he looks forward to meeting Beckerman again soon. “Part of the prize is a literary meet-up in the States every summer with all the winners and finalists,” he explains. “If you’re a reporter, you have peers at your magazine or newspaper, but when you’re writing books it’s quite lonely. So a group of peers is important.
It’s valuable to see how others are doing what they do.”
About his book in progress, he will say only that it is about Israel. “So much of what’s written about Israel is cliché, negative or positive, and I try to write about this country while avoiding the clichés.
The country is so vibrant and complicated that you need to escape the rote versions of what this place is – to see it with new eyes.”
Friedman feels that living in Jerusalem gives him that new set of eyes.
“It’s hard to imagine a city with a more fascinating mix of cultures and religions.
As a reporter, full-time since 2003, I’ve had the privilege of crossing the ethnic and religious lines and getting to know the city in a way most people don’t, and all that gets expressed in my writing,” he says.
Jerusalem settings figure prominently in The Aleppo Codex – the Karaite synagogue that first housed the manuscript, the invading Crusaders who pillaged it, the 1948 War of Independence, Yad Ben-Zvi, the rabbinical court, the Hebrew University.
“That’s all part of my city, and I love this city. I wake up every morning still interested in it. Even what I write that is not about Jerusalem, is informed by living here,” Friedman says.
Concerning the mystery of those missing 200 pages of the ancient work, Friedman says the sleuths working on the case have not come up with new leads since the publication of his book. “As a reporter, that makes me feel good, because it means I covered my bases. But I’d love to see some or all of those missing pages surface, and I think they will one day.”