Unearthing buried treasure

Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman dring to life the secrets of the Cairo Geniza, a trove of 900 years worth of sacred texts.

Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Seven years ago, biographer/essayist Adina Hoffman and awardwinning poet Peter Cole were treated to a tour of the Taylor- Schechter Genizah Research Unit at the Cambridge University Library in England. This is where the majority of the Hebrew documents discovered in the famous geniza (depository for worn-out Hebrew-language books and papers) of an old Cairo synagogue are kept in a vault just a few rows down from the Darwin papers.
This particular “holy junk heap” – the word geniza probably derives from the Persian ganj, or hidden treasure, as Cole and Hoffman explain in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza – didn’t just contain a few wornout sacred texts but perhaps the most comprehensive cache of Hebrew documents ever discovered.
Tossed in along with biblical and rabbinic works were 900 years’ worth of letters, poems, wills, marriage contracts, money orders, trousseau lists, prescriptions, petitions, magical charms and, remarkably, scraps of the apocryphal Wisdom of Ben-Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus in the early Church canon), which was composed around 200 BCE.
Cole reports that he “was transfixed by the incredibly vivid manuscripts we were shown there, and eventually wrote a long poem using the poetic fragment we saw that day.” The couple, who live in Jerusalem and New Haven, Connecticut, later returned to Cambridge for a closer look. The immediate result was “Things on Which I’ve Stumbled,” the title poem of Cole’s latest published collection (New Directions, 2008).
Hoffman, formerly a film critic for The Jerusalem Post and author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and the acclaimed My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century, says she has “long been fascinated by archives and the reconstruction of history through documents, and by daily life in the Middle East,” and therefore was just as intrigued as her husband.
“So when we were asked to write a book, or books, for the Schocken/Nextbook series, we immediately thought of the geniza, which brings all of these obsessions together.”
The authors stress that readers shouldn’t expect to derive any tips on how to discard their own divine detritus. “The lessons of Sacred Trash – and of the Cairo Geniza – have nothing to do with garbage disposal. Our book is really about the worth of words and their place in Jewish life.”
Cole and Hoffman’s “fact by fact and sentence by sentence” collaborative work, they write, is “about a lost culture and the scholar-heroes who have been retrieving it bit by dusty bit for well over a century.”
In the course of their research they traveled to Cambridge, Oxford, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Cairo. “The most unexpected aspects of the research involved the biographies of the scholars themselves – seeing the ways in which their lives and their work gave rise to one another and how that work in turn was taken up by a subsequent generation or by scholars working in parallel fields,” the authors wrote in an e-mail while in the United States on a book publicity tour. Having worked side by side for 22 years, they apparently feel most comfortable speaking, writing and answering questions together as a duo.
“That passing of the torch – of vital Jewish life – from generation to generation, and from field to field, is something that we also find in the geniza documents themselves, so there’s a certain poetic justice in highlighting this dimension of the story.”
Though the Ben Ezra synagogue is still standing, the geniza is empty and offlimits to visitors.
“We were able to talk our way up there when we were doing research for the book, and we climbed up a ladder and peered inside – but it takes some real imagination to conceive of what once was there,” the authors report. “Now it’s just a dark, deep, emptied-out closet.”
The more than 350,000 fragments discovered there, the most significant of which were retrieved by Solomon Schechter in the late 19th century, are now scattered among 67 collections and libraries from Manchester to Budapest. Computer scientists at Tel Aviv University are attempting to piece together digitized versions of the texts using advanced facial recognition technology developed specifically with the aim of finding logical editorial “joins” among the Cairo fragments.
The large trove of original documents housed at Cambridge “is tended to with great care and devotion by the director and staff of the Taylor- Schechter Genizah Research Unit (http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/Taylor- Schechter/), who have gone to incredible lengths to preserve and catalogue and generally study and care for the collection that Schechter hauled back from Cairo,” say Hoffman and Cole.
Next up from Cole, who previously spent years translating Hebrew poetry of Muslim and Christian Spain discovered in the geniza, are The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (Yale University Press) and a book of his own poems. Hoffman says she is “working on a book about Jerusalem, the British Mandate, beauty and ugliness.”