The Magazine

Attic Treasure

A document dump for ten centuries of Jewish history

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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It took a tremendous amount of imagination and optimism to recognize in the hundreds of thousands of crumbled pieces of writing one of the greatest treasures in Jewish literary history, comparable to the find of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Working for four weeks in the insect-infested chamber, and nearly suffocating in the dust of 10 centuries and brought to the brink of rage by the constant demands for bakshish by all associated with the synagogue, Schechter packed almost 200,000 manuscript fragments into nine large tea chests and sent them back to Cambridge. For the next five years, Schechter labored almost daily over the “stinking heaps of shemot,” sorting them and identifying gems, including letters written by Maimonides, legal decisions by Saadia Gaon, and, most thrilling of all, more of the Hebrew text of Ben Sira.

When the new century arrived, he was exhausted by this effort and accepted an offer to become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He promptly hired European scholars to the faculty and emphasized the scientific study of Jewish texts, only to hear from com-muni-ty leaders that this was “far too highbrow” for the mass of American Jews.

With Schechter’s move to New York, Hoffman and Cole transition into the brilliant second half of their book, in which they unpack the treasure chest of the geniza. They do it by wisely limiting themselves to five large areas of scholarship that were either boosted or brought into being by geniza material.  

The brilliance of the second half consists not only in the exquisitely clear and gracious presentation of complex intellectual matters, or in the practical exercise of the usually neglected insight that less is more, but in the craftiness with which the authors force readers to think on two time levels at once: that of the scholar working on the material in 1930s Germany and late-1940s Israel, and then in 2007, globally hooked up. Because of the unpacking of the geniza boxes, the recognition of the literary or scholarly value of so much “worthless rubbish” is also the story of the emergence of academic Jewish studies. 

Having begun with Schechter’s unearthing of the Hebrew Ben Sira, Hoffman and Cole then discuss the  sleuthing necessary to recover the work of the legendary sixth-century liturgical poet Yannai, a task undertaken by Israel Davidson (born in 1870 in Lithuania) and, later, by Galician Jew Menahem Zulay, plucked out of Palestinian poverty by the German department store magnate Salman Schocken in 1927 as a Hebrew tutor for his children.  

The first to recognize the historic worth of the geniza’s nonliterary debris was the humorless Jacob Mann, a descendant of Belzer Hasidim in Poland, who arrived in England in 1908. His wide-ranging book about the Jews in Egypt and Palestine under the Fatimid caliphs, based entirely on geniza docu-ments, was the first to chart Jewish life across a Muslim empire, pre-paring the ground for the historian S. D. Goitein, who arrived in Palestine from Frankfurt on the same boat as Gershom Scholem and, by sheer chance, turned into “the century’s greatest explorer of the documentary Ben Ezra material.” It was the indefatigable Goitein who declared that “in Geniza research, quantity is quality.”

Our authors know, however, that in modern America, brevity is trump. So they add only two more chapters: one on the astounding heretical writings found in the geniza, resurrecting for us not only the radical skeptic Hiwi al-Balkhi but also the rigorous world of the Karaites; and a chapter on the beautiful, nonliturgical Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain, from Dunash ben Labrat to Yehuda HaLevi, and delivered from the Fustat purgatory by the eccentric Jefim Hayyim Schirmann and his dedicated student Ezra Fleischer.

Sacred Trash is the rabbit hole through which readers can fall into 2,500 years of Jewish history encoded in a thousand smelly heaps of tattered leaves. Unlike Alice, though, we are not alone, but encounter a gallery of uprooted, displaced scholars who fell through that rabbit hole before we did, slogged through the junk, and then laid out for us in the clearest print the mesmerizing world of ancient and medieval Mediterranean Jewry.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.