08 February 2012

Sacred Treasure

On the top of Gary Sankary's Best of 2011 Reading List was Rabbi Mark Glickman's book Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah. The subtitle is "The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic."

Gary explained to me (and probably to most of us) that a "Genizah is a storeroom/closet/attic that synagogues use to store scared texts that are no longer legible or usable." Often the old documents a genizah are collected and buried in a cemetery. But, the The Ben Ezra Synagogue Genizah had basically never been emptied since the synagogue was founded in the 9th century CE.

Scottish sisters on a Victorian-era adventure in Cairo bought an old document from the Ben Ezra Genizah they couldn't identify, in spite of their expertise in ancient languages. Cambridge don, Rabbi Solomon Schechter identified it for them. It was a one-page fragment of "a Hebrew manuscript of the book of Ben Sira or as it became known in Greek, Ecclesiasticus. Today that book is found in the Catholic Bible, it was excluded from the Hebrew and King James versions." It had been written around the year 900.

That discovery sent Rabbi Schechter out looking for funding and then off to Cairo. There he found the Genizah stuffed with hundreds of thousands of documents. The Genizah which began as a place to store old sacred documents had become a place to store old written documents of all kinds.

In Sacred Treasure, Rabbi Glickman tells the story of the Cairo trove of documents. Rabbi Schechter is only the first in a century-long line of scholars who have worked to identify, read, analyze, and catalog the thousands of documents.

Rabbi Glickman looking into the Cairo Gehizah, Photo: Jacob Glickman

Back in the '70s, I spent a lot of time volunteering on archaeolgical field work projects. I have a real appreciation for the careful work that goes into uncovering and interpreting material culture from long ago. I still recall the thrill of uncovering a large clam shell, cleaning it off, drawing it into the unit's map for its level, and photographing it. When it came time to remove the shell, I (we, because no one can do all this alone) found a small, 800-year-old corn cob under it. Wow!

So, there was Rabbi Scechter, peering into a room full of a thousand years' of history. He was able to purchase most of the documents and take them to England. Back in Cambridge, he began the process of cataloging, reading, translating, identifying, and understanding documents. It was tedious and tremendously exciting work. I understand that. What would any philosopher, historian, or religious scholar give to find something written by Moses Maimonides? What was the value of many things written by the famous sage? But that just begins to tell the story of what was found in the Cairo Genizah.

Rabbi Glickman does a great job of telling this story in all its complexity. He profiles the people and the problems -- like institutional competition. I really appreciated how well the various threads of the story track in Rabbi Glickman's skilled narrative.

I learned that Medieval and modern Jewish religious movements are as numerous and varied as Protestant demoninations. If I thought about my little knowledge of Israeli politics, I sort of knew that, but reading about the varieties of Jewish ritual and rules made that diversity come alive. Rabbi Glickman makes a point of that and a few other ways that the Genizah's contents illuminate the present as well as the past.

I wish he'd written more about what the documents tell us about beliefs, worship, diet, families, law, economics, and other things that are described in the Cairo documents. But, this is not a long, scholarly tome. It's an adventure story. And a darn good one.

Thanks, Gary for recommending the book. I'm passing on his recommendation.

It's not hard to get the book. It's available from Amazon.com. I ordered my directly from Rabbi Mark Glickman, 15030 232nd Ave. NE, Woodinville, WA 98077. The cost is $24.99 plus $3.50 shipping (Continental US) and $2.25 tax if you have it delivered to an address in the state of Washington. And he'll autograph your copy.

If you read it, write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

Expedition: Genizah, Rabbi Glickman's web site
"Cairo Genizah author describes treasure trove" from The Jewish Review
"Cairo’s Jewish medieval manuscripts" from PRI's The World (includes some great photos, including the one above)

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