Sunday, July 23, 2023

An Accidental Collection

As a genealogist, I am a keeper of stuff. I would hazard a guess that most genealogists are pack rats, as they know that gems are hidden in the materials that others with a less historical bent would blithely discard. 

With this orientation at my core, it is not surprising that I have recently become enamored by the Cairo Genizah. In a few days I head off to an international conference on Jewish genealogy in London. They will be showing the film From Cairo to the Cloud and Dr. Ben Outhwaite, the head of the Genizah research at Cambridge will be at the conference. I’ll have an opportunity to visit with him over dinner so decided it was time to learn more about this topic.


So, what is a genizah? The word comes from the Hebrew word ganaz which means treasure house or hiding place. In Jewish tradition, holy writings are held within a genizah when they have been retired from use. Holy was often taken to mean containing the word "God." As was the custom at that time every document contained the words "with the help of God," hence many secular documents found their way into the genizah as well, painting a picture of bygone centuries.  


I love how the actual discovery of the Cairo Genizah unfolds. The surfacing of the genizah was due to two Scottish twin sisters, who were respected scholars. They purchased manuscripts in the Cairo marketplace in 1896 that they identified as possibly significant. They in turn shared them with their friend, the scholar Solomon Schechter, who identified them as writings of Ben Sira, better known in the Christian world as Ecclesiasticus. This was no small thing, the Hebrew text of this had not been seen since the 10th or 11th century. 


As I read newspaper accounts of this discovery from 1898, I stumbled across a rather delightful interview with one of the sisters, Mrs. Lewis, who reports, “The author of Ecclesiasticus was a woman-hater. The names of Deborah, Ruth and Judith do not occur in his list of national heroes, and one of his aphorisms runs, ‘Better is the wickedness of a man than the goodness of a woman.’ It seems therefore a just judgment upon him that the Hebrew text of his book, the text that he actually wrote, should have practically disappeared for fifteen centuries and should have been brought under the eyes of a European scholar, I might say a scholar of his own nation, by two women.” (Cambridge Independent Press 12/2/1898)


Solomon Schechter studying the Genizah documents

Schechter believed these papers likely came from the genizah at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo and promptly paid it a visit where he charmed the community and was invited to take what and as much as he liked. He reported that he “liked it all,” boxed it up and brought it to Cambridge. Today, the collection consists of 193,000 fragments that have been mined for over a century. Historian, Simon Schama, termed it “the single most complete archive of a society anywhere in the whole medieval world.” 

This was no orderly library he walked into. In a colorful description Schechter talks of "a battlefield of books... Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by a general crush, are squeezed into big, unshapely lumps." He described the resulting odorous grit of this centuries-old deterioration as genizahschmutz.

It is not just the mass and deterioration which catches his attention, but the juxtapositions and contradictory nature of its contents. He reports that "In their present condition these 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 for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on their good behaviour and not interfere with Miss Jair’s love for somebody."


A letter signed by Abraham, the son of Maimonides

What I find fascinating is that it is a collection by accident, not carefully curated and created with a specific point of view filtered through the eyes of the historian. It is a jumble of direct source documents, both secular and religious that capture a cross-section of society for 1000 years of Middle Eastern history. Precisely because it doesn't have a specific focus, there have been scholars through time who have made this collection their life's work, plumbing its depths from their own unique vantage point. For some, the emergence of a new form of Hebrew poetry drew them in. Others focused upon the evolution of Judaism that is revealed within documents ranging from 4th-5th century CE to the end of the 19th century. I think perhaps my favorite was the holistic approach taken by the scholar Shelomo Dov Goitein. Rather than focusing on one aspect, he attempted to join the disparate pieces to recreate the community between 950-1250. To this end he identified 35,000 individuals, including 350 prominent individuals and the interactions with each other. Archives of entire families found their way to the genizah. He looked at professions, goods and trade to paint a picture of a community where Jews worked side by side with their Arab neighbors. It was a bit of a golden age for tolerance.

Within the collection are documents in the handwriting of Maimonides (who lived in Cairo and attended the synagogue) as well as marriage contracts, leases, shopping lists and even young children practicing their letters. Since paper didn’t emerge until around the 10th century, early documents were on parchment and as writing surfaces were precious, they would often scrape away prior writing to replace it with something new. While much of it is written in Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic, other languages literally emerge from beneath the surface text, a palimpsest echo of the old providing yet another work of interest. Beneath an 11th century Hebrew text, hides a 5th-6th century Greek translation of the Book of Kings. Often palimpsests were Christian writings originally purchased for their writing surface and resulting in documents of importance for Christian scholars as well. The genizah is also credited with being a treasury of Arabic literature.There is something for everyone.


The Friedberg Genizah Project is now digitizing the manuscripts making them available to scholars around the world –– A little crowd sourcing is likely to open up new pathways and understandings.

To learn more about the Genizah, I highly recommend the book Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.

There are also several YouTube videos on this topic. Here's one to get you started: