I think I may be eternally grateful to Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole for writing Sacred Trash. As I will be to Shocken Publishers for making the book so incredibly beautiful.
I knew Hoffman from her book My happiness bears no relation to happiness (A poet's life in the Palestinian Century). Peter Cole is an American prize winning poet and translator that I had never heard of before.
Together they tell the story of the genizeh of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, how it was discovered and how the hundreds of thousands of scraps of paper that had been lying there for ages were shipped to the library of Cambridge University. It's an amazing story, full of guile and misdirection, professional jealousy, cloaked in secrecy and fired by competition. All for the sake of science.
A genizeh is a hoarding place for discarded documents that have the name of God on them, or were written in Hebrew, long considered a holy language. From time to time the genizeh would be emptied and the documents given a burial. Not in the genizeh of Cairo, for whatever reason and that's how in 1896 Solomon Schechter could climb the ladder to the aperture through which for hundreds of years the rabbi's put the old documents to rest.
Among the documents – they could be scraps of paper, papyrus, vellum, leather, some torn or eaten by mice and insects, damaged by water, some not larger than a few inches – they found liturgical texts, poems, letters from mothers to their sons, bills of lading, contracts, pleas for money, letters of recommendation etc. etc. They found palimpsests, where the old writing was scraped away to add a new text. The hoard was mind staggering, over 300.000 pieces that all needed to be studied, translated, interpreted. Schechter thought it would take ten years... But they are still studying, translating, publishing.
Each chapter of the book deals with one specific subject and the men and women who over the years untill today doggedly deciphered the texts.
For Solomon Schechter it all started with a scrap of Hebrew writing that two indomitable Scottish sisters had brought back from their last trip to the Middle East. They invited Schechter to have a look at it and the Cambridge scholar recognized it immediately for what it was: a segment of the long lost Hebrew book of Ecclesiasticus, written by Ben Sira around 190 BCE, that only survived in Greek and Syriac translations. An amazing find! Hoffman and Cole make it all come to life.
There was so much to discover, they hardly knew where to start. Time and time again fragments would be put aside as not relevant, not interesting, only to be taken up again later by another scholar who made an amazing discovery. As with the scraps mentioning Yannai, “a legendary if obscure Hebrew liturgical poet. Very little was known about him and of his writings remained only one single composition. Slowly Yannai comes to life and we now know that what Yannai did for the Jewish liturgy was what Bach did for the Christian church service.
And then there is so much additional proof of the heyday of medieval Hebrew literature in Spain that we knew so tantalizingly little about. Yehuda Halevy, Ibn Gvirol, Shmuel Hanagid, there is not a town or city in Israel that does not have a street or square named after these giants of early Hebrew poetry and literature. New poems were found, letters, thank you notes and through this we now have a clearer view of that wondrous time when Muslims and Jews and Christians lived together in an uneasy, sometimes bloody harmony. It was discovered in these documents that Yehuda Halevy did get to Egypt and did sail for the Holy Land. It's all there, black on white. And so much more.
The strength of this wonderful book is not only that it explains so well the importance of the finds, even to a layman, but also the way the authors make the struggle of the scholars so palpable. They come alive, these weird men and women who give everything they have to find the truth, to reveal what was hidden. I thoroughly enjoyed it. You should too.