Centuries of once-forgotten Jewish history brought to light

By Judy Bolton-Fasman
April 19, 2011

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In a crumbling synagogue in Fustat, Egypt’s original capital and now a section of Old Cairo, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole set the stage for their aptly titled “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.’’

Hoffman and Cole’s vivid portrayal of the discovery of the ancient Cairo Geniza — the world’s richest depository of Jewish manuscript fragments, which the authors playfully describe as “a kind of holy junk heap’’ — is equal parts treasure hunt for the sacred and historical and Herculean rescue of important texts.

The exploration of the geniza was sparked by Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, identical twins who lived in Cambridge, England, and were scholars of Arabic and Syriac, a dialect of ancient Aramaic. The sisters, originally from Scotland and the daughters of a Presbyterian minister, were well acquainted with the Hebrew of the Old Testament. But some of the fragments the sisters brought back from their travels in the Middle East appeared to be outside of the Biblical canon. In May 1896 they invited their friend and colleague Solomon Schechter to tea to identify the passages. The decision to involve Schechter — who would eventually become chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and have his name memorialized through the network of Conservative Jewish day schools — would prove fateful.

The Romanian-born Schechter, a Talmud scholar and reader in rabbinics at Cambridge University, pored over the fragile pieces of parchment in the sisters’ living room. He determined they were from the text of Ben Sira, a work penned by a Jewish scholar in the early second century. Schechter then ventured to Cairo in search of more texts.

For Schechter, the wispy Ben Sira fragments pointed to a crucial time in Jewish history — the crossroad between a functioning temple in Jerusalem and the rabbinic period from which Jewish law evolved in the Diaspora. In December 1896, Schechter climbed a rickety ladder in the women’s section of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat and entered a room the size of a walk-in closet. This was the Cairo Geniza. Here, “in the dank and musty chaos, Schechter soon came to understand that he had uncovered no less than a cross-section of an entire society, and one that lay at the very navel of the medieval world linking East and West, Arab and Jew, the daily imprint of the sacred and the venerable extension of the profane.’’

In the Cairo Geniza all manner of documents had been preserved. Throughout the centuries the geniza had accumulated business contracts and marriage licenses alongside obsolete prayer books and crumbling Passover Haggadahs.

Many historians have likened the importance of the find to that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Schechter’s understanding of the geniza’s importance led to invaluable additions to Jewish literature, such as poetry written during the Golden Age of Spain. The unearthing of palimpsests — recycled parchment commonly used in the Middle Ages — enriched Jewish liturgy with the work of the sixth-century poet Yannai, whose words were buried under other words on parchment.

Hoffman and Cole note that Schechter had a direct hand in saving 190,000 fragments from oblivion. In the end, Schechter’s monumental undertaking was like the Cairo Geniza itself leaving a trail “marked by the melancholy presence of several . . . aggrieved and almost-famous men now nearly forgotten.’’

“Sacred Trash’’ is a wonderfully accessible and exciting account of “numerous heroes, medieval and modern’’ and their discoveries of artifacts that have transformed our understanding of the interplay between history and religion.

Judy Bolton-Fasman can be reached at


The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

Schocken, 286 pp., illustrated, $26.95