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Jewish Journal

The Cairo Geniza’s sacred Hebrew texts

By Elaine Margolin

June 2, 2011 | 12:40 pm

Husband and wife team Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, authors of “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza” (Schocken/Nextbook:  $26.95), share far more than a marriage—they enjoy a similar sensibility, one that is delightfully romantic and utopian, but also serious and intellectual and intuitive.  It feels as if they both carry a heavy burden upon their shoulders, a wounded empathy of sorts for all those who suffer needlessly.  Reading their work sometimes feels like entering a paradise where deeper truths about our common humanity are slowly revealed while the drumbeat of tribal loyalties grows dimmer.

Some readers will remember Hoffman’s earlier astounding biography, “My Happiness Bears no Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century.”  Hoffman chronicles the life of poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who was born in 1931 and forced to flee his ancestral village when Israel was created.  Hoffman freely admits she does not fully grasp the impulses that drew her to study at great length Taha Muhammad Ali’s poetry and his life and the plight of his Palestinian people.  That is one of the delightful surprises about Hoffman; she is a fearless explorer who enjoys entering foreign realms where she is able to see things from a multitude of angles without condemnation or personal baggage.  She is open to the magic of the world and confident of her own ability to create something special herself.  As a Jewish woman, she feels compelled to explore “otherness” in all of its forms as if she is convinced it will lead her to her own solid place on the Jewish road map which seems to keep shifting beneath her feet.  She has often expressed condemnation for the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinians and feels for their acute sense of displacement.

Hoffman’s husband, Peter Cole, who is one of the most prominent translators of Hebrew poetry, embraces his wife’s idealism and moral courage.  His ascension to an intellectual life was most unorthodox.  A poor student who dropped out of college twice, he became entranced with the Bible while working in a motel as a maintenance man.  During his breaks, he would stretch out on an empty bed and grab the only book available in the room—the Bible!  He had previously been reading a lot about Eastern mythology, but the desire to learn more about Judaism overtook him.  He eventually contacted Jacob Neusner at Brown University, who allowed him access to the college library.  He soon left for Israel, where he was taken in by an Iraqi Jew, who introduced him to the euphoric pleasures of Sephardic Jewry.  He spent many a blissful night reading and singing religious poetry, drinking whisky and snuffing tobacco, while indulging in exotic foods.  Cole declares himself an unabashed left-winger, but he is much more than that.  Like Hoffman, he is an idealistic searcher on a serious mission looking for the common threads between Jews and Arabs and studying periods in history when the relationship between the two groups was not so acrimonious. 

In their new book, “Sacred Trash,” they tell one incredulous tale after another about the Cairo Geniza, which was a repository of worn-out sacred texts that had miraculously survived for centuries.  This vital stash of Hebrew manuscripts discovered more than 100 years ago has shed light on 900 years of Mediterranean Judaism.  In typical Hoffman-Cole style, they begin most of their stories by tenaciously following the lives of the scholars who went to the Cairo Geniza; men like Solomon Schecter and Yaakov Sakir and Simon von Geldern and Israel Davidson, because they were convinced that these ancient fragments held precious secrets about Jewish life amidst Arabs during medieval times.  The documents found were not only religious texts, but letter and poems, prescriptions and prayers, trousseau lists and money orders, children’s primers and rabbinic responses written on vellum or rag paper, with ink made of gallnut and soot and gum.  They were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, as well as in Greek, Persian, Latin, and even Yiddish using Hebrew characters.  The authors were from all walks of life: women, children, students, scribes, rabbis and rebels-some famous and some forgotten.  The scholars slowly stitched together a portrait of a world of Arabized Jews who populated Old Cairo and lived in a socially integrated society with Arabs before 1200 in the East and after the Muslim conquest under the rule of Islam. 

One of their most provocative stories involves Solomon Schechter, who retrieved 190,000 documents from the Cairo Geniza after spending a great deal of time there in 1896.  These documents covered 10 centuries of Middle Eastern mostly middle class Jewish community life, which allowed historians to reconstruct the social and economic history of the period between 850 and 1250; particularly for Jews.  Schechter, a Romanian born maverick intellectual, was upset by how Protestants maligned Jewish history.  He felt they unfairly characterized it as preoccupied only with ceremony and legal sophistry and lacked the warm pulse of life.  When he accidentally came across two pieces of the original Hebrew Ben Sira manuscript, which was thought to have been lost forever, he became consumed with finding the rest of it, convinced that this would disprove much of what the Protestants were claiming about Judaism’s lack of vitality.  Ben Sira was a beloved rabbi of the early Talmudic period but for reasons that are still unclear was kept out of the canon of sacred writing.  It is known that Ben Sira often pontificated on matters of manners and morality.  Although the work Schechter accomplished at the Cairo Geniza was monumental in scope, he eventually found the task overwhelming and life at home in Britain stifling and tinged with anti-Semitism.  He soon left for New York where he took the job as President of the Jewish Theological Seminary claiming that “Life among the Goyim means spiritual death to me.”  He felt Judaism’s future was in America.  His fine work at the Geniza would soon be continued by others.

Hoffman and Cole began a small publishing press in Jerusalem in 1998 called Ibis Editions.  They publish English translations of work in Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, French, German, and Judeo-Spanish.  Most of the books they put forth focus on the east Mediterranean region of the world, parts of the Middle East, and Turkey.  But in their minds it is less a geographical location than a realm of the imagination, which Cole poetically describes as “an exchange across languages and national political borders,” and “a meeting of all the different cultures that have existed here over time.”  Cole admits that the cross fertilization of cultures fascinate him and Hoffman. 

They have put forth a masterful piece of work here, that will delight many readers.  Their book is an intricate and cerebral treasure hunt through the past centuries that reveals that there once was a very different reality in the way Jews and Arabs lived.  But, unfortunately, there is still blood flowing in the streets and new forms of vitriolic anti-Semitic venom in the air everywhere, and Cole and Hoffman remain eerily silent about this, which unsettles the sensitive reader who feels somewhat betrayed by their blindness.     

Elaine Margolin is a book critic and essayist for the Jerusalem Post, Denver Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle.  She can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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