Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: Sacred Trash - Cairo's Jewish history

Al Masry Al Youm (Helen Stuhr-Rommereim)

A scholar named Solomon Schechter traveled to Cairo 120 years ago to do what so many Western explorers, scholars and archaeologists had done before and have done since: to unearth a treasure trove of fragments of the past, and take them back to Europe to be studied and preserved. But while “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza,” by Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, tells the tale of yet another spiriting away of a piece of Egypt’s wealth of ancient history, the Geniza, it also tells of years of meticulous and devoted scholarship, and sheds light on an era of Cairo’s history that is long forgotten.

On a visit to the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Coptic Cairo today, the Geniza’s hiding spot is not hard to find. Just up on the top left corner of the synagogue’s back wall is a two-foot square opening. The unassuming hole leads to the small attic chamber where Schechter spent months, breathing in dust and slowly, carefully packing up the Geniza’s long-hidden scraps of poetry, personal letters, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, receipts and philosophical arguments that date as far back as 1000 years to bring back to Cambridge.

The Geniza has yielded many works of scholarship on Jewish cultural and religious history, as well as important works of poetry, and its history has been chronicled before in other books. But perhaps authors Hoffman and Cole approached the project because they knew they could do it better than those who came before them.

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