Treasure trove of sacred trash

Treasure trove of sacred trash

New book tells tale of an incomparable discovery

Solomon Schechter, the man whose name graces Conservative day schools in North Jersey and across the country, was something of a scholarly swashbuckler.

The myriad scraps of Hebrew-scrawled documents he hauled out of a dusty crawlspace in an old Cairo synagogue at the end of the 19th century are the subject of “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza,” by the Paterson-born poet Peter Cole (see sidebar) and the biographer Adina Hoffman (Nextbook/Schocken, 2011, $26.95).

Cole and Hoffman, who maintain residences in Jerusalem and New Haven, just wrapped up a North American publicity tour for their book about the 900 years’ worth of sacred texts, letters, poems, wills, marriage contracts, money orders, trousseau lists, prescriptions, petitions, and magic charms discovered in the Ben Ezra Synagogue Geniza (a depository for worn Jewish texts) by a colorful cadre of adventurer/scholars.

Biographer Adina Hoffman and Paterson-born poet Peter Cole collaborated on “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.”

Schechter was among the first to realize the significance of this treasure trove, dubbed “the Living Sea Scrolls,” which is now being pieced together digitally by Tel Aviv University computer scientists with the aid of advanced facial recognition technology. Schechter’s particular delight were scraps of the apocryphal “Wisdom of Ben Sira” (a/k/a Ecclesiasticus), composed around 200 BCE.

The more than 350,000 fragments are now scattered among 67 collections and libraries from Manchester to Budapest. The bulk are at the Cambridge University Library, “tended to with great care and devotion by the director and staff of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit (, who have gone to incredible lengths to preserve and catalogue, and generally study and care for, the collection that Schechter hauled back from Cairo,” Hoffman and Cole wrote in an e-mail to a Jewish Standard reporter during their book tour.

“Peter has spent years translating the Hebrew poetry of Muslim and Christian Spain, and many of these poems were discovered in the Geniza, so that was the initial point of contact. Then, some seven years ago, we happened to be in England and were treated to a tour of the vault where the Geniza materials are held – just a few rows over from the Darwin papers – and he was transfixed by the incredibly vivid manuscripts we were shown there.”

When Nextbook Press invited them to write a book together, the Geniza seemed the perfect choice of topic.

The authors went to Cambridge, Oxford, The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and even to the bare crawlspace of the Ben Ezra Synagogue to research their subject. “We were able to talk our way up there…and we climbed up a ladder and peered inside – but it takes some real imagination to conceive of what once was there,” they said. “Now it’s just a dark, deep, emptied-out closet.”

Hoffman and Cole emphasized that just as important as the research was the writing itself, “the weaving together of the many strands of this tale. That tale includes biographies of…incredible women and men, as well as the remarkable stories of the manuscripts they discovered.”

The finished product, they said, “is a total collaboration, fact by fact and sentence by sentence. We wrote the book we wanted to write and tried our best to convey our fascination, our enthusiasm, and our sense of discovery.”

Hoffman is the author of “House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood” and “My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century,” named one of the top 10 biographies of the year by the American Library Association publication Booklist. She is working on a book about “Jerusalem, the British Mandate, beauty, and ugliness.”

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