Sunday, February 14, 2010

Cairo Genizah Update #2: Exciting Develompents; Title Search

Dear Friends,

Greetings once again! Things continue to develop rapidly with regard to the upcoming Genizah Expedition and the book.


On December 19th, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, signed a letter giving me special permission to enter the Genizah room at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The room is ordinarily off-limits to visitors, and, to my knowledge, no westerners have entered it for many, many years. This, therefore, is a major coup.

The visit will be of symbolic – rather than archaeological – importance. The synagogue was completely renovated in the late 1990’s, and I am certain that the literary treasures of the Genizah room are long gone. To tell you the truth, I have no idea what is up there nowadays, but you can rest assured that I’ll let you know when I find out.

Dr. Hawass has also expressed interest in meeting with me personally. As I believe I mentioned in my previous update, his position puts him in charge of ALL of Egypt’s antiquities – the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Valley of the Kings – the whole shmear. Also, President Hosni Mubarak recently named him Vice Minister of Culture. Often a controversial figure, Zahi Hawass is frequently featured on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic documentaries. Under his leadership, the Supreme Council of Antiquities has recently put a great deal of effort into renovating several centuries-old synagogues in Egypt, one of which, the Maimonides Synagogue, will be rededicated on Maimonides’ birthday this coming march.

For more information about Dr. Hawass, check him out on Wikipedia or at his website,


• On the expedition, I plan to take photographs to use in the book, and to do some filming for the DVD version that is in the works. This weekend, Michael Strong, the literary agent who will be producing the DVD, went on my behalf to B & H photo in New York and purchased a camera that does both still shots and video – including DVD. I’m a photographic klutz, so I’ll have to learn how to use this thing. But I also love gadgets, so I’m looking forward to it.

• Also, I am pleased to announce that I will be bringing an assistant/cameraman with me on the expedition – my son, Jacob. Jacob will be almost 16 years old when we take this trip, he prides himself on being amongst the world’s foremost teen Genizah experts, and he has chosen to forego summer camp this year, and instead use those resources to finance this trip. (Donors, rest assured that Jacob will be traveling completely on the Glickman family “dime,” and that we are being very careful to keep the expenses separate – documentation is available upon request).

• Just this minute, I received an email from Peter Johnson, the head porter at Clare College, Cambridge – I’m not sure what a head porter is, but it sounds very important. I had asked his help in arranging a visit to Castlebrae, the 23-room mansion belonging to Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson where Solomon Schechter saw his first Genizah documents. Castlebrae is now a Cambridge University dormitory, and Mr. Johnson told me that he will be glad to help arrange my visit. It’s all starting to fall into place.


The story of the Cairo Genizah has fascinated me for many years. But it was only when I read Solomon Schechter’s account of what he found when he entered it that I began thinking that the story would make a good book. In fact, it was one particular phrase in Schechter’s description that got me thinking this way. Schechter described the Genizah as “a battlefield of books.” He used that phrase to depict the corpses and body-parts of books that he found scattered about the Genizah (see attachment). Reading that phrase, I thought, “Hey, that would be a good title for a book.”

So, my first idea for a title was, “A Battlefield of Books: The Amazing Story of the Cairo Genizah.” I shared the idea with Michael Strong (mentioned above). Very politely, Mike told me that this would be a lousy title (my words, not his). “A Battlefield of Books,” he said, doesn’t tell readers anything about the book or the story. Bookstore browsers who don’t know what a Genizah is (of whom there will probably be a few) won’t have any idea what the book is about.

OK. Plan B. If my first title won’t work, I thought it might be fun to try to convey the enormity of the Genizah in the very title of my book. What I came up with was, The Cairo Genizah: The Story of the Largest Heap of Medieval Letters, Receipts, Recipes, Schoolbooks, Bibles, Torah Scrolls, Poems, Prescriptions, Doodles and Other Old Scraps Ever Discovered.

I mentioned that idea to the editor I’m working with at Jewish Lights Publishing. She saw the humor in it, but politely reminded me (everyone is being very polite here) that the book will probably be a 6”X9” hardcover, and that a title such as this one might not…uh…fit.

So, dear friends, I turn to you for your sage wisdom. If I push it, I could very well be able to get either of my ideas through. But maybe there are some better possibilities. If you get a chance, please vote for one of the following options in reply to this email:

A. Battlefield of Books: The Amazing Story of the Cairo Genizah
B. The Cairo Genizah: The Story of the Largest Heap of Medieval Letters, Receipts, Recipes, Schoolbooks, Bibles, Torah Scrolls, Poems, Prescriptions, Doodles and Other Old Scraps Ever Discovered
C. Other_[INSERT BRILLIANT NEW TITLE SUGGESTION HERE]_____________________________________________________

Thank you for your input.


I was recently informed that Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island will soon receive a generous grant from the Fritz and Adelaide Kauffmann Foundation to support this project. This does take some of the edge off, but the project is still in need of funds, and any gift you could offer would be very helpful.

Also, In my previous email, I neglected to mention that any funds remaining after the project concludes will be donated to one or more major Genizah-related organizations – the Friedberg Genizah Project (which is digitizing the collection) and/or one major libraries that houses Genizah manuscripts. More than simple travel funds, in other words, this money will serve to support knowledge and preservation of the Genizah, its story, and its priceless contents.

That’s all for now. Unless you tell me otherwise, I’ll keep sending updates as they develop. Future updates, I hope will be briefer than this one.


Rabbi Mark Glickman

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