Thursday, April 22, 2010

Genizah Update # 10

Expedition Genizah Day 6: Cairo

The Glickmans are in Egypt Land…and what a change it is from Cambridge!

We arrived at the Cairo Airport late yesterday afternoon, where we met Ayman, a transfer agent who drove us to our hotel along a serpentine route of superhighways, narrow alleys and everything in0between. He explained that, the day before, there had been torrential rain and hailstorms in Cairo, causing extensive flooding throughout the city. The weather has turned pleasant, but we can still see small remnants of floods everywhere.

We’re staying the Cairo Sheraton, at a palatial hotel festooned everywhere with mirrors and faux gold.

[Oh…as I type this, it is time for one of the five daily Muslim worship services, and we can hear the blast of the muezzin’s voice calling everyone to prayer. “Allahu Akhbar….” I don’t think there will be much of a problem getting a minyan.]

Anyway, the hotel is beautiful, and our large room features a panoramic view of the Nile and a huge swath of Cairo. The security here is very tight. Every car pulling up to the hotel gets sniffed by a bomb-sniffing dog, and everyone who enters does so through a metal-detector.

Today, along with our guide, Inez, and our driver, Zizu, we got a good sense of old Cairo. The Cairo of antiquity. The Cairo whose physical remains were here when Solomon Schechter arrived in 1896, and also during the lives of the Genizah people during the Middle Ages. We went to the Egyptian Museum, the Pyramids, and the Sphinx, thus taking in a good 4,000-5,000 years of history in one day.

The Egyptian Museum is home to more than 250,000 antiquities. Some of these items come from temples, of course, but most come from ancient tombs. We saw King Tut’s gleaming mask, dozens of mummies (including that of the female ruler, Hatshepsut), and more royal statues and Pharaohonic paraphernalia than I could ever recount.

Through it all, I was struck by how obsessed ancient Egypt seems to have been with death. It created all of this grandeur and opulence to ensure its kings safe passage into the next world. The Pyramids, the Sphinx, the mummies, and so much of the rest of it were not for the living, but rather for the welfare of the dead. When I shared this observation with Inez, she corrected me. What we saw today, she said, was not a culture obsessed with death; it was a culture that, instead, was focused on eternal life.

Still, what a remarkable contrast there is between the ancient Egypt of sphinxes and pyramids, and the medieval Jewish culture of the Genizah that I’ll visit tomorrow. What remains of the Genizah people were not massive tombs and huge statues, but a pile of old scraps, instead. In those scraps, we read of life in this world not the next – we read of trade, marriage, divorce, schools, poverty, lawsuits, and much, much more. We read, in short, of the stuff of this life, this world, and this quite knowable reality.

That’s an oversimplification, of course, but not much of one. The Egypt of the antiquity is of the Great Beyond. The Egypt of the Genizah is of the Here and Now. Or at least of the here and now as experienced by the Jews of Medieval Cairo.

It is to that room – the Genizah chamber at the Ben Ezra Synagogue – that I plan to climb tomorrow. It is a moment that I have been looking to with eager anticipation for many months, and I look forward to telling you how it goes.


Rabbi Mark Glickman

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