Genizah Update #7
Expedition Genizah, Day 4 - Cambridge!
I am pleased to report that expedition Genizah is well underway, and so far it’s been a huge success.
Here are some highlights:
Day 1, February 20 – Travel
Seattle to Washington DC; Washington to London. Cab from Heathrow to Cambridge. Our driver was a very nice man from Sri Lanka named Tombi:
Contrary to what his large nametag says, this is a picture of Tombi, not me.
Except for a snafu with our hotel reservation that took several phone calls and emails to fix, everything went smoothly. We are now cozily ensconced at the University Arms Hotel, in a room overlooking the field where the rules of modern soccer…uh…football were invented. The hotel also boasts the last surviving cage elevator in operation – it was installed in the 1920’s by Mr. Waygood Otis, himself.
Day 2: Sunday, February 21 – Arrival
By the time we settled in at the hotel, it was mid afternoon. We were tired, of course, and very hungry. We grabbed a bite to eat at a very British restaurant. (OK, it was Italian…and Jacob ordered a hamburger. But it was in England, so at some leve it had to be British, right?)
Then, we walked around town. Cambridge a beautiful and very European city of winding streets, narrow sidewalks, and breathtaking Gothic arches and spires. The town itself dates back to Roman times, and its university is over 800 years old. It is common to find oneself squeezing between a gray brick wall and pedestrian traffic on a sidewalk, and then to pass an archway through which is the gorgeous green quadrangle of one of the university colleges, surrounded by 16th century chapels and classroom buildings.
My research made me familiar with the city even before my arrival. I had visited it often via Google Earth (sorry, Microsoft folks), and I was surprised to discover that I already knew my way around pretty well. Jacob and I checked out some of the old colleges, crossed the River Cam (over the Cam-bridge, of course) and took a peak at Castlebrae, the home of Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, where Solomon Schechter first began to feel the lure of the Genizah. Thursday, we get a proper tour of the place.
Then, we went to a pub for fish-n-chips, came home, and plotzed. It was 8 PM.
Day 3: Monday, February 22nd – The University Library
We awoke promptly at 3:30 AM, which gave us plenty of time to prepare for breakfast at 7:30 and our appointment at the library at 9:40. It was snowing.
First, we had to visit the library’s office of admissions to show our letters of introduction and file the appropriate paperwork. The woman who greeted us – Jacob dubbed her “Mrs. Frumpy McGee” – put up some age-related hurdles regarding Jacob’s entrance into to the library, but after a few harrumphs and several phone calls it all worked out. Her face has been the only non-smiling one we’ve seen since our arrival.
Soon, Dr. Ben Outhwaite, director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah research unit came to greet us. He escorted us to his office through a complex series of narrow hallways, dark library stacks, and reading rooms with arched windows and high vaulted ceilings. Along the way he explained that the University Library owns a copy of every English book printed in the United Kingdom since…since…I forget, but since a long time ago. It also has countless periodicals, manuscripts, and even a Genizah fragment or two.
The Genizah Unit is much smaller than I’d anticipated – it’s really just a reception room with three small offices attached to it. Working with Dr. Outhwaite and his assistant that day were:
• A German Ph.D. student researching Arabic bible translations
• Another scholar who was cataloging Cambridge’s collection of more than 193,000 Genizah manuscripts. Dr. Ernst Worman began that work in 1904, and continued until his untimely death in 1909. Now, after more than a century, the work has finally resumed.
• Dr. Shmuel Glick, director of the Schocken Institute, in Jerusalem, who was visiting Genizah Unit to research some response literature.
Ben Outhwaite is a very affable guy. He has a terrific sense of humor, he’s a very talented scholar, and Jacob and I were both drawn to him immediately. He showed us some albums of 800-1000 year-old manuscripts that he and the other scholars had been working on that day.
Then he brought us to the imaging department. There, a team of the University Library’s photo technicians are working diligently with very resolution scanners and cameras to capture high quality images of the Genizah manuscripts. They photograph about 200 pictures per-person-per-day – a total of 2,500-3,000 per week.
We then went to the conservation lab, where the staff is processing the Mosseri collection – an assortment of about 7000 documents recently given to Cambridge as a long-term loan. In 20 years, they will go to the Jewish National Library, in Jerusalem. One of the technicians explained how she painstakingly cleans, flattens, and repairs each manuscript, spending about an hour to an hour-and-a-half on each one. She works on several documents simultaneously, however, so she can conserve 4-10 of them per day.
Talking to another conservator, I marveled at how painstaking their work must be. She responded by saying, “Everyone has patience for something. We all have something that we can do meticulously. For some people it’s raising kids; for others it’s playing music; for us, it’s repairing old documents.”
Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take any photographs inside the library, but their staff will be taking some for us, and we’ll be able to share the pictures when we receive them during the next couple of weeks.
Day 4: Seeing the Documents, Viewing the Stacks, Meeting the Jews
Seeing the Documents:
I’d asked Ben whether we could see several documents of particular interest, and today we got to see them. Among the treasures we saw were:
• Several of Maimonides’ documents written out by hand by the sage himself:
• The last letter Maimonides’ younger brother ever wrote to him before being lost at sea:
• Old palimpsests – medieval documents written on even older sheets of parchment and paper. Both layers of text are visible. In one the top text is from the 10th century CE, the under-text is from the 7th century CE:
• The Damascus Document – an early copy of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
• One of the oldest known pieces of Jewish sheet music in the world:
• A collection of schoolbooks, including some doodles and writing exercises written by children during the Middle Ages:
• A page of the original Hebrew of the book of Ben Sirah – this was the manuscript that Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson showed Solomon Schechter that first inspired him to visit the Genizah:
• The letter that Solomon Schechter wrote to Mrs. Lewis after he had confirmed his Ben Sirah find:
• And many, many more.
Jacob and I both had the privilege of holding each of these documents in our own hands. It was an unspeakable thrill.
Viewing the Stacks:
Ben then did some finagling and arranged to lead us into the stacks where the library stores its Genizah collection. We saw two or three long rows of library shelves that were linedfloor to ceiling, with albums holding the Genizah documents. Other, larger documents were stored in wide, flat-drawered cabinets. There was also a crate holding thousands of “manuscript crumbs,” tiny pieces of paper and vellum that had crumbled off their original pages over the years. Genizah gravel.
Along the way, we passed the Darwin aisle, where Charles Darwin’s papers are stored, including the original copies of his diaries from the Beagle expedition. Not far, we knew, were the papers of Sir Isaac Newton. Many other recognizable names whizzed by my eyes, but my brain is so overloaded that I can’t remember them.
Meeting the Jews:
If all of that weren’t enough, we then had a special treat. We left the library, and were picked up by Sara Kemp. Sara grew up in Cairo, moved to Israel just before that country’s revolution in the 1950’s, and, for the past several years, has lived in Cambridge. She has transcribed many Genizah documents, and was a HUGE help to me in planning my trip.
Sarah brought us to her home, where I spoke about my project to some members of the Cambridge Jewish Residents Association. About 20-25 people attended, most were seniors, and the vast majority were women – they were a delightful group, and they were all so British! Jacob and I both had a terrific time.
The president of this group, by the way, is Lady Marilyn Fersht, whose husband, Sir Alan Fersht, is a leading biologist involved in the Human Genome Project. Afterwards, I noted that, in the US, she and Michelle Obama might very easily been confused with one another – one is Lady Fersht, and the other is the First Lady. (Sorry.)
Tomorrow we meet a leading philologist of Semitic languages who has done extensive Genizah work, and we visit a former home of Solomon Schechter. Thursday, we meet a Maimonides scholar, tour Castlebrae, and take more photos and videos for the documentary version of the book, and on Friday we get in a cab at 5:00 AM and head to Cairo. (Along the way, we’ll board an airplane, too.)
An adventure this trip truly iss; a vacation it ain’t!
Thanks for reading this far. More updates coming soon.
Rabbi Mark Glickman