Thursday, April 22, 2010

Genizah Update #9

Expedition Genizah Day 6: Cambridge Today, Cairo Tomorrow

Hello everyone!

Today is our last full day in Cambridge, and I wanted to get a final update out to you before we leave for Cairo tomorrow. Since including the pictures was such a hassle last time, I’m going to omit them from this email, hoping to convey the images to you through words, instead.

The past two days have been a real whirlwind. I’ll have more detailed reports when we get home, but here are a few highlights:

Day 5: Old Hebrew and Old Houses

Yesterday began back at the Genizah unit, where we planned to film an interview with its director, Dr. Ben Outhwaite. One member of our team, however (I won’t tell you who), forgot to bring a fresh battery for the camera. If Ben weren’t such a sweet guy and so willing to postpone the interview, it would have been a problem.

We zipped back to the hotel, grabbed the battery, and then went to meet with Dr. Geoffry Khan, a linguist who has done a lot of work in Genizah studies. He is, for example, the world’s leading expert on the Hebrew vowel, sh’va. One his many Genizah-related projects has been to use the manuscripts to reconstruct the way Medieval Jews pronounced Hebrew, which is very different from any modern Hebrew that I’ve ever heard. We have some video of him reading the first couple verses of Genesis in that Medieval Tiberian Hebrew dialect - it’s very cool.

We then went to the home of Sue Pearl, a delightful woman I’d met the day before when I spoke to the Cambridge Jewish Residents Association. Sue is a sculptor, and she lives in the house where Solomon Schechter first lived with his wife, children, and two servants when he moved to Cambridge in 1890. The house is a cozy place, and Sue gave it a very welcoming feel. It was fun trying to imagining Schechter living there.

Solomon Schechter had left that house by the time he first became involved in Genizah work, but Sue was kind enough to drive us over to Schechter house #2. This time, I didn’t know the occupants, but I mustered my chutzpah and knocked on the door anyway. A young man answered my knock. I explained why I was there, and he told me that his parents own the house, but that they were out of town. He said we could come in anyway, and he let us take some pictures. His father, it turns out, is a physician and an amateur painter. I don’t think Schechter would have used all of the modern art and furniture that this family does, but, again, it was fun to imagine the house as it might have been back in Schechter-times.

Day 6: Castlebrae

Today we began at Castlebrae, the 20-room mansion where Solomon Schechter first became aware of the riches of the Cairo Genizah. The beautiful, Tudor-style house was home to Margaret Gibson and Agnes Lewis, two wealthy and erudite identical-twin Scottswomen, who were collectors and scholars of ancient and medieval manuscripts. On May 13th, 1897, in the Castlebrae dining room, they showed some newly-purchased antiquarian manuscripts to Solomon Schechter, and Schechter identified one of them as a page from the long-lost book of Ben Sirah (this was one of the pages Jacob and I held yesterday). Today, Castlebrae is a student dormitory for the students of Clare College, part of Cambridge University.

Arriving at Castlebrae this morning, we were greeted by our tour guide, Charlie Hampton, who is the head porter (security officer and all-‘round overseer) of Clare College. Charlie is a burly, balding and very feisty man of about 70 or so. He has a delightful, crooked smile, and that wonderful f British accent that makes T’s into apostrophes. Also joining us were three members of the Clare College staff, and Dr. Janet Soskice, who recently published a marvelous book about Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson, called The Sisters of Sinai. Dr. Soskice is a very dignified and articulate woman, around 60 years old, who showed up Cambridge-style – on an upright bicycle with a large wicker basket on the front handlebars.

The rooms of Castlebrae have been chopped and redivided since the sisters lived there, but you can still get a sense of its grandeur. The dining room where they showed Schechter the Genizah documents, for example, is now the office of Terry Staton, the “supervisor” of Clare college, which I think is something of a cross between college advisor and director of student affairs.

At one point, I asked Terry, “Are you aware of the great historic events that unfolded right here in your office?” As I told her the story, a student approached her desk, waited for me to finish, and then asked a question of her own: “Terry, do you by any chance have my have my trousers?”

Charlie used his keys to let us into the students’ dorm rooms, some of which still held the original furniture from the 1890s – heavy oak stuff now draped with 21st century rock posters and silly photographs. Near the end of the tour, we were in the main hallway off the foyer, and we came to a large cabinet with a high, arched top. It was locked. Charlie couldn’t find the key, and told us that he had worked there for over 20 years, and had never gone into that cabinet. Our little group stood around wondering what great secrets we might find if we could get into that cabinet, and then we began to walk away.

As I left, I turned around and saw Jacob – my innocent little boy – reach into his pocket, pull out his old student ID, and slide it into the door jamb. Within about five seconds, Jacob had picked the lock and was opening the door. The group froze, turned in its tracks, and hurried back. Slowly, Jacob opened the large door. Slowly, we peered inside. And slowly, we realized that the cabinet held….

Nothing. It was just some old shelves, and a dated inventory from 1966 on the inside of the door listing sheets, napkins and tablecloths. Dr. Soskice guesses that Samuel Lewis, Agnes’ husband who died a few years after the house was built, may have used the cabinet to display his collections of ancient coins and pottery.

From there, it was back to the Clare College Library for tea. There we met Aaron (oops forgot to record his last name) an American Jewish graduate student in Classics, and nephew of David Bolnick, a mohel in Seattle with whom I have worked several times. Aaron walked us over to the Great Hall of Clare College – the dining room. The room had high, vaulted ceilings and magnificent portraits of some early enemies of our USA – General Cornwallis, Charles Townshend, etc.

The whole thing was very Hogwarts.

Ordinarily, I would share some thoughtful observations or comments at this point, concisely – maybe even pithily – summing up my experiences here. But by head is spinning with all that I’ve been seeing, and I am still processing. Pithy comments, I’m afraid, will have to wait.

Tomorrow, Back to Egypt

Tombi the driver is to meet us at 5:00 AM tomorrow to drive us to Heathrow for our 9:15 flight. Two days later, we visit the Genizah and make our “Climb Through Time.”

As I anticipate that visit, I’ve been trying to think of what I should say when I first set foot in that little room – I’ve been looking for a “One small step for man…” comment that would be fitting for the moment. Here are a few of the lines I’m considering:

· Ooh…look at all the Pez Dispensers up here! I never knew there was a Maimonides one!

· So this is where President Carter’s family stored all those un-bought cans of Billy Beer!

· Capone this…Capone that…Hey, Jacob – call Geraldo!

· Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?

· Gee, Starbucks stores really are everywhere these days!

Somehow, I don’t think that any of these would do. Your thoughts and suggestions, as always, would be most welcome.

Thank you so much for your interest in – and support of – this project. About 150 people now receive these emails, and your interest in, and enthusiasm for, this project inspires me beyond words. I am very, very grateful to you all.


Rabbi Mark Glickman

PS. A CORRECTION: In a previous update, I mentioned that I’d met Lady Marilyn Fersht, whose husband, Sir Alan Fersht, is a leading scientist involved in the Human Genome Project. In reality, however, Sir Fersht is not involved in the Human Genome Project. His expertise is in the field of proteins, and his connection with genetics is that his lab is next door to the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, where Francis Crick and James Watson discovered DNA. I apologize for the mistake.

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