This is the final full day of Expedition Genizah, and we are looking forward to our return home.
Yesterday, we went to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where had several wonderful opportunities. First, we looked at some manuscripts. We read a legal edict, personally signed by Maimonides, encouraging Jews in faraway communities to support in the ransoming of Jewish captives in Egypt. We held in our hands the oldest known piece of Jewish sheet music. We examined one of the two oldest Passover Haggadahs in the world, saw a food stain splotching one of the pages, and wondered about the recipe of the charoses that made it. We’ve looked at many of these Genizah manuscripts on this trip, and it has remained an unspeakable thrill.
We also interviewed Dr. Burton Visotzky, a professor at JTS who has written a novel based on some Genizah manuscripts, We also interviewed Dr. David Kraemer, director of the JTS library. Dr. Kraemer gave us a fascinating tour of the facility, and showed us how the Seminary’s collection of more than 30,000 Genizah manuscripts is stored and cared for.
We then boarded a train with our friend and movie producer, Michael Strong, and took an hour-long ride to Bay Shore, Long Island, where I had the opportunity to share the “Genizah Story” at Sinai Reform Temple with Rabbi Emily Losben a delightful group of her congregants.
A Few Final Thoughts
For obvious reasons, I am still processing the events of this trip, and I will certainly continue to do so for a very long time. Here, however, in no particular order, are a few preliminary thoughts:
· Outside the United States, very few Jews seem to be researching Genizah texts.
No Jews in Egypt were working on the manuscripts, of course, but very few in England were, either. There are some Genizah researchers in Israel, I suppose, but the fact remains that these days much (if not most) of the important research into things Genizah is being conducted by American Jews and by European non-Jews. Maybe this is because the largest collection of Genizah documents these days, by far, is in Cambridge, England and, Cambridge, though a magnificent city is hardly a very Jewish place. New York, on the other hand, is a little different. Or maybe it’s because we are living, as I believe Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus taught, in the Golden Age of American Judaism. The state of Genizah research today is one area in which we can see this. Or maybe it’s just a quirk. For many years, the Genizah unit at Cambridge was run by Stefan Reif, a brilliant scholar of these texts, and a Jewish one at that. Perhaps these dynamics swing back and forth over the course of time like a pendulum. Whatever the cause, it is certainly interesting.
· Egypt is beginning to awaken to the significance of the Cairo Genizah.
In fact, a high-ranking official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities told me that they will be opening a Museum of Egyptian Civilizations in a couple of years, and they will want to do justice to Egypt’s Jewish past. He told me that they’re interested in sending a scholar to Europe or America to study Jewish history, particularly as illustrated by the documents of the Cairo Genizah. I look forward to doing what I can to help make this happen.
· People Matter Most
The high tech wizardry now being applied to the Genizah is indeed fascinating and important, but what we need most of all is an ongoing chain of people who study these texts. People can only become Genizah scholars when there are others to teach them, and the number of scholars who can now study these old papers is limited. One break in the chain of scholarship over time will make it very difficult to resume the study of these texts.
· The Genizah Story Must be Told
The more I learn about this story, and the more times I tell it, the more I realize what a fantastic, thrilling, and genuinely Jewish tale it is. Very few people know about the Genizah, but this is a reality that I hope to change soon.
· The Thrill of Place
Jacob’s mother – my ex-wife, Debbie – has been nothing but supportive of my taking Jacob on this trip. At one point, however, she said, “So let me get this straight – you guys are travelling halfway across the world … to go into a closet?” She asked a very good question, of course, and it deserves an answer. I think that being in the place of the Cairo Genizah helped build a connection with the countless Jews who deposited their documents in it over the centuries. Not only was it interesting and surprising to see what the chamber looked like, but seeing it – imagining the many generations of hands who reached into it holding papers and parchments for deposit – forged a connection across time and space that I wouldn’t have been able to feel otherwise. I believe that place plus historical imagination can open vast new worlds to us. More reflections about this soon.
· The Genizah Needs our Support
The librarians at JTS, Cambridge, and the other Genizah sites are doing a fantastic job of preserving these old documents for posterity, but they desperately need our help. Many of the manuscripts, for example, are stored in plastic with acids that are eating away at them even as we speak. The manuscripts still need to be catalogued, studied, digitized, transcribed, translated, and much more…and all of this takes money. They are operating in many ways on a shoestring budget, and, again, they need our help.
· I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.
Not only is the Genizah story a fascinating one, but it is also a huge one. It documents the lives of many centuries of Jews living in many lands; it tells those stories in many languages; and understanding its lessons demand a broad swath of knowledge that very few people have. Writing a book that tells its story is therefore a daunting task, and I hope what I write does it justice.
Surely, many more observations will be coming in the months ahead. Thank you again for your ongoing interest. I look forward to seeing those of you who live near me in Washington sometime soon…and I look forward to seeing the rest of you sometime soon, too.
This has been the adventure of a lifetime. Now it is time to go home.
Rabbi Mark Glickman