REVIEW FROM THE "SOUTH FLORIDA JEWISH JOURNAL"
THE WAY A HISTORY BOOK SHOULD BE WRITTEN
SACRED TREASURE—THE CAIRO GENIZAH by Rabbi Mark Glickman, Jewish Lights, Woodstock Vt. 2010, 254 pages, $24.99
Reviewed by Rabbi Jack Riemer
What an exciting book this is! The publicity release begins “Indiana Jones meets the Da Vinci Code in an old Egyptian Synagogue”, and the book justifies the statement. If other history books were written with this kind of verse, non-professionals, and young people in particular, would read a lot more history than they do.
Most people probably have some vague idea of what a gernizah is. They know that Jews do not just throw away Holy Books. They either bury them, or stuff them into synagogue attics out of respect for the Name of God or the quotations from the Torah that they may contain.
And most people probably have a vague idea of what the Cairo Genizah was. They know that Solomon Schechter, who was at the time a reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge University, and who went on from there to become the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, went to Cairo, climbed up the ladder that led to the attic in the synagogue where the genizha was stored, and brought back to Cambridge many of the pieces of paper that he found there, and that began the field of Genizah Studies.
But that is about all that most of us know about this topic. I had no idea until I read this book that the genizah contained three hundred thousand documents, enough to keep scholars busy cataloguing and deciphering these scraps for many lifetimes. I had no idea that it contained business correspondence, love letters, hundreds of poems, both secular and religious, medical information, letters to and from Maimonides himself, and even a page from what we would later understand were the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Mark Glickman has written a page turner of a book. We follow him from Schechter to S.D. Goitein to Stefan Reif, to the scholars who are now using—and inventing---new kinds of computers and cameras and new ways of cleaning these manuscripts and digitalizing them so as to make these long neglected works available for the first time on line. Whereas these scholars had to go to Cairo and sit in the dusty attic where these documents were first discovered or else go to the many countries from Russia to England to America to the Vatican to Norway to France, and to Israel where some of them were stored, in order to study them, it will soon be possible to study them on line from wherever you may be.
And even more amazing: if the top half of a piece of paper had somehow gotten separate from the bottom half, and if one half ended up in Russia and the other half ended up in England, it is now possible for the specially designed computers to identify that they share the same handwriting, and that they come from the same author, and are really one piece of paper, and so they can be joined and studied. It is as if someone had created hundreds of jigsaw puzzles and mixed them up together, and then sent them to people all over the world, and challenged them to put their pieces together. And yet the work is being done slowly and systematically, by scholars who understand that this is by far the largest, and surely one of the most informative, collections of forgotten Jewish writings ever rediscovered.
Mark Glickman writes exuberantly, taking us along with him on an exciting journey from country to country, from library to library, explaining to us in simple language that you do not have to be a professional scholar to comprehend how rich this collection is, and how it opens up to us a whole world that we would otherwise know almost nothing about.
At the end of this fast moving and well written book, Mark Glickman raises the question of what does it all mean, what does this collection have to teach us, not only about the world of the Middle Ages, but about our own time.
He says it teaches four important spiritual and historical truths. The first is that, contrary to what we usually believe; the Jewish community of the Middle Ages was not as monolithic as we think it was. In fact, it was as fractured and as contentious as we are today. At least three groups co-existed side by side in Medieval Cairo: those who followed the Palestinian Talmud and accepted the authority of the Palestinian Sages, those who followed the Babylonian Talmud and accepted the authority of the Gaonim, and the Karaites , who disappeared eventually, but who at one time had real numbers and status. These three groups lived side by side, did business with each other, and debated with each other, according to the documents they left behind
The second truth the Genizah teaches is that there was a vibrant, vital, prosperous, Jewish community that existed a thousand years ago in Egypt of all places. This community had security, success, and Jewish knowledge, contrary to our stereotype that medieval Jewry was downtrodden, oppressed, and unenlightened.
The third truth that the Genizah teaches is that Arab-Jewish relations were not always as bad as they are today. Many of the Jews whose literary legacy is found in the Genizah wrote in Arabic as well as in Hebrew, and they learned from, as well as taught, the people around them. The Hebrew language developed its grammar on the model of the Arabic language. The revival of Hebrew in our time would not have been possible without the help rendered to it by Arabic a thousand years ago. Arabic itself was a Jewish language, and, unlike Latin in Europe, was employed by Jews for all secular and religious purposes, except for the synagogue service.
The fourth, and perhaps the greatest lesson in the Genizah, is the holiness of writing. In this age of computers with their instant delete buttons, it is hard to understand but there is really something awesome about the power of writing. As Glickman puts it: “Pen touches paper and moves across its surface, and leaves a trail of ink behind. And that trail forms letters, the letters form words, the words become sentences, and the sentences convey thoughts. The written word can go from mind to mind, from heart to heart, from continent to continent. At some level, we still know this. This is why we cherish old love letters, graduation certificates, and family albums. They enable us to connect ourselves to the past and to bind ourselves, if only fleetingly, to the souls of others.”
So this is a book for all who like exciting stories. It is at least as fast moving and as adventurous as anything in Indiana Jones. It is a book for anyone who likes history, for it tells the fascinating story of the treasures that were found in a synagogue attic more than a century ago, and what it has taught us about a nearly forgotten community that lived in the Middle Ages. And it is a book for all who appreciate the shards of history, and the wonder of what communities leave behind to instruct us about themselves with.
For all these reasons, and more, I heartily recommend this informative and exciting book.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is a frequent reviewer for this journal and for many other journals of Jewish Thought in America and abroad.