Saturday, April 24, 2010
Just a few quick notes tonight:
• PRI’S THE WORLD
For those of you who missed it, here is the link to the Friday interview that ran on PRI’s The World. The posted some pictures and links, too:
• BOOK COVER AND CATALOGUE PAGE
Attached is a copy of the page describing my that will be in an upcoming catalogue of Jewish Lights Publishing. I’m also told that they will feature it on the catalogue’s cover
As I mentioned in a previous email, I am also posting these updates on a blog – www.expeditiongenizah.blogspot.com. Feel free to visit and post at will. Also, if anyone has time to help me snazzy it up, please let me know.
• BOOK STATUS
Also as I mentioned before, I have completed my first draft, and I’m now in the editing process – a labor-intensive task with which the demands of daily life are not cooperating. One of my challenges is that I’ve been working on this project for a few years now, and in that time, “Genizah-land” has changed. New research has shown some of what I originally wrote to be incorrect and/or incomplete. This is a dynamic field and an ever-developing story. That makes it exciting, and it also makes writing a book about it feel like I’m herding Genizah-cats!
• GIVE IT UP FOR THE GENIZAH
Please remember that the caretakers of the Genizah documents are in desperate need of support. With your help, we can play an important role in making sure these documents are available for posterity. Donations are eagerly sought; T-shirts are still available for only $20.
Thank you for your ongoing interest and enthusiasm.
Rabbi Mark Glickman
Friday, April 23, 2010
I just heard from the producer at PRI’s The World that they plan to air my interview at “19 minutes after the hour, give or take a minute or so.”
If you’re not available then but would like to hear the story anyway, it will be available on their website later in the day: www.theworld.org.
Rabbi Mark Glickman
Thursday, April 22, 2010
Genizah Update #17: National Press Coverage
LISTEN TO “PRI’S THE WORLD,” FRIDAY, APRIL 23
Just a short note to let you know my Genizah project is about to hit the national airwaves. A reporter from “PRI’s The World” will be interviewing me on Thursday, and I am told that they plan to broadcast the story on Friday.
As you may know, “PRI’s The World” is a nationally syndicated public radio program, airing on more than 300 radio stations across the United States and Canada. It’s on at different times in different cities, but here are a few that might be of interest to subscribers of this list:
WNYC - AM
Cambridge, Kabul, Cairo and Jerusalem,
6:00 PM Eastern
If you live elsewhere, you can find out when and where to hear the story at http://www.theworld.org/stations/. More general information about the show is available at their homepage, http://www.theworld.org/. I believe that the story will be available there after it airs.
The reporter who will be interviewing me is a woman named Jeb Sharp. Unfortunately, I don’t know when during the hour the segment will run, but if I find out I will let you know.
Now, back to editing and the hunt for elusive reprint permissions.
Thanks, and best wishes to you all,
Rabbi Mark Glickman
It has been several weeks since I last updated you on the progress of my book about the Cairo Genizah – that’s because I have been busy writing it. My June 1 manuscript deadline is looming darker and darker.
The good news is that, at about 10:30 last night, I completed the first draft of the book! 101,655 words, 377 pages, of pure Genizah Goodness! There is still a lot more work to do, of course – major clean-up of the manuscript, photograph permissions, acknowledgement writing, and even a couple more interviews. But I finally have the raw material I need to begin sculpting what I hope will become a well-polished book.
Now, the writing can really begin.
The many suggestions I received from you were all very helpful. I shared some of them with the publisher, I had a couple of conversations about them with the editor, and then they told me what the title will be:
SACRED TREASURE: THE CAIRO GENIZAH
The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic
I wasn’t crazy about it at first, but I have to admit that it’s growing on me – especially since the title will effectively been the first line, with the second something of a throwaway description.
Then, last week, the publisher sent me these two drafts of the cover. I’m sure that whichever one they decide to use will be tweaked before publication, but seeing a real book cover made the whole thing feel very tangible and very exciting. It was especially a thrill to see that the cover included the two “G-Words” – Genizah, and Glickman!
I’m partial to the sand-colored one myself, but some of the teens in my house noted that they’d probably be drawn to the blue more readily than to the beige. Your comments, as always, would be most welcome.
Give it Up for the Genizah!
The more I read, the more aware I become of how important it is to support the people and institutions now caring for the Genizah manuscripts. As one example, most of the 30,000-35,0000 documents at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York are stored in PVC plastic – the same stuff they make our pipes out of, albeit in transparent, paper-thin form. PVC was the standard material used for manuscript storage when JTS received its collection in the 1920’s, but now we know that there are acids in these PVC casings that, over time, eat away at the manuscripts they hold. JTS needs to replace the PVC casings with more newly developed acid-free ones, but doing so would cost them tens-of-thousands of dollars.
When this project concludes, I hope to be able to use the funds I have raised to kick-start an effort to replace the PVC casings at JTS so as to help preserve these precious Genizah treasures for posterity. The money will also go to support the work of other institutions now caring for Genizah manuscripts.
Please give generously. You can send your donations to me at
15030 232nd Ave. NE
Also, don’t forget that for only $20, you can have your very own Expedition Genizah T-Shirt – this design on a lovely, dusty-blue shirt:
All T-Shirt proceeds go to the preservation efforts I mentioned above.
Again, my manuscript is due to the publisher on June 1, and the book is scheduled for publication in October.
Thanks for your support and enthusiasm – I will continue to keep you updated.
Rabbi Mark Glickman
Genizah Update #15: Home Again
March 11, 2010
Well, I’ve been back home for a few days now, and I am finally feeling a sense of recovery from my travels. Many thanks to you all for your continued enthusiasm and support. It is a real inspiration to me.
Now, of course, the big piece of unfinished business is actually writing the book…and my June submission deadline looms dark. However, I’m about 80% done with my first draft, so I think I should be OK. Or at least I hope so.
Attached is an excerpt from one of the later chapters of the book. It describes part of my visit to the Cambridge Library. As always, I would welcome any feedback you care to offer. Please don’t hesitate to be brutal – brutal feedback tends to be the only kind that helps.
That said, I would like to add a few caveats:
· Of course, this still just a draft, so I apologize ahead of time for the lack of polish.
· The final version of the chapter will contain more - and more interesting – pictures. They forbade taking pictures in the library, and I had to pay their photographer to take some photos for me. The disc, I am told, is on its way, and should arrive soon.
· Many of the documents I describe seeing will have been discussed earlier in the book. So if some of what I say doesn’t make sense, let’s hope that it will in the context of the final version.
· Thanks in advance for your comments.
Expedition Genizah T-Shirts
I mentioned in an early e-mail that these would be available for sale. And now they are. For just $20, you can have this lovely T-Shirt (image attached). It is the latest thing in Genizah fashion. In fact, it was designed by the famous clothing designer and synagogue executive director, Larry Glickman…who also happens to be my little brother. The few dollars in proceeds that we earn from each shirt will go into our Genizah fund and be forwarded to one of the institutions now housing Genizah documents.
I am now in a position to take orders. If are interested, please email me size and quantities. If I need to mail it to you, there may be an added shipping cost.
As I mentioned, on my expedition I saw first-hand not only the important work that various libraries are now doing to care for these manuscripts, but also how much more support they need. With the remaining funds, I hope to support the following two projects:
· Fighting the Acid
Many of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s 35,000 Genizah manuscripts are being eaten away even as we speak. When the Seminary received them in the 1920’s, the came encased in clear PVC plastic sleeves – made from the same material as some of the plumbing pipes in our homes. What they weren’t aware of then, and what we know now, is that PVC contains acids that, over time, eat away at the paper it touches. As a result, there is a real danger that these priceless manuscripts will one day simply disintegrate. I hope to seed a project that will allow these to be re-encased in more modern, archivally-sound, coverings.
· Preserving the New Old Documents
As I mentioned in a previous update, just a couple of years ago the Cambridge University Library received a collection of 7,000 documents from the Cairo Genizah that had never before been fully examined. They had been gathered in the early 20th century by a wealthy Jew from Cairo named Jack Mosseri, and had remained in a trunk owned by his family ever since. Now, the documents are being painstakingly unpacked and preserved. The work is so slow that conservators can only process ten or so manuscripts each day – at this rate, it will take a few years to process the entire collection. This is an off-budget project for the library, so they need to raise the funds for this work separately. I hope to help support their work as generously as possible.
If you can, please give generously, and forward me your donations at your convenience:
Rabbi Mark Glickman
15030 232nd Ave. NE
Woodinville, WA 98077
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
March 3, 2010
Yesterday morning, Jacob and I boarded an airplane in Cairo. 17 hours later, having spent a couple of hours at London’s Heathrow Airport, we landed in Newark NJ, glad to be in the United States once again.
Our travel agent, having messed up our reservation in England, arranged for an upgrade here in New York. We’re staying in a HUGE, if somewhat dumpy, suite here at the Salisbury Hotel, right across the street from Carnegie Hall. We have lots of room here, so if you’re in the neighborhood, feel free to stop buy…and bring along your friends. If you have any trouble finding us, just ask anyone you meet how to get to Carnegie Hall. J
Meeting Rabbi Schechter
We were exhausted when we arrived, but there is no rest for the weary. For a late breakfast, we met with Rabbi John Schechter, the great-grandson of Rabbi Solomon Schechter, who discovered the Genizah. John’s true claim to fame, however, is that he was my camp counselor in Wisconsin in 1976 and/or 1977 – we confirmed it today.
We had a delightful time with Rabbi Schechter – he brought us over to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and showed us a display of Schechter family Judaica given to Solomon when he left Cambridge for New York in 1902. He also told us about Schechter’s daughter, Ruth, who married, moved to South Africa, later divorced her husband, returned to the US, and then remarried a man from Liverpool whom she had met in South Africa. A few years ago, John came across a novel written by Solomon Schechter’s friend, Israel Zangwill. It was about a Jewish woman from England who married, moved to South Africa, later divorced her husband, returned to the US, and then remarried a man from Liverpool whom she had met in South Africa. One might think that Zangwill based the novel on the events in Ruth’s life, but Zangwill wrote the book when Ruth was only a little girl! Somehow, it seems, Ruth internalized the story that Zangwill wrote, and then lived it out when she became an adult.
We met Rabbi Schechter at Tom’s Restaurant, of Seinfeld fame. For Jacob, it was a great surprise.
Then, we took a quick cab ride from the upper Manhattan Campus of JTS, to the Greenwich Village home of the Hebrew Union College. There we met with Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, one of the Reform movement’s leading scholars of Jewish Liturgy, and a member of the team that composed our movement’s new prayerbook, Mishkan Tefillah. We had a fascinating conversation with him about what we can learn from the liturgical material in the Genizah.
My Movie Debut
Shortly before 5:00, we arrived at the office of Michael Strong, a literary agent who is producing the DVD Documentary version of the book. There, we spent six hours transferring images from my computer to his, setting up lights, doing my makeup (!), and conducting interviews about the project. I was exhausted by the time we left at around 11 PM, and Jacob was beyond exhausted. But he kept his spirits up the whole time, and was a real trooper.
Tomorrow we do interviews and more filming at JTS, and then we hop aboard a train for the hour-long ride to Bay Shore (on Long Island), where I am scheduled to speak about my trip – Mike will be filming my talk.
Now it’s almost 12:30 AM. Time to plotz. This has been a great trip, but I miss my wife and my other kids, and I am looking forward to coming home soon.
Rabbi Mark Glickman
Genizah Update #12
Day 10: Cairo Wrap-up
March 1, 2010
CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS
I apologize. Yesterday’s excitement, the pressure of limited Internet access, and my overall klutziness all led to several mistakes and omissions in yesterday’s email. Please allow me to correct them.
1. Yesterday’s update was #11, not #12 as it was labeled. In the future, I’ll be more careful in my pasting.
2. My fear of failure here in Cairo was that I would lay a big “goose-egg” –n ot a “good egg,” as I indicated in yesterday’s update. In fact, the only eggs that I ever lay are of the goose variety.
3. To clarify, because of the 15-foot abyss between the entry to the Genizah and its floor, I did not fully enter the chamber – doing so would have been very dangerous. I did, however, stick my head into the Genizah, which itself was an achievement I considered a huge success.
4. After I sent yesterday’s update, I realized that I’d neglected to mention just what it was that I saw in the Genizah. The answer: SALT. The Genizah is empty; Solomon Schechter removed most of its documents its documents in 1897, and a man named Jacques Mosseri removed the remaining ones in 1911. The floor of the Genizah bore a coat of dusty, gravelly schmutz, and the chamber’s only contents were two large bags labeled “SALT.”
Why were there bags of salt in the Genizah? This, my friends, is a good question – one that is likely to remain a mystery for a long time to come.
5. It is, I believe, important to note that Jacob Glickman is the first person to have photographed the inside of the Cairo Genizah – ever.
6. Today I learned that the dilapidated tomb we visited yesterday was that of Rabbi Chaim Kapuchi, a 16th century mystic who lived here in Cairo. According to legend, the rabbi went blind at one point, but, when he continued to read from the Torah anyway, he miraculously regained his vision. After his death, many people suffering from ophthalmic diseases or blindness visited his grave in search of healing.
TODAY – OUR FINAL DAY IN CAIRO
This morning we toured Azbekiyyah Garden and its environs. Once a grand, Paris-style park, the Azbekiyyah has now fallen into ruin. The opera, Aida, premiered at the nearby Opera House in the 1890’s, and Solomon Schechter stayed across the street during his historic visit.
We lunched with Jere Bacharach and Barbara Fudge. They split their time between Cairo and Seattle, and have been very helpful in the planning of our trip.
Then, this afternoon, we were privileged to meet two prominent Muslim Genizah scholars. One was Professor Hassanein Rabie, an economic historian of Medieval Islam, and a former Vice President of Cairo University. The other was Dr. Mohamed Hawary, a professor of Hebrew Studies at Ain Shams university. Courageously, Dr. Hawary has publicly reached out to the Jewish community in many ways, striving to bridge the chasm that often separates Jews and Muslims.
The opportunity to meet each of these men was a real honor.
Tomorrow morning, thanks to the miracle of manned flight rather than that of parted waters, Jacob and I make our exodus from Egypt. From here we head to the land of our people – New York.
We will continue to keep you updated, and we thank you for your continued interest.
Rabbi Mark Glickman
Genizah Update #10
Expedition Genizah Day 9 – Genizah!
We made it!!! Today, my son Jacob and I became the first people in decades to visit the Genizah chamber at Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue in many years. It was an unspeakable thrill, an enormous relief, and an experience that we both will treasure forever.
It was a dizzying day. I should preface my account, however, by noting that, when I began this trip, I had secured permission to visit the Cairo Genizah, but it was far from certain that I’d be able to visit it. Friends who know Egypt warned me never to count on anything here – my experience could end up succeeding beyond my wildest dreams, or I could come away with a big good-egg. One friend noted, “People come here counting on accomplishing all kinds of great things, and Egypt laughs.”
Today, Egypt didn’t laugh. Today, she was very cooperative.
THE BEN EZRA SYNAGOGUE
I was scheduled to meet Mr. Gamal Moustafa, of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, at the Ben Ezra Synagogue at 10:00 AM. We arrived early, and one of his assistants was already there. We began taking pictures, and soon Mr. Moustafa arrived. He is a man of about fifty or so; he’s about six feet tall, and today he wore a stylish sport jacket and crisply pressed slacks. He carried an air authority, and when he spoke, things seemed to happen very quickly. Soon, other staff members joined our party. “Dad,” Jacob said, “we’ve got a posse!”
It turns out that Mr. Moustafa is in charge of restoration of all Jewish, Coptic and Muslim religious sites for the Supreme Council. As began examining the synagogue, he explained that the Genizah is ordinarily off limits, and that this was an unusual visit. He had worked at his current post for fifteen years, and during that time, nobody – nobody – had ever entered the chamber. He had never even seen it, himself. (Actually, the last reported visit that I know of was in 1911.)
Eventually, we made our way up to the women’s balcony, from which we could get access to the Genizah. Mr. Moustafa said something in Arabic, and soon a six-foot ladder appeared – the kind that opens like an inverted V and stands on four legs. The attendants stood it in front of the entrance to the Genizah, held it steady, and invited me to climb. When I got to the top rung, the bottom threshold of the Genizah was at the level of my upper chest. I looked inside, and saw…nothing. It was dark. Pitch black.
“Can I go inside?” I asked.
“Yes. Can you jump up?”
Now, I like to think of myself as being pretty spry, but this was pushing it a little. To do what he was suggesting, I would have had to put my hands on the bottom of the Genizah entryway, jump with my legs, push with my arms, and somehow swing a leg into the opening…all in one smooth movement. I’m 46 years-old, I could stand to lose a few pounds – OK, a few dozen – I was on the balcony of a medieval synagogue, standing on a rickety ladder that was being held by a man I didn’t know and whose language I didn’t speak. On the other hand, I’ve been working on this project for a few years now, and I wasn’t about to let mere wimpiness prevent the completion of my mission. I decided I was going to give it a go.
“And please,” Mr. Moustafa added, “when you jump up, please don’t let your legs touch the wall in front of you.” Conservators had carefully restored and repainted that wall a few years ago, and, understandably, Mr. Moustafa didn’t want to ruin it with rabbinic scuffmarks.
At that moment, my decision to give it a go…up and went. “Uh…do you have a bigger ladder?”
Mr. Moustafa nodded to another attendant, who ran off to find one. Just then, I remembered that I had a tiny little flashlight on a keychain in my pocket. Careful so as not slip and fall, I reached in, removed it from my pocket, pressed the little button, and pointed the light inside the Genizah.
I’d always imagined that the Genizah floor was just a foot or two beneath the entryway. But when I shined the light down, I was surprised to see that the floor I’d expected to see simply didn’t exist. In fact, there was no floor.
Ok, so there was a floor, but it was down about fifteen feet or so beneath where I’d expected to find it. Had I just jumped in as Mr. Moustafa suggested – and as I’d seriously considered doing, myself – I would have plummeted downward to certain injury and, possibly, to my death.
What a story that would have made!
After a few moments, the other ladder arrived, and the attendants rigged a brighter light for me to use. The Genizah is a high chamber – maybe 30 feet or so – and it measures, I’m guessing, 10-by-12 feet. Afterward, the attendants showed me a small window near the bottom from which documents could be removed for burial. I called it “the Genizah drain.” For most of the Genizah’s active life, I believe, that drain was plugged shut.
During the Middle Ages, the Nile ran very near the synagogue building – it’s course has since shifted a few hundred yard to the west. Behind the building is the site where, according to tradition, the basket carrying the baby Moses was removed from the Nile.
As we thanked Mr. Moustafa, he asked whether there was anything else that we wanted to see. In fact, there was.
THE BASSATIN CEMETERY
Inez (our guide), Abd el-Aziz (our driver), Jacob, and I climbed into our van. But our party had grown, and now along with us were a Supreme Council staff member, a man whom I later learned was a police minder, and a Ben Ezra attendant “to tell us how to get there.” Our destination was the Bassatin Cemetery, the old burial-place of Cairo’s Jews, and also the site where Solomon Schechter and others found some Genizah documents.
The Bassatin Cemetery is, let’s just say, not on the typical Cairo tourist itinerary. To get there, we drove through crowded markets whose alleyways were barely wide enough for the van, desolate slums whose streets were lined with drifts of blowing trash, and past huge “cities of the dead” - gigantic Islamic cemeteries that have the look of neighborhoods themselves.
Finally, we arrived at the Jewish cemetery. But we weren’t allowed to enter – only relatives of the deceased were allowed. It turns out, however, that the Cairo Jewish cemetery consists of three different sections, so off we went to section #2. An old man – a caretaker from section #1 – climbed into our van to show us the way. That van was getting very crowded.
At section #2, we entered through a rickety gate, and found ourselves in a trash-strewn yard at the front of which, on rotting couch, sat a toothless old woman drinking tea. Behind her was a dilapidated mausoleum. It too was filled with trash, its floor was coated with animal droppings, and two roosters pecked and crowed in-and amongst-the debris.
This was the tomb of a prominent rabbi. His name escapes me in the swirl, so I’ll have to check. Its condition was very sad, indeed.
Then, at cemetery #3, we finally found what we were looking for. This was the Mosseri family burial ground. This wealthy family had built several elaborate museums around the periphery of the cemetery, and in the center were the graves of hundreds of other members of the community – non-Mosseris.
It is difficult to describe the condition of this place. Most of the headstones are toppled, and the inscriptions of many have been chisled away. Thieves? Antisemites? It’s unclear. The mausoleums are mostly for people who died in the early to mid 20th century. They, too, are dilapidated – filled with animal droppings, trash. A shelf in one of them held several dozen stale, rotting, pita breads.
Garbage swirled in the wind at every turn. Wild dogs howled and defecated amidst the graves in the distance.
Before we left, Jacob remembered a grave we had seen when we first arrived. “Dad, could we stand up that headstone with the Jewish star?” He drafted some members of our “team” to help, and together they righted the fallen headstone of one of Cairo’s deceased Jews. I was very proud of him.
The Maimonides Synagogue
Needless to say, it was a relief to leave the cemetery, and head toward our next stop – the Maimonides Synagogue. This place of worship was originally built in the 19th century, above the site of the yeshiva where the great Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon once taught his students. The Egyptian government has just restored the synagogue, and it will be rededicated a week from now, on March 7th.
Our driver took us to the old, walled city of Fatimid Cairo, the Medieval capital of the city. The gates are ordinarily closed to traffic, but Mr. Moustafa had told the police we were coming, so they opened the gates and waved us in. Just inside, we left the van, and climbed onto an electric cart, which took our party through the narrow winding alleyways of old Cairo to within a hundred yards or so of the Maimonides synagogue.
There, the head conservator, Ayman Hamed, gave us the grand tour, showing us the beautifully restored 19th century synagogue, the yeshiva beneath it, the small chamber off the yeshiva which is said to be Maimonides’ original burial place, and much more. It was a real thrill.
Then, it was back to the hotel. Jacob was exhausted, and I had to awaken him to get out of the van when we arrived.
Tomorrow, we have several meetings with scholars and friends, and then, early the next morning, off to New York!
And here I am, still trying to make sense of it all.
Thanks for reading this far, and best wishes to you all,
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