Saturday, December 25, 2010


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.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Genizah Update #28
"One of the Best Jewish Books of 2010”

December 23, 2010

Dear Friends,

Greetings! I hope this email finds you well. I have several exciting book-related news items to share with you:

Waking up and doing my early morning email-check today, I was delighted to learn that Jewish Ideas Daily named my book, Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah, one of the best Jewish books of 2010. In fact, my book is the eighth one on the list…but maybe that’s just because it’s alphabetical. As you can see if you follow the link below, Sacred Treasure is in very good company on this list; seeing it there was a real thrill and a great honor.

Now that my book has been completed, I’ve closed the account holding the generous donations that many of you provided. Fortunately, the leftover funds allowed me to make $1,000 donations to two important Genizah institutions:

• The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library
As you may know, the Cambridge University Library holds the largest collection of Genizah manuscripts – indeed, the largest collection of Jewish manuscripts of any kind – in the world. Included in their holdings is the Mosseri Genizah Collection, a trove of 7,000 manuscripts removed from the Genizah in the early 20th century and held in a trunk in the Mosseri family home until 2006. Conservators are unpacking and processing these documents at a rate of six or so per day – it’s a huge job. This donation will support the Genizah unit in their important work with this collection. You can learn more about it at

• The Jewish Theological Seminary of America
JTS holds the worlds-second largest collection of Genizah manuscripts – about 35,000 of them. The Seminary acquired most of these treasures in the 1920’s from a collector named Elkan Nathan Adler. Adler had preserved the documents in clear plastic sleeves made of PVC – the same stuff they make water pipes from today. At the time, this was considered the latest and greatest way to preserve old manuscripts, but since then we’ve learned that PVC contains acids and other compounds which slowly eat away at the documents with which they come into contact. Knowing this, conservators now need to remove the documents from their PVC sleeves, and store them instead in sleeves made out of Melinex. Melinex is pop-bottle plastic, and it never degrades. Of course, such a project will be costly, but I’ve earmarked our donation for this specific purpose, and it’s nice to know that it will play an important role in preserving the priceless JTS Genizah treasures.

• Friday, December 24, 12:00-12:30 PST, “Beyond 50 Radio” (Portland, OR),
• Sunday, January 2, 8:00 AM PST, “Jewish Perspective Radio” (Brevard County, Florida), (Airing-date unconfirmed)

After they are aired, both programs should be available online and on iTunes.

The photograph atop this email comes to me courtesy of my friend, Dr. Ben Outhwaite, director of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge. It is not “PhotoShopped.” Rather, this is a real picture of a real copy of my book sitting amongst real manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah. The two words below and to the left of the book are, “haadhihi al-kuraasa,” which is Judeo-Arabic for “this book.”

Many thanks to those of you who have posted reviews of my book on Amazon. If you enjoyed the book, have not yet reviewed it, and are so inclined, please feel free to do so at your earliest convenience. These reviews are enormously helpful in getting the word out about the book.

Speaking of reviews, I have attached one from Rabbi Jack Riemer that I thought you might enjoy reading. It was published in the South Florida Jewish Journal


It’s still not too late to get a copy of Sacred Treasure as a belated Chanukah or Christmas gift…or as a very early one for next year. If you’re interested in purchasing a signed copy from me, please contact me or consult previous Genizah Updates for details.


As you can see, I have still have an active schedule of Genizah talks, including an upcoming talk on Monday, January 13, 7:00 PM, at Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park, Seattle. If you would me to come speak to your group, please contact me at your convenience.

Date Time Venue City
1. Sun, Jan 2 8:00 PM Pac. Assn. of Reform Rabbis (PARR) Palm Springs, CA
2. Thu, Jan 6 7:30 PM University Synagogue Irvine, CA
3. Mon, Jan 13 7:00 PM Third Place Books Seattle (Lake Forest Park)
4. Mon, Jan 24 TBA Temple Israel Dayton, OH
5. Tues, Jan 25 TBA The Valley Temple Cincinnati, OH
6. Wed, Jan 26 12:15 PM Hebrew Union College-Jewish Inst. of Religion Cincinnati, OH
7. Wed. Jan 26 7:00 PM Rockdale Temple Cincinnati, OH
8. Sun, Feb 27 TBA Cong. Ahavath Beth Israel Boise, ID
9. Fri, Mar 18 Noon University District Rotary Club Seattle, WA
10. March 27-30 TBA Central Conference of American Rabbis New Orleans, LA

That’s all for now. Best wishes to you and your loved ones for a wonderful holiday season.


Rabbi Mark Glickman

Have you seen my new book? “Sacred Treasure--The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic” (Jewish Lights Publishing)