Rabbi tells the amazing story of the Cairo Genizah
By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – “Indiana Jones meets the DaVinci Code in an Old Egyptian Synagogue.”
That is one description of “Sacred Treasure: The Cairo Genizah, The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic,” written by Rabbi Mark Glickman and published by Jewish Lights Publishing in 2011.
Rabbi Glickman will speak about his book at Temple Beth El in Springfield on Wednesday, March 21 at 7 p.m.
A Genizah, Hebrew for “hiding place,” is a depository for sacred Hebrew books that are no longer usable. Since they could not be thrown out because they may have contained God’s name, these documents, were stored in a genizah, usually in the basements or attics of synagogues.
The Cairo Geniza is a collection of more than 280,000 Jewish manuscript fragments found in the Genizah or storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt. These materials are now dispersed among a number of libraries, including the libraries of Cambridge University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.
While discovered by several people over the last few centuries, Rabbi Glickman’s book tells of Solomon Schechter’s arrival at the Genizah in 1896 and his discovery of the importance and magnitude of the cache of Jewish documents.
Rabbi Glickman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami, in Woodinville WA, and of Congregation Kol Shalom, on Bainbridge Island WA. He is a regular religion columnist for the Seattle Times, and has served on the faculties of Pacific Lutheran University and Seattle University.
He received his Rabbinical Ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 1990. On January 1, 2000, the Tacoma News Tribune named Rabbi Glickman one of the “20 People to Watch for the Century.” He lives in Woodinville, WA with his wife, Caron, and their children, Shoshana, Jacob, Kyleigh, and Taylor.
He recently spoke to the Ledger about his book and the Cairo Genizah.
Q: A press release about your book calls it “Indian Jones Meets the DaVinci Code in an Old Egyptian Synagogue.” Was it your intention to make history come alive as a sort of adventure story?
A: I don’t think I need to make it come alive, because the story does a great job of doing that itself. The story of the Cairo Genizah, particularly the modern story of the Cairo Genizah, is a story of discovery, adventure and the uncovering of a world that that to a large extent had previously been unknown, namely the world of Judeo-Arabic civilization.
Q: Solomon Schechter is the “lead character” of your book. Can you tell me his role in this?
A: Solomon Schechter is commonly credited with discovering the Cairo Genizah. To call him the discoverer of the Cairo Genizah is a little bit of a misnomer, since many people already knew about it when he arrived. But he certainly brought the Genizah to the attention of the western world. This was a pile of scraps that had been stored in the attic chamber in the Ben Ezra Synagogue for centuries. To the locals, it was, to a great extent, just junk. Certain Westerners had peeked into the Genizah and taken note of it, but it wasn’t until Solomon Schechter visited Cairo and saw the Genizah’s priceless trove of literary and scholarly treasures for himself that people really became fully aware of its significance.
Q: These were not just religious items, but all kinds of written materials?
A: Yes, all kinds of written material. There were religious documents; there were torah scrolls and biblical passages and pages of Talmud. And there were also court records and medical documents and business receipts, children’s school books and love letters – anything and everything that documented the daily lives of the Jews and Muslims living in this medieval society.
Q: From what time period are all of these things from?
A: The hey-day of the Genizah was from 949 to 1250. Most of the material in was from medieval times. But there were documents that date back to the 5th century or so, and its most recent document had been written in 1899. So it really spanned history.
Q: Where are all of the contents of the Genizah today? Are any documents still there?
A: All of the documents from the Genizah have been removed. The majority of them are in the library of Cambridge University, which is now home to more than 190,000 of them. Another 30 or 35,000 of manuscripts are at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and the rest are scattered at libraries around the world. And they are still turning up. As a matter of fact, during the past couple of months I’ve helped to identify at least three documents that had previously been unknown to the scholarly world.
Q: So you have actually been able to go and see these amazing historical documents in person? What has that been like?
A: As part of the research, my then-15-year-old son Jacob, and I went to Cambridge and Cairo and then to New York on what we called “Expedition Genizah.” We took the very first usable photographs ever taken of the Genizah chamber at the Ben Ezra Synagogue. When we went to Cambridge, sat at a table, opened an album of manuscripts and there, right before us, were documents handwritten by Maimonides, a letter written by the famous poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevy, and countless other priceless treasures. To hold these documents in our hands – even though they were encased in protective plastic – was an unspeakable thrill.
In New York, I had the opportunity to page through the oldest known Passover Haggadah in the world. It dates back to about the year 1000. It is so old there are only two questions rather than four! But just like the Haggadahs here in my home, this one, too, has food stains on the haroset page.
So to have had the opportunity look at these documents was an amazing opportunity to transcend time and space, and an unspeakable thrill.
Q: People have known about the materials that had been stored in the Cairo Genizah since before 1896. Why has there been such a big interest in it recently?
A: A big part of the reason is that there have been some recent technological advances. Among the most exciting is an initiative called the Friedberg Genizah Project – an effort to digitize, and catalogue, and share the entire corpus of material from the Cairo Genizah– more than 300,000 individual documents. That is one of the reasons there is some new interest in the Cairo Genizah.
One of the things that happened to many of these documents as they sat and moldered in the Genizah over the centuries is that the got torn into pieces. Nowadays, one part of a single document could be in Cambridge, another could be in New York, and another could be in Budapest. The Friedberg Genizah Project, however, has taught the computer to look at these documents – to analyze their size, their shape and color, the handwriting – and to put the enormous jigsaw puzzle back together again. As a result, the documents are now becoming accessible in a way that they have never been before.
Q: How did you learn about this story? What attracted you and made you want to write this book?
A: I first heard the story of the Cairo Genizah when I was in my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. One of my teachers, Dr. Marc Bregman, had identified what turned out to be not only the oldest manuscript in the Cairo Genizah, but the oldest known manuscript of rabbinic literature anywhere. He told us the bare outline of the story. Then a few years ago, Rabbi. Burton Visotzky wrote a novel loosely based on Genizah manuscripts, and my interest in the story was rekindled.
Around that time I was looking at Solomon Schechter’s account of his visit to the Genizah, and I noticed that he described it as “a battlefield of books.” It was a beautiful image — a sacred literary site with bodies strewn all over.
“A Battlefield of Books,” I thought. That would be a great title for a book telling the story of the Cairo Genizah. Well, the phrase didn’t survive as my book-title, but it is the title of a chapter in my book.
The rest, as they say, is history.