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Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole

Yitzchak Schwartz, Intern, Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters

Posted: Monday, July 2, 2012

«Reams of scholarship have been written on the contents of the Cairo Geniza, but in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole explore how the 1896 discovery itself changed the world of Jewish scholarship.»

The story begins in England, where the intrepid sisters Agnes (Smith) Lewis and Margaret (Smith) Gibson show fascinating fragments of ancient Jewish manuscripts to the Cambridge scholar Solomon Schechter. (These are the same sisters that Annie discussed in her review of the book Sisters of Sinai.) After seeing the fragments, which the sisters had brought back from the ninth-century Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Schechter journeys to Egypt himself, where he finds a cache of documents in a dark chamber in the synagogue. The scope of the find was unparalleled in the history of Jewish scholarship and archaeology up to that point. Hundreds of pages of business correspondence and contracts, sacred tomes, liturgical and secular poetry, and illuminated manuscripts littered the floor in heaping piles. Schechter spent an entire month going through the repository's contents before bringing scores of fragments back to Cambridge. These fragments, as well as others gathered by competing scholars and collectors that Hoffman and Cole discuss, changed the course of Jewish intellectual history.

The authors take us from the halls of Cambridge, to universities and libraries around the world, to the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where scholars and students surrounding the great S. D. Goitien use the finds from Cairo to create the new field of Geniza studies, filling in what had been, up to that point, a "black hole" in Jewish history. The book is wonderfully written, accessible, and entertaining. Cutting across the most important trends in Jewish intellectual history of the last hundred years, it's a great introduction to the world of the Cairo Geniza—both the medieval one that created it and the modern one of scholarship and ideas that formed around it.

About the Book
Hoffman, Adina, and Peter Cole. Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. New York: Schocken Books, 2011

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About the Author

Yitzchak Schwartz is a student at the Bard Graduate Center for Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, as well as Yeshiva University's Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, where he researches Jewish material culture and cultural history. He is also a Research Associate at the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, where, among other projects, he is working on the exhibition The Samaritans: A Biblical People, which will open at the Museum of Biblical Art in Fall 2014.

About this Blog

This blog accompanied the special exhibition Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, on view March 14–July 8, 2012.