Adina Hoffman is the author of “House of Windows: Portraits From a Jerusalem Neighborhood.” Peter Cole is a poet and translator. As they relate in their engaging book “Sacred Trash,” the materials in the storeroom included letters, wills, bills of lading, prayers, marriage contracts and writs of divorce, Bibles, money orders, court depositions, business inventories, leases, magic charms and receipts. One early examiner of the cache described the scene as a “battlefield of books.” The most recent deposits were made in the 19th century; there were fragments that dated back to the 10th century. Another early visitor described the scene thus: “For centuries, whitewash has tumbled” upon the documents “from the walls and ceiling; the sand of the desert has lodged in their folds and wrinkles; water from some unknown source has drenched them; they have squeezed and hurt each other.”
The challenge presented to researchers, to reconstruct documents out of fragments, remains akin to the challenge embraced by jigsaw enthusiasts, save that in the case of the Cairo cache, there were very many pieces, from very many puzzles, all mixed up together, in one great mess. Though scrutiny of this material continues, several books drawing on the documents have already illuminated the lives of Mediterranean Jewry. At least one masterpiece of scholarship and imaginative reconstruction owes its existence to the cache: “A Mediterranean Society,” the Israeli scholar S. D. Goitein’s five-volume study of medieval Jewish communities — in all their “quotidian glory,” Hoffman and Cole add. Goitein is one of the heroes of this book, one among several who committed themselves to the collection’s study. The story told by “Sacred Trash” is both lively and elevating; it is best read as an extended act of celebration of Cairo’s historical Jewish community, their documents and their documents’ 20th-century students (though the authors also find space to relate the less creditable activities of the storeroom’s plunderers, pillagers and looters).
The cache was known, and is still commonly referred to, as a “geniza.” This word, which is barely translatable, holds within it an ultimate statement about the worth of words and their place in Jewish life. It intimates the meaning “hidden” or “concealed.” But behind that notion, when applied specifically to manuscripts or books, two further, ostensibly contradictory meanings lurk. The works to be hidden or concealed have either a sacred or a subversive character. Those that are sacred are to be protected and preserved when no longer usable; works in that countercategory, which are subversive, and therefore fit only to be censored or suppressed, are to be put out of view. In neither case is the work accessible, but for quite opposing reasons. The one is to be treasured; the other, condemned. A geniza, then, serves the twofold purpose of preserving good things from harm and bad things from harming. Over time, “geniza” became the name for a place that held any redundant or obsolete documents. It was the great achievement of the men and women who worked on the Cairo texts to recover them from obsolescence. Where others saw rubbish, they found riches.
(via Books - Image - NYTimes.com)