Sacred Trash

The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza

By Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole
  • Overview
  • Reader's Guide
  • News and Reviews

Overview

Sacred Trash is a small masterpiece. The romance of Hebrew scholarship has never been so vividly conveyed. This book is extraordinary in characterization, thought, and prose style. It will teach common readers, Jewish and gentile, how much spiritual tradition owes to the greatest scholars. This teaching comes through delight.”

—Harold Bloom

“What a delight to have the story of the Cairo Geniza, its romantic recovery and spectacular contents, told here by two such brilliant wordsmiths as Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole. This book takes readers to the very navel of the medieval world, east and west, Arab and Jew, shattering many preconceptions along the way.”

—Janet Soskice, author of Sisters of Sinai

“Hoffman and Cole spin an extraordinary tale of intellectual adventure and lasting scholarly accomplishment. The men and women who brought the Cairo Geniza to light are presented here in painstaking detail, their quirks and their brilliance exposed in equal measure. Carefully researched and beautifully written.”

—James Kugel, author of How to Read the Bible

Sacred Trash is a jewel of a book: a lively and deeply informed account of the Cairo Geniza, a magnificent Egyptian treasure-house of Jewish religion, literature, and history that was forgotten for centuries, and of the extraordinary crew of scholars and impresarios who saved the documents, fitted the scraps back together, and made them speak and sing.”

—Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

“One hundred and twenty years ago, time travel was all at once realized: With the discovery of the Cairo Geniza, medieval Jewish life in all its sacred and mundane efflorescence came tumbling out in thousands of manuscript fragments, each one a distinct and living voice of an ancestral civilization. No longer can we speak of the seven wonders of the world — in this astounding and acutely relevant tale, Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have uncovered a remarkable eighth; and in its connection to our own humanity, it surpasses all the rest.”

—Cynthia Ozick

One May day in 1896, at a dining room table in Cambridge, England, a meeting took place between a Romanian-born maverick Jewish intellectual and twin learned Presbyterian Scotswomen who had assembled to inspect several pieces of rag-paper and parchment. It was the unlikely start to what would prove a remarkable, continent-hopping, century-crossing saga, and one that in many ways has revolutionized our sense of what it means to lead a Jewish life.

In Sacred Trash, MacArthur-winning poet and translator Peter Cole and acclaimed essayist Adina Hoffman tell the story of the retrieval from an Egyptian geniza, or repository for worn-out texts, of the most vital cache of Jewish manuscripts ever discovered. This tale of buried scholarly treasure weaves together unforgettable portraits of Solomon Schechter and the other heroes of this drama with explorations of the medieval documents themselves—letters and poems, wills and marriage contracts, Bibles, money orders, fiery dissenting tracts, and fashion-conscious trousseaux lists, prescriptions, petitions, and mysterious magical charms.

Presenting a panoramic view of a vibrant Mediterranean Judaism, Hoffman and Cole bring modern readers into the heart of this little-known trove, whose contents have been rightly been dubbed “the Living Sea Scrolls.” Part biography and part meditation on the supreme value the Jewish people has long placed on the written word, Sacred Trash is above all a gripping tale of adventure and redemption.

Reader's Guide

For nine centuries, the Jewish community in Old Cairo, or Fustat, stored thousands of documents in a geniza–a repository for decaying or discarded texts–in a small room in one of the city’s synagogues. When scholars “discovered” this geniza in the 1890s and began to investigate its contents, an entire world of Jewish history emerged from its dusty piles of paper and parchment. Long-lost literary and religious works were found, piles of secular documents emerged, and an entire millennium of Jewish life–not just in Cairo, but around the world–came to light. As Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole explain in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, scholars have spent more than a century going through the Geniza’s treasures, and what they continue to find has transformed what we know about Jewish life and history.

The Geniza

Broadly speaking, a geniza is a place where sacred Jewish texts are buried after they can no longer be used. But not all genizot are the same: Some communities bury documents underground, while others – like the community that created the Cairo Geniza – store the documents in a chamber above ground. Some include not only sacred texts, but also specifically heretical texts (so they will not be widely disseminated), or even simply texts written in Hebrew characters, as was the case in Old Cairo.
  • How has the idea of a “geniza” shifted over the centuries? What did the term mean to the rabbis of the Talmud, and how did it evolve over time?
  • What is the purpose of a geniza today? To store documents for future generations – like a time capsule? To lay sacred documents to rest – like a grave? Something else entirely?
  • Hoffman and Cole write: “The glories of a past civilization might easily have faded into the sands had they not been hoisted out of oblivion by an active modern imagination, or several active modern imaginations…” But if part of the purpose of a geniza is to provide a place for documents to “decay of their own accord,” does the gathering and study of documents removed from the Cairo Geniza violate this spirit? If those documents added to Jewish knowledge, does this mitigate the situation?
  • In the 21st century, as we rely less on the printed word and more on digital communication, will there be anything left to place in a geniza? How will this affect what’s left in our modern genizot for future generations to unearth?
  • If someone were to “discover” the papers in your attic–or basement, or desk drawers, or diary, or garbage can–centuries from now, what could they surmise about your life? Would they create an accurate or complete picture of you?

The Scholars

Solomon Schechter, a Romanian-born Talmud scholar who taught at Cambridge before moving to America to helm the Jewish Theological Seminary, was the first to fully recognize the significance of the material contained in the Cairo Geniza – upon seeing fragments of manuscripts that had been purchased by two Scottish-born friends, the scholarly twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. He then traveled to Cairo to bring back enormous stacks of documents from Egypt to be catalogued and studied in England. But even Schechter realized at the time that truly examining the contents of the Cairo Geniza would take decades: “The work is not for one man, and not for one generation,” he wrote. And he was right: Scholars around the world continue to investigate the contents today, making new finds.
  • Schechter was involved in a public exchange of letters, arguing about who truly “discovered” the Cairo Geniza. Who deserves credit for “discovering” the Geniza? What does it mean to “discover” something that was far from unknown?
  • Who “owns” the contents of the Cairo Geniza? The small remaining Jewish community in Cairo? The dealers who first plundered the Geniza, hoping to make money by selling individual pieces – or their customers? The universities and libraries that funded recovery missions and scholars – or the scholars themselves? The institutions that currently house its documents? The Jewish community as a whole? Someone else?
  • Some people who helped raise awareness of the Cairo Geniza hoped to gain monetarily from its treasures; others stood to gain fame, or professional standing, from their investigations. Others were simply interested in collecting old manuscripts, and still others were interested in the way these materials confirmed a larger vision of Jewish history. The majority have been interested in scholarly inquiry for the advancement of the field. Does the motivation of these people make a difference in determining the value of their contribution?
  • Who is your favorite of the Geniza scholars described in the book? Why? Which is your favorite story about a particular Geniza scholar, and how does his or her story relate to the others in the book?

The Finds

The Cairo Geniza included an enormous range of manuscripts, in numerous languages. There were pages of Talmud, rabbinic responsa, as well as liturgical poems and songs. There were also “official” secular documents – such as court records and communal decrees – and personal papers, such as letters and business records and medical prescriptions. Taken together, these documents not only fill in numerous gaps in Jewish religious history, but also create a picture of what daily Jewish life was like for several centuries – not only in Old Cairo, or Fustat, but all around the Mediterranean.
  • Oftentimes, scholars discovered things in the documents that earlier scholars had seen but overlooked, either because they weren’t related to that particular scholar’s specific interests, or because the scholars were looking at the “wrong” part of the document – for instance, looking at the words written on the top layer of the parchment, rather than the earlier words written underneath them before the parchment was reused. What one scholar discarded as unimportant, another might later view in a different light as something quite important. At the same time, the notion of Geniza itself involves the question of valuation. Given all this—the nature of “geniza” as a process and the work that the Geniza scholar have done--how do you understand the book’s title, Sacred Trash?
  • Scholar S.D. Goitein described the Geniza as “a true mirror of life, often cracked and blotchy, but very wide in scope and reflecting each and every aspect of the society that originated it.” While others examining the Geniza had focused on liturgical writing or important works by famous figures, Goitein researched everyday life in the Mediterranean – everything from personal finance to travel, sexual behavior to clothing, social mores to pigeon racing. Why might this “documentary material” have been overlooked and even dismissed for so long? Why was admitting it to the “inner circle” of important historical texts so revolutionary?
  • What do you think the most important finds in the Cairo Geniza were? If you were researching the documents in the Cairo Geniza yourself, what would be your main source of interest?

The Impact

The finds in the Cairo Geniza have had wide-ranging effects. They have clarified historical questions of chronology, cleared up mysteries surrounding historic books and documents, settled academic and religious disputes, resuscitated poets and hymn-writers whose work had been lost to history, and brought to life a slice of Jewish cultural history that was heretofore unknown and underappreciated in its richness. They have even revealed a wealth of information about the diverse ways in which Jews understood and practiced their religion: clashing theologies, differing opinions, competing sects, alternative liturgies, and even “heretical” texts. Much as Jewish life today is far from monolithic, Jewish life in the middle ages, as seen in the Geniza, was complex and multilayered.
  • Hoffman and Cole assert that the Cairo Geniza is a treasure that rivals the Dead Sea Scrolls in its significance. What’s the basis for their comparison? Do you agree? What do you think that S. D. Goitein meant when he described the Geniza collections as “the Living Sea Scrolls.”
  • What is the value of the written word in Jewish tradition? Are these papers more valuable than, say, candlesticks or prayer shawls or other ritual objects from the same time period? Why are words so valuable?
  • What impact does the Geniza have on our conception of Jewish life and history today? What does it add to our communal knowledge? What elements of the Geniza world are familiar from our own world? Which ones seem different, or surprising?

News and Reviews

Sacred Trash, “absorbing”

"Absorbing … Hoffman and Cole are adroit in their exegesis … [Sacred Trash is] an accessible, neatly narrated story of hallowed detritus and the resurrection of nearly 1,000 years of culture and learning." Continue reading

Sacred Trash, “[a] vivid portrayal of the discovery of the ancient Cairo Geniza”

"...equal parts treasure hunt for the sacred and historical and Herculean rescue of important texts.... Sacred Trash is a wonderfully accessible and exciting account of ‘numerous heroes, medieval and modern’ and their discoveries of artifacts that have transformed our understanding of the interplay between history and religion.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash, a “charming and unobtrusively erudite new book”

“Charming and unobtrusively erudite.... Hoffman and Cole have produced colorful portraits of the Geniza scholars, their intellectual passions, their scholarly agendas and controversies, and in some cases, their personal egos and jealousies...Fascinating...a very human story.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash features “The Living Sea Scrolls: Inside a ‘battlefield of books,’ a rich mosaic of Egyptian Jewish life”

"This April, the Schocken / Nextbook Jewish Encounters series will publish “Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza” by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, which tells in dynamic fashion the story of the retrieval of what has often been called the greatest discovery of Jewish manuscripts ever made." Continue reading

Sacred Trash a key to the “priceless puzzle” that is the Cairo Geniza

"It's a priceless puzzle which is gradually revealing a clearer picture of medieval Jewish life and literature." Continue reading

Sacred Trash Reviewed: “Surveying the Battlefield of Books; or, Genizaschmutz”

“[Sacred Trash] is a work that will surely become an indispensable read for a growing popular audience of scholarly Jewish literature…..Within the academic community, as well, Sacred Trash will capture the interest of so many students, of all scholarly ages, for its ability to tell the single story of several generations of scholars, woven together in a clear narrative that … has the reader eagerly awaiting the turn of the page.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash: Where research meets adventure

“I can’t think of another work that succeeds so well in making archival research into gripping adventure.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash Receives a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly

“Hoffman and Cole deliver a riveting true account…. Invigorating.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash “a wonderfully passionate and lively account”

“A wonderfully passionate and lively account of a civilization we could not have imagined existed and of the men and women whose enthusiasm and dedication brought it to light.” Continue reading

The Rabbi on the Beach reviews Sacred Trash: “It was amazing”

"Sacred Trash is best known for its wonderful way of weaving together the men and women who discovered the geniza, their motivations and personalities with their discoveries." Continue reading

New York Times Book Review of Sacred Trash: Lively and Elevating

“Both lively and elevating . . . An extended act of celebration of Cairo’s historical Jewish community, their documents, and their documents’ 20th-century students . . . wonderfully revived by Hoffman and Cole.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash a hit on the West Coast

"Beautifully written, learned and lucid, 'Sacred Trash' is a treasure that should not be hidden.... Exquisitely realized." Continue reading

Sacred Trash thumbs up on Amitav Ghosh’s blog

“Sacred Trash is entertaining, lucid, enormously erudite and extremely well-written. Between them the writers possess all the scholarly equipment and narrative gifts that are required for the telling of this tale, and they have done a marvelous job of it. The Geniza is one of the world’s richest and greatest archives: Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have given it the biography it deserves.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash directs attention to the famous palimpsest–the Cairo Geniza

“A multi-layered work that provokes admiration and excites the imagination on many levels.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash Reviewed in The Nation: “From Cairo to Córdoba”

“A literary jewel whose pages turn like those of a well-paced thriller, but with all the chiseled elegance and flashes of linguistic surprise that we associate with poetry…Sacred Trash has made history both beautiful and exciting.” Continue reading

Lessons From A ‘Holy Junk Heap’

Sacred Trash makes it clear that it was hard to know what, in that collection of Cairo writings, was a jewel and what was garbage. One man’s urgent treasure, the authors suggest, was another scholar’s “pestiferous wrack.” Continue reading

Intellectual Excitement in Sacred Trash Never Flags

“…throughout Sacred Trash, the intellectual excitement never flags, since, in the end, the revelations the genizah provided altered our conception of what Jewish life was like in the ancient world and beyond.” Continue reading

Cole and Hoffman Construct a “vivid, human saga”

“It is a testament to Cole and Hoffman that they have fleshed out these ghosts, and patiently constructed a vivid, human saga every bit as extraordinary as a miracle.” Continue reading

The Treasure Trove of the Cairo Geniza

“Adina Hoffman and MacArthur-winning poet Peter Cole have written a new book about the find…They tell Marty about the scholars who brought the long forgotten manuscripts to light and what the documents reveal about the people of the past.” Continue reading

Acclaimed authors craft a fascinating mix of intellectual heft and muscular writing in Sacred Trash

"Mysterious travel by steamer and train. Piles of bakshish paid for the privelege of crawling through spaces filled with dust, mold, and excrement. Intrigue, claim, and counter-claim by outsized personalities and rival institutions. I have to admit that I never expected to find these packed between the covers of a book on the Cairo Geniza. But I did." Continue reading

Jewish Book Council

Sacred Trash a readable, gripping account

“It has taken over a century, and two non-academics, for us to have such a readable, at times gripping, account of one of the most important modern discoveries of written material from the Middle ages….[A] wonderful book.” Continue reading

Sacred Trash a small masterpiece

"Part biography and part meditation on the supreme value the Jewish people placed on the written word, Sacred Trash is above all a gripping tale of adventure and redemption." Continue reading

EMUNAH Magazine

Sacred Trash: The fascinating tale of deciphering the Geniza documents, fragment by fragment, word by word, and character by character

"Schechter, who must have “cut a remarkable figure as he strode down King’s Parade . . . [w]ith his bushy, red-tinted beard, unruly hair, and tendency to gesticulate broadly,” marked one of the first and perhaps the most majestic in a long line of characters to throw themselves into the study of the Geniza. And the portraits of these academics grant this book much of its texture." Continue reading

Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole do up the Cairo Geniza “with the skill of historians and the style of novelists”

"With the skill of historians and the style of novelists, Hoffman and Cole tell the remarkable story of the medieval document trove that came to light in the 1890s and has kept scholars busy for over a century." Continue reading

Sacred Trash a true mystery story

"Sacred Trash is a true mystery story of how our scholars found and decoded the meanings of objects left behind a thousand years ago in the Cairo Geniza." Continue reading

A “breathtaking” story in Sacred Trash

"BaltimoreJewishLife.com had the opportunity to ask the authors, Hoffman and Cole, how the Geniza is particularly relevant to the Orthodox Jewish community? Their response cut to the heart of what makes the Geniza so fascinating: "The very notion of Orthodoxy isn't really relevant in the Geniza context, since really all the Jews of the Middle Ages are what we’d now consider religious. In that sense, every single scrap of paper or parchment found here is potentially of interest to Orthodox Jews today... It’s also critical to realize that the Judaism of the Middle Ages was basically an Eastern—as opposed to Eastern European--religion. Scholars estimate that at least ninety percent of the world’s Jews during these years lived in the East and eventually under the rule of Islam. These were Arabic-speaking Jews who didn't live in ghettos, but interacted in an involved way with their Muslim and Christian neighbors."" Continue reading

Treasure Trove of Sacred Trash

"The finished product, they said, “is a total collaboration, fact by fact and sentence by sentence. We wrote the book we wanted to write and tried our best to convey our fascination, our enthusiasm, and our sense of discovery.”" Continue reading

Sacred Trash an elegant history of one of the great modern feats of cultural resurrection

“An elegant history of one of the great modern feats of cultural resurrection… Sacred Trash tells [its] story with narrative vigor and lightness of learning.” Continue reading

Congratulations to Sacred Trash authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, recipients of the 2012 American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Jewish Literature

Nextbook Press congratulates its National Jewish Book Award Finalists

A big mazel tov to Sacred Trash authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole for their mention under the Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award in History, and to The Eichmann Trial author Deborah Lipstadt for mention under Holocaust titles. Continue reading

It’s National Poetry Month, check out Peter Cole’s latest The Poetry of Kabbalah Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition

About the Author

Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole

Adina Hoffman & Peter Cole

ADINA HOFFMAN is the author of House of Windows: Portraits from a Jerusalem Neighborhood and My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, which was named one of the best twenty books of 2009 … Continue reading

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