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Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (Jewish Encounters Series) Hardcover – April 5, 2011

4.3 out of 5 stars 42 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews



“Beautifully written, learned and lucid, Sacred Trash is a treasure that should not be hidden . . . Exquisitely realized.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“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 beautiful and exciting.”
—The Nation
“Hoffman and Cole unfold this saga with dramatic flair, peppering their narrative with the Geniza’s own distinct voices, from the ancient and medieval to the modern and contemporary. Skillfully they embed the drama contained within the old texts with the contemporary dramas of the people handling the texts . . . It is a testament to [them] that they have fleshed out these ghosts, and patiently constructed a vivid, human saga every bit as extraordinary as a miracle.”
Haaretz (Israel)

“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.”
Anthony Julius, The New York Times Book Review
“A multi-layered work that provokes admiration and excites the imagination on many levels.”
“Hoffman and Cole’s vivid portrayal of the discovery of the ancient Cairo Geniza . . . is 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.”
—The Boston Globe
“The real behind-the-scenes story of the Cairo Geniza and the Western scholars who retrieved and studied it is . . . also a very human story, as Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole show in their charming and unobtrusively erudite new book.”
—The Jewish Review of Books

“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.”
Gabriel Josipovici, The Wall Street Journal

"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."
—Kirkus Reviews

“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

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

About the Author

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 a best book of 2009 by the Barnes & Noble Review.
Peter Cole’s most recent book of poems is Things on Which I’ve Stumbled. His many volumes of award-winning translations include The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950––1492. He was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.
Hoffman and Cole live, together, in Jerusalem and New Haven.


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Product Details

  • Series: Jewish Encounters Series
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Schocken; 1st edition (April 5, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805242589
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805242584
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #667,339 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Israel Drazin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 7, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Imagine you are a forty-year old who was severely injured in an automobile crash and suffered amnesia that wiped out thirteen years of your life, two periods: ages 10-12 and 21-30. Then after enduring the dark space in your memory, sometimes agonizingly, you stumble on several trunks in your attic. You open the trunks with difficulty and find old, frequently torn, moldy, disheveled letters, scrapes of paper, and memoranda that were written during these thirteen years. You read them with astonishment. Like the plot of a mystery novel, you find that these papers reveal facts about your life that you had forgotten. They disclose things about you that are radically different than your image of yourself. This is what happened in a synagogue storeroom, called a Geniza, in Egypt, at the end of the nineteenth century.

Civilization lost its memory of Jewish happenings during the first half of the second Temple period, from about 536 until about 165 BCE, and for centuries of the Middle Ages. Then, like the amnesiac in the example, scholars unearthed some three hundred thousand documents from these periods.

Jews and many Christians considered God's name so holy they felt it was wrong to treat the name as trash and toss it like garbage. Thus, in ancient time, they stopped mentioning or writing God's name and substituted "Lord" for y-h-v-h. This sensitivity was later extended. Jews began to bury papers containing God's name, as people bury relatives, with respect. Soon, in Cairo, Egypt, from about the eleventh century, Jews placed many of their unwanted documents in a storeroom in the Cairo synagogue, as well as other synagogues, and they buried some as well, even papers without God's name, for writing too, they felt, has a holiness.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I was very much impressed by this book. Impressed, first by the authors for the excellent writing and research. This goes for the entire book, but I was literally delighted by the brightness of style in the first chapters. (All the part on Schechter). The authors succeeded in keeping this reader's full interest after the first chapters, which read like a thrilling novel, after the disappearance of the earlier heroes and the turning of the book towards broader subjects. I bought the book because I had certain knowledge about genizas and wanted to learn more. I also bought the useful Sacred Treasure, by Max Glickman. But this one is much more than just a splendid story of the Cairo Geniza. It is a new view of certain aspects of Jewish history; it is also a much needed confirmation of the high level and elegance of Arab and Islamic civilization of old. We westerners are brought down to our size at that period in time. But I was also impressed by the book's editorial excellence (Schocken). I think the edition is novel, outstanding, and clever. Although I had already some knowledge of rabbinism, (consulting Strack-Billerbeck, Bonsirven, Gilman&Zipes, etc.) I received a new light about the relations between the Torah, the Tanach, and rabbinic writings: no diminution for the Tanach, but higher appreciation of the contributions of Talmud (this time especially Palestinian Talmud), rabbinism and its originality. I wish I had read the book before attending a local symposium on the spirituality of the Second Temple period. I couldn't let the book down. No need to be a Jew to enjoy thoroughly. Catholics might enjoy knowing this part of the story of Ben Sira's book, which they have always honored. The book is not written for specialists, but many a specialist might learn a lot with it.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Hoffman and Cole tell a compelling story about the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, and the subsequent fate of its collection and the people who have studied them. The book sheds light on how one generation of scholars will consider material not worthy of study, while another will base a lifetime of study on it.

For example, Hoffman and Cole explain how Solomon Schechter, who collected most of the Genizah for Cambridge University, was interested in big names found in the collection. He crated business documents and other miscellaneous material and labeled it trash. This "trash" remained in the attic of the Cambridge library becoming, in a sense, a second Genizah, until it was re-discovered Solomon Goitein, who went on to detail the everyday life of Jews and Gentiles in the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages.

This book shows how dynamic really top-notch scholarship can be; it is a perfect illustration of how a group of documents can turn an entire field on its head and not only provide new information about a lost world, but reveal something of ourselves and our interests and the changing tastes of the times.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The first part of the book is a wonderful scholarship - adventure story from the 1890's about the exciting discovery of a massive cache of a quarter million Hebrew documents spanning centuries, piled up in a storeroom in an ancient, long occupied synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Cairo. The authors have researched the details how members of the British academic community, particularly Solomon Schechter, became aware of the cache and eventually recovered it, complete with inter-library competition, secrecy and personal ambition. It's part history buff, part Raiders of the Lost Ark. I found it interesting that the academics of the time were as competitive over texts from late antiquity as scientists today will be over some high profile discovery. Readers today might criticize that the recovery took place within an arrogant set of colonialist assumptions typical of the age, when English explorers assumed it was their right to appropriate major classical artworks and drag them from Greece and Rome back to London without asking anyone's permission. But in defense of Schechter it is likely that these documents, if not 'stolen' from Egypt, would subsequently have been lost in the upheavals of the following century. There are fascinating details such as the style of travel in late 1890's England - I did not know it was relatively easy to travel from London to Cairo in those days; train to Marseille and then a boat across the Mediterranean.

The narrative bogs down in the second half of the book when the authors, who are poets and literary historians, concentrate on their own special interest in medieval Hebrew poetry to the exclusion of much else in the collection.
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