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Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza (Jewish Encounters Series) Hardcover – April 5, 2011
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WINNER OF THE 2012 AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION'S SOPHIE BRODY AWARD FOR OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT IN JEWISH LITERATURE
“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.”
“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.”
“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."
“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.”
“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.”
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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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. Nor do they make any attempt to bring out this subject for the general reader, presenting few actual examples of said poetry.
The best part of the book is the glimpse into the remaining content of the material, not only the biblically significant sources but the secular documents relating to the everyday life of the Jewish community of Egypt in the middle ages - personal letters, divorce legal documents. A page turner, well written by two authors with fluent Hebrew background. A door into a vast but little known era of Jewish life.
Sacred Trash is the book that completes this story, linking the various scholars of the Geniza of Cairo to their many finds. The reader is given a taste of the many significant finds scattered among the more than 100,000 rotting, stuck together and over written documents, fragments, seemly random remains recovered from this 1000 year-old heap.
That the Heap existed at all was something nearing a fluke. In Jewish believe there had been a reluctance place into the trash any document that may contain reference to G-D. Almost anything written by a religious leader, Rabbi, Jewish merchant or Jewish mother might contain such a reference. Many communities would interpret this practice to include ceremonial burial of collections- called Geniza- and at least one community took to dropping their Geniza into the local river. At the Ben Ezra Synagogue the practice was to place them in disordered stacks in a hard to access room above the Women's Section.
Co Authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole have performed an admirable job in writing a generally readable discussion that balances between biographies of leading scholars involved the in on going analysis of this material, and helping to reader to appreciate the historic, cultural and religious value of this Cambridge and related Geniza collections. They have deliberately avoided some of the more purely religious and superstitious findings while mentioning that some of these may have greater value than some topic given more coverage. Some of what is discussed helps the reader to appreciate areas of Jewish Poetry and personalities that had been completely lost except for what has been recovered for modern analysis.
One can only marvel at the fact that Geniza documents were from the beginning published to worlds' academic audience and through them to anyone interested in such material. Contrast this with the long time segregation of Dead Sea Scroll studies. There is an almost ironic parallel in the fact that Geniza documents were collected from a population of Jews living in open and daily contact with the world, while the Dead Sea Scrolls are the documents of a Jewish population that had deliberately withdrawn for the world.
The authors of Sacred Trash succeeded in writing a mostly readable, entertaining and scholarly history of a complex topic. A reader will gain respect for dedicated and tireless modern scholars as well as the complexities of an ancient religion, surviving in an exiled people. Unfortunately , tehe authors seem sto envision their readers as people who by scholarly interest of Jewish heritage have a fair Hebrew and Jewish training. For Example we are told that the poetry of the previously lost Yannai made use of "collections of Midrash that were edited in the late fifth century C. E. ...." What a midrash is not entirely clear. The point being that some Hebrew is explained while other terms are assumed to be understood by the reader. This assumption becomes more common towards the end of the book. It also struck me that several mentions of women as writers of poetry, business leaders and related roles are not given sufficient attention while it is suggested, if only humorously that Geniza fragments would support a iza study focused on Jewish Mothers and their sons.
Hoffman and Cole have not, nor was it their intention to publish a definitive history of Geniza scholarship. In fact the field is not close to ripe for its elegy. Instead Sacred Trash is a completer book the of Sisters of Sinai teaser, and a generally easy read for those with a curiosity for this kind of unlikely story.
Most recent customer reviews
1. Kind of disjointed writing. There was little continuity between chapters