March 2012

Greer Mansfield


Sacred Trash: Finding Art in the Discards of a Community

Behind the oldest Coptic church in Cairo, in the middle of what used to be the Egyptian capital of Fustat, in the spot where (they say) the baby Moses was discovered among the reeds, sits a small synagogue that once housed a remarkable treasure. Originally built as a church, but sold to Cairo's Jews in the ninth century, the Ben Ezra Synagogue is a building of striped stone arches, simple chandeliers, and marble floors. As graceful as the building is, the most wondrous thing in the synagogue is its storeroom: a small dark closet where stacks of discarded papers once rose six yards high (literally to the rafters). These abandoned documents were ten centuries' worth of Hebrew writing, haphazardly preserved by Fustat's Jewish community and the desert climate.

As married authors Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole write in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza, these manuscripts were "an entire civilization... one Middle Eastern, mostly middle-class Jewish community's detritus -- its letters and poems, its wills and marriage contracts, its bills of lading and writs of divorce, its prayers, prescriptions, trousseau lists, Bibles, money orders, amulets, court dispositions, shop inventories, rabbinic responsa, contracts, leases, magic charms, and receipts."

The Ben Ezra storeroom was a curious variation of the old Jewish tradition of the geniza (a nearly untranslatable word that suggests a combination of "stuff that's been thrown out" and treasure: sacred trash), a synagogue storeroom where discarded sacred texts were housed until they were buried in an elaborate ceremony (the correct way to bury Bibles, according to more than one tradition). The geniza in the Cairo synagogue was different because -- for reasons no one can explain -- the Jews of Fustat preserved more than just sacred documents. Instead, they preserved anything written in Hebrew letters, hence the geniza's abundance, and the panoramic picture it paints of Mediterranean Jewish civilization.

Hoffman and Cole are dedicated to this long-standing (and now, vanished) civilization, and not just its Jewish manifestations. Cole is a writer of deeply textured poems that combine lilting music with an ongoing moral and philosophical meditation, one that is sometimes pained and sometimes quietly ecstatic. He weaves quotations (the Bible, medieval Jewish texts, Sufi poems, Edward Said) into his poems, and he is often in communion with the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain (whom Cole has translated in the magnificent collection The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain). Many of his poems are political in the most basic sense (the only sense of "political" that matters and endures): he observes the affairs of his city -- which, for many decades now, has been Jerusalem -- and evokes its violence and anguish as well as the details of its light, its wind, the "bone-white hills" and the surrounding land ("its green / a kind of sigh").

Like all good poetry, Cole's is musical and rhythmic. His rhythms surprise, his forms feel simultaneously fresh and archaic, and he demands to be read out loud. He is always interesting, but much of the time he manages even more: a kind of hypnosis, a healing chant. It's tempting to think of him as one of his beloved Jewish Andalusians reborn in our time, but he also bears a family resemblance to the late medieval "Scottish Chaucerians," scholar-poets like William Dunbar and Robert Henrysoun, whose work evoked both ancient wisdom and intense emotion. Like those Scottish Makars, Cole's poetry is both cerebral and deeply felt.

Cole is also an excellent translator from Hebrew and Arabic: the poets of medieval Spain; the playful, wrathful, philhellene Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai; modern grand masters like the Israeli novelist Yoel Hoffmann and the late Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. Cole and Hoffman were friends of Muhammad Ali's, and Hofmann made him the subject of a biography -- My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet's Life in the Palestinian Century.

Hoffman's and Cole's shared advocacy of Muhammad Ali's poetry is another clue to their vision of literature and culture, a vision that is generously realized in Ibis Editions, the small publishing house they edit that publishes works by writers from all over the Middle East, which they refuse to call the "Middle East." They prefer the romantic and evocative (and far more precise) "Levant," an old word that conjures up the region's dizzying mix of different peoples and cultures: Arab, Jewish, Greek, Turkish, Persian, Armenian, Assyrian, Kurdish (and more), Jewish, Christian, Islamic, pagan, secular.

Needless to say this puts them well out of step with the current nationalisms and fanaticisms plaguing the Middle East, including the Israeli varieties. Hoffman and Cole, Jewish Americans that live in Jerusalem, remind their readers that Jewish history is much more than "a straight shot from the Bible to the shtetl, followed by a brief stopover on the Lower East Side." They look for redemption not in nationalism but the in the lessons of Judaism's long dialogue with the other cultures along the Mediterranean, from Moorish-ruled Spain to the mongrel cities of Constantinople, Cairo, and Alexandria. That the current Levant is so far from this cross-cultural efflorescence is the whole world's loss.

Hoffman and Cole's project of imaginative border-crossing is wonderfully expressed in Sacred Trash. The book radiates enthusiasm for Jewish literature and history, and its exploration of documents from the Cairo geniza leads us into strange and wonderful encounters: anonymous poets who left behind blazing incantations and moving elegies; medieval letters from a mother in Jerusalem to her son in Cairo, scolding him for not writing her often enough; a "seemingly fearless" ninth-century skeptic who openly doubts the Bible's claims; diplomatic letters between emissaries of Moorish Spain and the tantalizingly mysterious Khazar kingdom.

Just as interesting is the gallery of heroes who, in different ways, contributed to the study of the Cairo geniza. The first Europeans to discover and seriously study the geniza are an unusually colorful cast. In Sacred Trash we meet the freethinking Scottish sisters Agnes and Margaret Smith, scholars of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek and explorers of the Middle East, whose father taught them "to think for themselves, argue and ride horses." Then there is Solomon Schechter, the man who first understood the importance of the geniza and exhaustively studied it. He was a Romanian-born professor, eccentric even by the standards of his fellow Cambridge dons. He wore a winter coat and scarf even in midsummer, "his socks never matched," and he was one of the most brilliant scholars in a milieu full of brilliance. One full of curiosity about cultures distant in both time and geography, as well: Schechter counted among his friends the explorer and travel writer Mary Kingsley, as well as J.G. Frazer, the author of The Golden Bough.

We also meet the eighteenth-century German adventurer Simon von Geldern, a "charismatic con man" who traveled widely in the Middle East. He gambled heavily, was captured by pirates but escaped, charmed the ladies of various harems, and had a mystical vision in Jerusalem (or so he claimed). He is remembered because he was the uncle of the great German poet Heinrich Heine, who doubted von Geldern's taller tales but reported that his uncle claimed to have great Kabbalistic knowledge. Might that explain how von Geldern stumbled across the Ben Ezra geniza during a stay in Cairo (which von Geldern recorded in his journal)? Neither von Geldern nor his famous nephew ever says how he found the geniza, or what he was looking for in the Ben Ezra synagogue in the first place. Von Geldern was only one of several European buccaneers who found the geniza before the Smith sisters and Solomon Schechter; they were different from those true discoverers, however, in that they had no idea what a treasure they had stumbled on.

Elsewhere in the book, Hoffman and Cole write about the German-Jewish businessman and publisher Salman Schocken, the founder of Schocken Books (which published Sacred Trash), owner of the quality Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz (which his family still owns), and friend and patron of S.Y. Agnon, Gershom Scholem, and Martin Buber. Determined to find some kind of pre-modern Hebrew national epic, a Jewish equivalent to the Nibelungenlied, he hired scholars to search ancient and medieval Hebrew texts (like those among the geniza papers) for just such a poem. They didn't find a Jewish Nibelungenlied, but they did find plenty of great poems.

These glimpses of the characters in Sacred Trash don't give away too much of its exciting story. The book is a treasure trove -- not just in its evocation of the wonders of the Cairo geniza itself, but also in its stories out of the long romance of Hebrew literature and scholarship, and in Cole's and Hoffman's supple and elegant writing. One comes away from reading Sacred Trash intensely moved. Whatever one's belief or unbelief, it is hard not to be shaken by what the practice of the geniza implies: the Judaic notion of the holiness not just of the "Word" (Islam and Christianity have their versions of this), but of words themselves.

Writing about how the Jews of Fustat thought of texts buried in the geniza, Hoffman and Cole say: "...these works, like people, are living things, possessing an element of the sacred about them -- and therefore when they "die," or become worn out, they must be honored or protected from profanation. 'The contents of the book,' wrote Solomon Schechter, 'go up to heaven like the soul.'"

It is also hard not to think about the slow drain of physicality from our texts and our reading experiences in the age of e-books. Obviously, words on screens have their place. But concreteness and physical variety keep human experience from growing too abstract, and it would be a loss to eliminate them from reading, which is exactly what the austere Tim Parks recommended recently on the New York Review of Books website.

In his poem "Things On Which I've Stumbled," Peter Cole writes:

Poetry and all that garbage,
   left in a pocket
       of the mind
      or a pair of pants,
                 a robe,
  or slipped inside a book --
      thought's disjecta membra --
  a letter forgotten
  (a recipe scribbled on its back)
  a shopping list,
  a bill once due,
     living's marginalia --
the rubble of what we've known was true...

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
ISBN: 978-0805242584
304 pages