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- Listening Length: 8 hours and 21 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Rumsey-Natapov Productions, LLC
- Audible.co.uk Release Date: 12 Aug. 2011
- Language: English
- ASIN: B005H2LVSG
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Sacred Treasure - The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic Audiobook – Unabridged
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And Rabbi Glickman knows how to write. Most of us would not consider a book about archivists and historians highly engaging, especially in an age of docu-dramas and the History Channel. Yet we begin to grasp the excitement and tension that academics feel from assembling history, like a jigsaw puzzle, from sections of text and itty bitty scraps of paper.
Quite simply, if you're interested in the Jewish people, if you're interested in what makes historians and academics tick, if you're interested in a good read, get this book.
This is a well researched and fascinatingly written story about the discovery of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts relating to medieval Jewish history in the Middle East. While many Jews in the US in all probability are familiar with the name Solomon Schechter because of its association with the Solomon Schechter Day Schools, I venture to suggest that few of these folk know Rabbi Schechter's enormously important contribution to the successful reconstruction of the once vibrant Jewish life in the medieval Middle East which for a long time was not known in the West. The present unfortunate divide between Muslims and Jews brought about by religious fanaticism and political conflict stands in crass contrast to the more or less harmonious medieval coexistence between the two faiths, as revealed by the study of the manuscripts discovered in 1896 in the Genizah of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, Egypt, by Rabbi Solomon Schechter, then a Cambridge University scholar.
Rabbi Glickman introduces the reader to the history of this monumental find and the people who were involved in it. He also reports on the ongoing efforts of study and analysis of this material which contains everything from single and multi-page manuscripts to small scraps of paper and parchment, crumpled balls of documents often stuck together, written material which over the ages turned into dust. The legibility of many of these multi-language documents is difficult, what with their deterioration by age and, at one time, lengthy exposure to the elements, as well as complete lack of adequate conservation.
In terms of contents, it is a jumbled assortment of texts. There are biblical and Talmudic texts, love letters, medical prescriptions, prayer books, doodles of a schoolchild, philosophical tracts, beautifully written tracts and scribbled scraps, but all of these indispensable to the scholar wishing to learn more, not only about medieval Middle Eastern Judaism, but also about that general population's thought and way of life and interactions.
It is fortunate that over the many years since the material's discovery and today, the documents which are now housed in dozens of libraries ranging geographically from Cambridge to Jerusalem and from Budapest to St. Petersburg, have by now been largely catalogued and made available to international scholarship. Many of the texts have been thoroughly studied and published but many thousands still sit in containers without having been analyzed for lack of financial means that would make their study possible or from simple neglect.
Let me end this review by quoting two passages from Rabbi Glickman's fine book: "The Cairo Genizah was not an archive, a place to safeguard documents in an orderly way for study, nor was it merely a tall room-sized trash receptacle... The people of the Genizah acted out of a shared understanding of what God wanted of them. They didn't save everything, just written words. At first they saved just the names of God, then the words of Torah, then all written words. They viewed word-bearing papers and parchments as sacred." (p.229) "The Cairo Genizah, then, was more than a pile of old scraps. It was a collection of countless lives and stories, a massive messy heap of humanity stored in an attic for centuries. Its every document brought a bit of immortality to the people and thoughts it preserved. Studying any one of them is to resurrect something of times long past, often in ways that can help us make things better for the future. The Cairo Genizah was - and is - a sacred treasure." (p.230)
When I visited the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo as a theological seminary student in 1963, I had no idea what treasures its Genizah had once held. To this day I regret that not one of my professors had ever mentioned this to us students.
The book is full of coincidences, accidents, loss and recovery. It is a story of passion and envy, trickery and modesty. It tells the tale of how significant materials were often overlooked and how documents were almost destroyed. In a mere 230 pages the book brings us up-to-date in the long process of cataloging and publishing this mass of materials which is distributed in libraries and collections throughout the world.
Along the way Rabbi Glickman manages to bring to life the characters involved and helps us to understand what treasures were stashed in that attic for so many years. Even the footnotes are worthwhile. One led me to a fascinating article about ancient Jewish music and a link to a modern rendition of a 12 century poem set to the melodies of a Gregorian chant. The piece, accompanied by a viola de gamba is hauntingly beautiful. You never know what one might find in a palimpsest or a footnote.