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.
A geniza is a repository for writings with Hebrew letters on them—sometimes even in other languages—which Jews traditionally preserve because God's name often appears on them and because of a general reverence towards the Hebrew language. The actual content of the texts could be religious, literary, commercial, legal, or personal. The trove found in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat near Cairo contains 331,351 of such pieces of writing dating from as early as 870 C.E. and up to a millennium later.
The authors approach their topic by alternating between the stories of the modern scholars who worked with the materials and the geniza's revelations themselves. Solomon Schechter, Jefim Hayyim Schirmann, Ezra Fleischer, and S.D. Goitein unearthed and studied the materials while the "sacred trash" included the first Hebrew versions of the apocryphal book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), works by the schismatic Karaite sect, Andalusian poetry, and letters of the revered medieval sage, Maiminides. Perhaps most importantly, they bring the daily life of the Jewish community of medieval Egypt and other areas of the Levant to life.
Hundreds of specialists, deploying a great array of linguistic and disciplinary skills, now aided by the Friedberg Genizah Project to inventory and digitize the entire collection, have studied this extraordinary collection of materials, chipping away at the immense volume, contributing brick by brick to the building of a unique scholarly edifice. There is probably no other learned pursuit so detailed, unexpected, ironic, singular, and humane as this one. In the words of Fleischer, "The recovery of the Geniza has meant … the spectacular completion of a breathtaking landscape, the perfect, harmonious, and inevitable unity of which all of a sudden seems revealed."
Sacred Trash traces the evolution of focus on the geniza from biblical criticism to poetry to history. The book is beautifully written and commended to all who would gain insight into both the painstaking work of dedicated scholars and a world long past.