Poet and essayist Hoffman (My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century, 2009, etc.) and poet and translator Cole (Things On Which I’ve Stumbled, 2008, etc.) chronicle the disinterment of an ancient stash of Hebrew scholarship.
This absorbing academic detective story begins in Cambridge in 1896, when renowned Hebraist Solomon Schecter encountered twin sisters who told him about a synagogue in Old Cairo that contained vast gathering of documents which had been given proper entombment centuries earlier. The scholar promptly traveled to the cache—the “Geniza”—at the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue where he found a huge, musty treasure of hitherto unknown Judaica. The material, pungent with the age of the earliest days of the second millennium, was written on paper and vellum in a variety of languages, though all used Hebrew orthography. Everyday letters and business correspondence formed a new portrait of the lives of medieval Jews. Most spectacular, especially in the case of a people who put much of their achievements and teaching in writing, was the recovery of liturgical poetry and wisdom from the Golden Age of Jewish Literature in Muslim Iberia. Hoffman and Cole are adroit in their exegesis of the writings of figures like Ben Sira and poet and philosopher Judah Halevi, and the authors pay appropriate tribute to the devoted scholars who arduously sifted through the dust of centuries. The Cairo Geniza has produced an important branch of scholarly discipline that continues today.
An accessible, neatly narrated story of hallowed detritus and the resurrection of nearly 1,000 years of culture and learning.