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One May day in 1896, at a dining room table in Cambridge, England, a meeting took place between a Romanian-born maverick Jewish intellectual and twin learned Presbyterian Scotswomen, who had assembled to inspect several pieces of rag-paper and parchment. It was the unlikely start to what would prove a remarkable, continent-hopping, century-crossing saga, one that in many ways has revolutionized our sense of what it means to lead a Jewish life.
In Sacred Trash, acclaimed essayist Adina Hoffman and MacArthur-winning poet and translator Peter Cole tell the story of the recovery from a Cairo geniza (a repository for worn-out texts) of the most vital cache of Hebrew manuscripts ever discovered. Weaving together unforgettable portraits of Solomon Schechter and the other scholar-heroes of this drama with explorations of the medieval documents themselves—letters and poems, wills and marriage contracts, prescriptions, prayers, trousseau lists, bibles, money orders, children’s primers, rabbinic responsa, amulets, and receipts—Hoffman and Cole present a panoramic view of a vibrant Mediterranean Judaism. Part biography and part meditation on the supreme value the Jewish people has long placed on the written word, Sacred Trash is above all a gripping tale of adventure and redemption.
“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.” —Cynthia Ozick
“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.” —Harold Bloom
“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
“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
“An absorbing academic detective story. . . . 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.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo once housed a remarkable treasure trove of written material, thrown any old how into a small room high up above the women's gallery and handed over, quite unlawfully, in 1898 by my grandmother's great-uncle, Moise Cattaoui, then head of the Cairo Jewish community, to a Cambridge scholar to take back to England. The story of that transaction, of the cache that was shifted and of the scholars who subsequently deciphered it, has been told many times but never so well as by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole in Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. . . . [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
“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.” —Moment
“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
“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.” —The Nation
“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.” —Haaretz (Israel)