‘Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza’

Tattered documents, dating back centuries, endure in a synagogue.

About 120 years ago, a cache of manuscripts, mostly fragments, was discovered in the storeroom of an old Cairo synagogue. Its members had deposited them there over many centuries. This collection of documents managed to be both heterogeneous and comprehensive at the same time.

Adina Hoffman is the author of “House of Windows: Portraits From a Jerusalem Neighborhood.” Peter Cole is a poet and translator. As they relate in their engaging book “Sacred Trash,” the materials in the storeroom included letters, wills, bills of lading, prayers, marriage contracts and writs of divorce, Bibles, money orders, court depositions, business inventories, leases, magic charms and receipts. One early examiner of the cache described the scene as a “battlefield of books.” The most recent deposits were made in the 19th century; there were fragments that dated back to the 10th century. Another early visitor described the scene thus: “For centuries, whitewash has tumbled” upon the documents “from the walls and ceiling; the sand of the desert has lodged in their folds and wrinkles; water from some unknown source has drenched them; they have squeezed and hurt each other.”

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