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Originally published Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 7:05 PM

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Book review

'Sacred Trash': the ancient records of Jewish life in a Cairo synagogue

In "Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza," Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole recount the discovery of a treasure trove of antique documents from 10 centuries of Jewish life in the storage room of a Cairo synagogue.

Special to The Seattle Times

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

by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole

Nextbook/Schocken, 286 pp., $24.95

Jewish Encounters, a Nextbook/Schocken collaboration, is a project devoted to Jewish literature, culture and ideas. "Sacred Trash," the 18th title in its series, is a joint effort by award-winning author Adina Hoffman and MacArthur Fellow poet Peter Cole. They live in Jerusalem and New Haven, settings that surely supported their studies of the fascinating finds made more than a century ago in Ben Ezra Synagogue's "geniza," or storage room for Hebrew documents, in Cairo.

Middle Eastern antiquities dealers, Hoffman and Cole explain, sold ancient manuscripts for ages. But when Scottish sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson purchased a particularly intriguing stash in Egypt, these amateur linguists returned home and called in Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter in May 1896 for a consultation.

He identified a page of the Ben Sira or Ecclesiasticus, a compilation of proverbs from the early 2nd century B.C. Until then, only Greek and Syriac translations were known. The newly discovered version in its original Hebrew prompted Schechter to rush to Egypt that December, for who knew what riches lay undiscovered among almost 10 centuries' worth of documents saved in the geniza? Hundreds of thousands of papers awaited if he could purchase them before anyone else.

"Sacred Trash" follows Schechter's adventures and discoveries, as did another recent book, Woodinville Rabbi Mark Glickman's "Sacred Treasure" (reviewed in The Seattle Times Jan. 6). While Hoffman and Cole blend literary criticism with biographies of those who studied the geniza's "holy junk heap,"Glickman provides a general overview of the story, from buyers before Schechter, all the way through current conservation and research.

The books complement each other. Indeed, both note that there is still no definitive catalog of the abundant material. There are letters; poetry; portions of the Bible; manuscripts of music and magic, Talmud and Torah; rulings by scholar/physician Maimonides; and much more. It's a priceless puzzle which is gradually revealing a clearer picture of medieval Jewish life and literature.

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