Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Today's Word: Genizah

So, a week or two back Janice saw an article in the local (e)paper that she thought wd interest me, how a local author was going to do a reading about his new book in an area bookstore.


Since the topic was one I've been interested in for years -- I suppose it's fifteen years or so since I first heard about the Cairo Genizah, back when I was working for Gareth Stevens* -- we decided to brave the dark and the rain for a long drive (about thirty miles each way) up to Third Place Books after work that evening to see the author do a reading
I'd never been to, or even heard of, Third Place Books before, and I have to say I was impressed. We had a few minutes before the Reading began, so I took the time to poke around and found a modern translation of Verne's JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH I'd been looking for, along with a reasonably good Tolkien section.** One good idea they have that I'd like to see put into practice elsewhere is that used and new books by the same author are shelved together. As usual in a good bookstore, I had to restrain myself, but I not only left w. two books from that first visit but when I came back two days later (to retrieve the scarf I'd inadvertently left behind under my chair) I picked up two more: POE ABROAD (which reviews Poe's foreign reputation country-by-country***) -- an impulse buy I knew I'd regret not picking up -- and a mystery novel for light reading: Rhys Bowen's ROYAL FLUSH, one of her 'royal spyness' series**** The cafe/food court alongside the bookstore makes for a pretty good away-from-home place to work w. a laptop, I discovered on this second visit, though I was somewhat thrown off my game when a gospel choir started up nearby (apparently the food-court stage hosts a lot of events on weekends).

In any case, the presentation soon started, and turned out to be a talk rather than a reading per se. That was fine by me: I'd never been able to find out much about the genizah, mainly because I cd never remember the name and didn't know how to pronounce it, so I was glad to finally have the chance to learn more than what I'd been able to gather from passing references over the years.

For those unfamiliar w. the story, there's a longstanding tradition in medieval Judaism against throwing away sacred books. So, instead of tossing worn out scriptures or prayerbooks in the trash, the synagogue in Cairo had an opening in the wall through which old writings could be pushed into the storage room beyond, rather like the 'book return' slot beside most public library doors. Except in this case, the room beyond was unusually large, and the papers deposited there (over the course of several centuries) were left undisturbed until modern times. I'll let you read Rabbi Glickman's book, SACRED TREASURE: THE CAIRO GENIZAH, if you want the details on just how they were rediscovered and brought to scholars' attention, what treasures were eventually recovered from among its more than 300,000 pages of worn-out old manuscripts (handwritten letters from Moses Maimonides, pages from the Hebrew original of a Deuterocanonical book only known to survive in Greek translation, &c); it's quite a story.

The only discordant note was the presenter's rather dismissive attitude towards the remarkable Gibson/Lewis sisters, the ones who actually deserve the lion's share of the credit for the discovery (they also earlier discovered the CODEX SINAITICUS, now in the British Museum*****). Janice had earlier read what she tells me is a really good book about the sisters:

That, and someone behind me who seemed upset that Rabbi Glickman said that the Jewish community in medieval Cairo was relatively fortunate, in that they were spared the pogroms and waves of persecutions their co-religionists in Europe were periodically subjected to (he rose during the question-&-answer period to assert vigorously that it'd been "no Paradise" -- e.g., they'd had to pay special not-a-Muslim taxes -- but then no one ever said it was). In fact, the same person had started to voice some objection out loud earlier in the presentation, when Glickman said the reason this genizah had survived so long was that anti-semetism in the Muslim world was a relatively modern development, but had subsided when he went on to talk about the expulsion of Muslims from what is now Israel being matched by the suppression and destruction of Jewish communities around the Mid-east, some of them hundreds if not thousands of years old.

All in all, a v. pleasant evening. I ended up being lucky enough to buy the last copy the bookstore had of the book, which I got the author to sign. I'm looking forward to reading it and finally getting the whole story about this remarkable stash. Having bought a good book on the Dead Sea Scrolls a while back, and now having this on the Genizah's contents, I suppose I'll need to start looking for one on the third of the remarkable Mid-east document recoveries, the Nag Hammadi texts.

Oh, and something I didn't realize until afterwards is that I think this marks the first time I've met a Rabbi. About time! Better late than never, I suppose.

--John R.

current/recent reading: ROYAL FLUSH by Rhys Bowen (a 'royal spyness' mysthery) [#2889], THE THREE COFFINS by John Dickson Carr (a Dr. Gideon Fell mystery) [#2890], and Le Guin's CHEEK & JOWL (in progress)
current audiobook: New Testament epistles (finally done with Paul, who's given to too many senior moments)
*probably while fact-checking the backmatter of their CHILDREN OF THE WORLD: EGYPT.

**I later realized it was somewhat better when I saw the 'collector's items' shelved had several of the HME volumes, along w. the Folio Society LotR set.

***turns out his popularity took a big downturn in Maoist China. Who knew?

**** set in the early 1930s in which the thirty-fourth in line for the British throne, the impoverished sister of a duke, gets assigned odd jobs and tricky tasks by the royal family -- such as, in this case, trying to keep apart the Crown Prince and the American, Mrs. Simpson, he's currently in hot pursuit of.

*****and hence now one of the most famous stolen books in the world

Thanks to one of the comments, I now see that what I heard as 'Codex Sinaiticus' must in fact be the Codex Syriaticus, also known as the Old Syriac, or the Syriac Sinaitic, among other names; Glickman (p.48-49) calls it "the Lewis Codex" and "the Sinaitic Palimpsest". It sounds quite interesting -- as interesting in fact as the Codex Sinaiticus itself. So it was a fortuitous error, for me at least. -- JDR


Auntie M said...

Those books sound interesting. I'm going to have to put them on my Amazon list, being as how my curent to be read pile is getting a bit too large again.*sigh*
I've met a number of rabbis, my mother even dated one. Then again I'm Jewish.

SarahW said...

I think you're confusing the Codex Sinaiticus (which is the stolen C4th bible that eventually wound up in the British Museum) with the Codex Syriaticus. The Codex Syriaticus was discovered by the Gibson / Lewis sisters, and debunked one of the most popular theological notions of the C19th, namely that the gospels hadn't been written until the C4th, by dating from the early C2nd. This might go some way towards explaining the sisters' unpopularity in theological circles.

David Bratman said...

"One good idea they have that I'd like to see put into practice elsewhere is that used and new books by the same author are shelved together."

I've been in many bookstores that do that, and I think the practice has grown over the years. Powell's in Portland does that, for one, I recall.

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Sarah
Yes, I heard 'Codex Sinaiticus' but some checking reveals that you must be right and it must have been the Syriatic Palimpsest he meant (he includes the latter, but not the former, in his index). I hadn't heard about this latter before, and it sounds quite interesting, so thanks for drawing it to my attention. I'll add a correction to the original post.

Thanks to all for the comments.