Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to sift through the 'sacred trash' of history

Originally printed Jan. 24, 2011.

Over the past year, it seems book reviewers and historical scholars alike have had a hard time restraining themselves from heaping praise on "Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza," by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole.

In his review for The Nation, David Nirenberg described the book a "literary jewel whose pages turn like those of a well-paced thriller."

Norman Stillman, writing for The Jewish Review of Books, described the authors as "charming and unobtrusively erudite."

Harold Bloom wrote that the "romance of Hebrew scholarship has never been so vividly conveyed."

And Robyn Creswell of the Paris Review Blog opined, "I can't think of another work that succeeds so well in making archival research into gripping adventure."

The universal high praise for the book — including glowing reviews from the New York Times as well as the Wall Street Journal — is made all the more astounding by how Hoffman and Cole have chosen for their subject a veritable garbage heap of scholarship: The fragments of nearly every document added to the Cairo Geniza between the ninth and 19th century.

"Geniza" is an untranslatable word, but the core idea comes from the Jewish practice of not trashing any holy texts. For nearly a thousand years, the Jewish community in Cairo applied that practice to anything written in Hebrew. And as a result, they basically wound up saving everything from theological treatises, to bills, to pink slips, to poems, to love letters, to eviction notices.

And ever since the "discovery" of the Cairo Geniza more than a century ago, scholars have been reconnecting the fragments as they try to the tale of what this holy hodgepodge says about the intersections of east/west and Arab/Jew in the medieval world. Almost all of those scholars, however, have been specially trained medievalists who have been writing primarily for an audience of other specially trained medievalists.

Hoffman and Cole, by describing the Cairo Geniza as a sort of cherished/condemned junk heap, managed to find a way to translate the insights of the specialists so they could be fully appreciated by everyday and accidental readers.

"I normally can't read a work of history as bedtime reading or airport reading," said University of Iowa history professor Linda Kerber. "I'm a professional, and I want to take notes about what I should know. ... But this book was a page-turner. I found it was just remarkable how they could tell me the history of something that I would have thought was extremely arcane ... even to the experts."

Kerber said she had admired the work of Hoffman and Cole separately for years. She first learned of Cole when he came to Iowa City a few years ago as the translator for visiting Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. And she learned of Hoffman — Cole's wife — through her 2009 biography of Ali, "My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness," which was the first full-length biography of a Palestinian poet in any language.

So Kerber was intrigued when one her students returned from the American Historical Association last year with the galleys in hand for the latest collaboration of the married couple. Kerber knew the couple had operated Ibis Editions, a small press and non-profit organization, in Jerusalem since 1998, and that press offered translations from Hebrew, Arabic and other languages of the region. But she — like other scholars and reviewers across the world — wasn't expecting the book would "stop me in my tracks."

"I have tried very hard to make what I write accessible to an interested reader who is not necessarily a historian," Kerber said. "But they have managed to find the writing voice to which I aspire."

Although Kerber raced through "Sacred Trash" during her first reading experience, she since has gone back to reread the book and more closely analyze how Hoffman and Cole were able to craft such a knowledgeable, lively, engaging voice. And she has assigned the book to the students in her history seminar so they can figure it out as well.

Anyone interested in learning to sift through "sacred trash" can hear Hoffman and Cole read at 7 p.m. today in Prairie Lights.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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