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FROM CAIRO TO CORDOBA

FROM CAIRO TO CORDOBA

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Published by: walliullahbukhari on Sep 25, 2011
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interest angiblelSince heearlynineteenthcentury heartist's tudiohasbeena space fexcited isitation-EuEBneDelacroix'sarisdigsareanearlyexamp'ie. ut thesolitarysit-ter n thehistorian'srudyattracts ovoyeurs.What thrillis o be ound n hoursof stillness,the occasionalusdeof paper,he all too in-terminentclickins ofcomouter evs?SomeormsoFspelunkingn the pastaremoreeasily oldasexciting.Archaeology,orexample,loaked n the romanticismof dis-coverycanwieldhe whip oflndianaJones.But the historianisa fisure of boredomand undmelin.rr,.-.-b.r. historvs the
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The LostandFound,Worldof theCairo Geniza.By AdinaHoffrnanandPeter Cole.Schocken.86pp.526.95.vocationof theonly ghost on the faculryofHogwarts, a profso absent-minded e failsto notice hathe hasdied,droning specuallyon. If the making and he makersof historyaresouninteresting,hen what of themade?Whatclaim doeshistoryespecially hatofthedistantpast,haveon our attention? Few universiwprofessorswrite onsuch
S0l0monchechterxamininganuscriptsn he'Cair0apartment"t heCambridgeniversityibrary
FromairooC6rdoba
by DAVID IRENBERG
pril 28 is"ThkeOur DaughtersoWork Day": not a maior holiday,butone that makes meanxious.Whatbothersme s nottheprincipleor thetask-I donthavea dauEhter-but themoregeneralquestion tposes o an earnestmedievalhistorian ike myself.What is mywork?How can make hat work visible, tsDauid Nirenberg onthe Cmnmittee n SocialThoughtt theUniztersityf Chicago trJudaismandChristianArt: AestheticAnxietiesrom theCatacombso ColonialismwitbHerbertKessler)is outfi'rnthe Uniaerityof Pennsyh.taninress.
 
28questions,perhapsbecause heyhave theprivilege ofworking in institutions that donot demand he dailyjustificationof theirexistence. dinaHoffrnan and Peter Colearenot university professors; ut they arescholarsdeeplyearned n the past; ntel-lecrual activistspassionately ngagedwiththe present;and at the sameime writerswholiveby their pen.They are, o coin aphrase,publicscholars," hich is also osay hat they are among he last specimensof a speciesirtually extinguished y a mod-ernworld.Thebooktheyhaveustgiven:us,Sacred iash, s equally rare: a preciousmeditation on theways n which the dis-covery flong-hidden oards fhistory cantransform our worlds, and aliteraryjewelwhosepages urnlikethoseof a well-pacedthrilleq but with all the chiseledeleganceand lashes f linguistic surprise hatweas-sociatewith poetry.Buried reasureswhathe books about,albeit treasureof apeculiarkind. Hoftnanand Cole tellthe storyofa closegone thatwas18 feet deep, 8 feetlong and 6Vz eetwide.The existence f this thousand-year-oldclosetn the Ben EzraSynagoguefCairo wasalwaysnsomeway known by thesynagogue'songregants. ut it wasnt untilthe late nineteenthcentury hat Europeanssrumbled uponitscontents-hundreds ofthousandsofpiecesof paper,parchmentand papynrswritten in Hebrew, Aramaic,Judeo-Arabic,reelqPersian, atin, Ladino,Yiddish, Syriac, fuabic,Cbpticand evenChinese.(Stillmore textual material wasfoundburiednthe communiry's ourtyardand cemeterywithcompetingEuropeanagentsacting ike rival guilds of grave ob-bers.)Thediscoverynecessitated remap-ping of historyhatcontinues o this day.Of course, urial doesnot treasuremake.But in the caseof our Cairo closeteven ieetyrnology fits Hebrew name points tosomething are and strange.Geniza"firstenters Hebrew under Persiandomination,andisperhapsborrowed from thePersianganjkanj):hoard,orhiddenreasure.n thebiblical bools of Esther and Ezra, t meansboth the king's treasuries nd his archives,and both senses ass nto the Hebrew ofthe Thlmud,wheretdesignatesomethingstored up, or concealedway.But the He-brew oot s alsoused or theburialof humanbodies,aswhen nignaz-"here lies hiddenthisman"-is writtenongravestones;tsfuabic cognateanazahmeans"funeral."Withinthe semantic ield of gqniza' textsandbodiesie in suchcloseproximitvas obe ndistinzuishable.he relationshipetween ext and bodyholds n anothersense swell.Justasthe burial of corpses ervesboth todemonstratepiety for thedeceasedand o protect he iving romthe dead,so the burial of textsserveda dual purpose.Some extsenteredhe Geniza or a well-earned est,worn out by longservice o thepious.Otherswere mprisonedherebecausetheywere earedo be hereticalor corrupt-ing. Still others,perhapshe vastmajority atleast t he BenEzraSpragogue),ereossedin by forceof habit,simplybecauseheywerepenned, f not intheHolyTongue, thenintheHebrewscript with which theJewsofEgyptwrote so much of their Arabic(amixtureknown n the tradeasJudeo-Arabic).But as n the cemeteryno forceof habit canexorcisehe ambivalenceordoublevalence)ofthe Geniza'sask:preservingood hingsfrom harm," as onescholarput it,"and badthings from harming." It isa placeof bothpiety anddanger. his ambivalences nicelyreflected n two venerableumors(docu-mentedasearlyas 1488)about he BenEzraGeniza: hatitcontaineda.magicalTorahscroll copiedbynoneother tha-nEzra the-Scribe, nd hat t wasprotected rompryingeyesby a plethoraofscorpionsand a poisonsnake.Hoardsrequire their dragons,evenwhenhe treasures text.Inthe event, he rumois turnedout tobeexaggerated,he second armore than thefirst. TheGeniza's irst known Europeanvisitor,Heinrich Heine'sgreat-uncleSimonvanGeldern, survivedhis visit in 1752,ashis diary entry on thatoccasionmakes lear:"Iwas n the Elijahsrr/nagoguend searchedthe Geniza."Van Geldem mentionsneitherscrolls or snakesnor,orthat matter,muchofanything elsebesides iving baksheesh).litde morethan a century ater, n 1859,heTalmudistand ravelerJacob afirwasable osee he scrolloiEzrawhichhe did not deemgenuine), ut he "did not find any fiery ser-pentsor scorpions,ndno harmcame o me,thankGod."As forSolomonSchechter, ho"discovered"he Geniza n 1896andclaimedit forCambridgeUniversityand scholarship,we havehis own descriptionfwhat he sawwhen he climbedup aladdero peer downinto thistextual charnel house rom its onlyopening,high up inawallof the s1'nagogue'swomen's allery:It is a battlefieldof boola, and theliteraryproductionfmanycenrurieshad heirsharenthe batde,and heirdisjectamem.brare now strewn overits area.Someof the belliserens haveperishedoutright, and-areliterallyThe Nation.June 0.201
\7
ground todu$in the terriblestrugglefor space, hilstotheis,as fovenakenby a generalcrush;dresqueezedntobig unshapelyumpL... T\gselrmpssometimesafford crripg;lysugges.nvecombinations; s, or instance,whenyou find a pieceof some ationaliqticwork, n whichheveryexistence f ei-ther angels r dwilsisdenied, lingingfor its very ife to an amulet n whichthesesamebeingsmosdyhe latter)are bound overto be on theireoodbehaviour ndnot nterferewith MissJair'sove for somebody.hedevel-opment of the romancesobscuredby the fact that the lastlinesof theamuletaremountedon some .O.U.,orlease,ndthis in turn is squeezedbetween he shees of anold moral-ist,whotreats ll attention o moneyaffairs with scorn and indimation.Again,all these ontradi.toryhrn.r,cleave ighdy to some sheetsromaveryoldBible. This, indeed, oughtto be the last umpire between hem,butitis hardlylegible withoutpeel-ing off from its surface he fragmentsof someprintedwork which clingsoold nobility with all the obstinacy ndobtrusivenessfrheparuenu.Endless cribbling, ut nary a snaken sight.Thisdoesnotmean hattherewerenodragons o be slain.One of the beauties fSacred iashstheway tshowsushoweachgenerationof Geniza scholars iscoveredits olvn monsters o tilt after in this trove.Solomon Schechter's rasonwasbiblicalcriticism,andhoughhe did not find aTorahscrollcopiedbyEzratheScriben hisrea-sure, n the very first Geniza fragment heheld inhis handshe descried omethingalmostasmarvelous:he Hebrew ext of abiblical book hithertoknownonlyfrom itsGreek ranslation,heWisdomof BenSira,ala Ecclesiasticus.From BenSira,Hoftnan and Cole haveselected n apt epigraphortheirvolume-"Hidden wisdom and concealed reasure,what isthe use ofeither?"-butSchechterextracted omething ven more importantfromtheancientext:an arg"umentgainstwhat he perceivedo be the anti-Judaismof biblical scholarshipn his day.Schechterwasespeciallyorried abouta cutting-edgeschool of German scholarship,knownas"sourcecriticism" or"HigherCriticism,"that soughto reconstruct he historyof howandwhen Scripturewasproduced,edactedandtransmitted.It was nottle tools ofsource riticism hat worried him-he often
 
30
used he sameools himself-but someofthe useso which theywere put. Accord-ing to Schechter, he"HigherCriticism"(whichhesometimesalled he"higheranti-Semitism")becamen attackonJudaism.JuliusWellhausen,or example,s famousas thefather of the"documentaryhypoth-esis"(identifringseveral trandsof author-ship-theJahwist,Elohist, DeuteronomistandPriesdy-and periods f compositionorthe Pentateuch),hichdominatedhe scien-tific studyofthe Hebrew Bible until theatetwentieth century.But one of theanimatinggoalsof his titanic scholarshipwas o provethat "therehaveneverbeenmore audacious inventorsof history han he rabbins.. Thisevil propensity oes ack o avery early ime,its root the dominatinginfluence of theLaw, being herootofJudaismtself."Fromthisevilroot(accordingo Wellhausen)hepropensiry nly becamemorepoisonous,othat after the destructionof the first templein 587BC"thewarmpulse fife" hadgonefromJudaism.Thesoulwas led; the shellremained."There was no continuiryhewrote,betweenhe religion of the OldTes-tament and hedead egalismof the SecondTempleands rabbinicdescendants.In theWisdomofBen Sira, Schech-ter thoughthe had found an antidote toWellhausen'soison:aate SecondGmpletext beloved by theearly Thlmud's rabbis,yet spiritualn its moral engagements-farfromthe desiccatedegalism with whichJudaismwasaxedbyts HigherCritics,andevenpoeticn itspraise fGod:All wisdom comes rom the Lordands with Him forever.Who cannumber he sandsf the sea,and he dropsofrain,and he daysof eternity?...Whocan6nd out the height of heaven,and he breadthof the earth, andthe deep, ndwisdom?chechter'sacquisitionof the CairoGenizaorCambridge,and his orga-nizationofits massacrefmanuscriptsintoan archive,mademany other fu-ture branchesf researchossible.ntheyearsbeforehe assumedhe presidencyof theJewishTheologicalSeminaryn NewYork City andleadership f the Conserva-tivemovementofAmericanJudaism,hecultivatedan astonishingumber of them.But his most oassionateministrationswere
,i
aimed, hrough thereconstructionof textslike heHebrewBenSira,at he revivification ofaJewish criptural radition whosebrutalvivisection,"as he sawt, was being carried
Tlre Nation.
out by the ChristianHigher Criticsofhisday."WhatinspiredBenSira,"wroteSchechter,thinkingperhapsalso of the inspiration orhis own herculean ffors in the Geniza,wasthe presentand uture ofhispeople."The archiveSchechter rousht to Cam-bridgewouldcontinue o proJu..biblicalrevelation, but the attention of thenextgeneration f explorers-according,at east,toHoftnanand Cole'saccountof thatnextseneration-wasoriented oward adifferenticripturalmarvel discovered n the Geni-zaipoefty.WholeworldsofHebrew versewouldbealmost ntirelyostouswere t notforthe poemsburied n this one graveyard,and he scholars ho exhumed hem elt em-poweredwiththe kissof ife."Eachphotostatis a prayercongealed, achpagea poemro-zen n place,"wrote MenahemZulay."Thedustofthe generations as o beshakenromthem; heyhave o bewokenand evived; ndtheworkersare busy;and a day doesnt passwitlroutresurrecdon." Ztiaywas writingof his monumental econstructionof some800 poems written bythesixth- or earlyseventh-century bet Yannai,whosehymnsstudded he synagogue ervices fPalestin-ianJewryorcenturies efore hoseserviceswere eshaped y he adoptionofBabylonianrites,and the poems deformed, orgottenandinallyburied n early hirteenttr-centuryCairo. That reconstruction, ublished n1938,was he irst o displayo moderneyes a medievalrycleofJewishiturgical poetryin is full glory andheast Hebrew book oemerge rom a press n Nazi Germany.Peter Cole is himself an inspiredwriter,ffanslatorand resuscitator f verse.His ore-viousbook, TheDreamof thePoem, pened EnglishJanguageeaders o an entire worldof Hebrewpoetry that emergedunder thetutelage ofArabic verseamong theJewsof Spain.Sotshould not surprise hat thechapters he and Hoffrnan devote to tiepoetryof the Genizaareespeciallyich. Butneither liturgical poetry northepoetryofYannai, orallhisgifts(hissystematicseofend hyme, orexample,s heearliestn He-brew iterature,andprecociousn thepoeticsofboth Near EastandWest), shesubject ftheir finestpages. hose are eservednsteadfor the poeric treasuresranslatedor us inTheDreamof tbePoem,reasureshat were,like theJudeo-fuabicn which so many ofthe Geniza's exts were written, themselvestheproduct ofJewish ife in Muslim lands:mean,of course, he Hebrew poetry of whatthe Muslims called Al-Andalus, theJewsSefarad ndwe(somewhatnachronistically)"medievalSpain."For althoughCairois farfromC6rdoba, s closets ell us more about
JuneZU,ZUI I
the "Golden$.gp?.pfHebrew'poetrythandoe's ny archivo3in'thg,magnifigentslamiccityin whichthat poet4u;1yasorR,i.The authors'descrip{qpof thesE}olarlyprojectgivesusagood_se_nse-^ofm impor-tance,not only for thE'fribidftof F{ebrewpoetry but for the living literarure'bf thepresent swell:q)ra concatenation f discoveriestretch-ing into the twenw-firstcentury hasonly enhancedhe auraofwonder sur-rounding he poetry'sorigins.Agairlststaggeringdds, atientnd enaciousscholarsave eunited orn pagesorseparatedeavesor. evenuststraylinesof manuscriptragments.... otonly new poemsandnew collectionsof poems, utnew poets,new kindsofpoemsand poets,and the oftenextraordinaryife stories of some ofHebrew iterature's inestwriters have!'eenintroduced nto themodernliterary mix.Thesescholars,rite Hoftnan andCole,in-jectedAndalusianpoetryinto the blood-stream f modernHebrewcultural ife."Onceagain,he pastasdiscoverednthe Genizasput toworkanimatingheJewish resent.The poetsandtheir poems areindeedthrilling. The Moroccan-bornDunash benLabrat(circa920-990) studied under thegreatsageSaadiaGaon n Babylon,wherehedeveloped system fadapdngArabic poet-ry'sulesof quantitativemeter o the Hebrewlanguage.'rNothingike t haseverbeen eeninIsrael,"his llustrious eachers reputed ohavesaid,without stipulatingwhether hesewordSwere praiseorblame.)Dunash ookhis systemwith him whenhe migrated o theCaliphate f C6rdoba,wherehis qrnthesis-forwhich hisownwordsmightserve smotto: "LetScripturebeyour Eden,and he Arabs'booksyour paradisegrove"-immediatelysoawned school.But therewerealso hosewho accused im of"destroyinghe holytongue...by casting tinto foreign meters,"and bringing"calamityuponhispeople."nthe end, orreasons edonot know,Dunash"wasexiled rom Al-Andalus,ndhispoems,llbut for a few stravines.were ost.ost. hat s. untilthe Genizawas ound.From the oatientrearticulationof itsseveredimbs there emergedot onlypoemsby Dunashbut deails of hisife,hispoeticcommunity,even his wife.At times Hoftnan and Coleworka litdetoo hard to manufacture xcitementor thisDrocessf.textualeconstnrction:fuifin amade-for-TVNational Geographicpecial,"

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