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Local rabbi prepares for historic adventure
For hundreds of years, visitors to Egypt were told to stay away from the Cairo Genizah.
The genizah, which is a Hebrew word for “hiding place,” contained nearly 200,000 fragments of sacred Judaic texts that filled centuries of holes in Jewish history. In the past 300 years several scholars and historians attempted to gain access to the room, but anyone trying to enter it was warned that great disaster would overcome them should they take anything from the sanctuary.
Solomon Schechter, a professor at Cambridge University in England, ignored the warnings. In 1896, Schechter decided to seek out the genizah and examine what remained inside.
Rabbi Mark Glickman of Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island is preparing to follow in Schechter’s footsteps.
Glickman will depart for Cambridge next week and head to Cairo to experience the genizah as a part of a book designed to tell the stories of the genizah, the 200,000 pages of documents found inside and the men and women who studied them.
“When you study these old papers, they come alive,” Glickman said. “The people who wrote them, and who they describe, come again, and we can see this culture and this world from many centuries ago unfolding before our very eyes.”
Genizahs, often located in attics or basements of synagogues, are sacred storage places for incomplete or flawed Jewish documents written in Hebrew. Because Judaism considers Hebrew the word of God, those documents cannot be discarded. Genizahs are typically temporary storage places for these documents, which are eventually buried.
Glickman, who departs Feb. 20 with his 15-year-old son Jacob, said he will be the first westerner in many years to enter the genizah, located above the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo.
Glickman’s two-week trip will begin in Cambridge, where Schechter taught, to view the majority of the documents, then on to Cairo. Finally, Glickman will travel to New York, where Schechter eventually became president of the Jewish Theological Seminary, to view more of the documents and work on a DVD version of the book, which is scheduled to be released by Jewish Light Publishing this fall.
What Schechter found in those documents changed the course of Jewish history.
“The documents in there were literally a treasure that is unequaled in the history of modern scholarship,” Glickman said.
Included in the collection of documents are a portion of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the oldest pieces of Jewish sheet music, and extensive literary works and records written by, or concerning, Maimonides, the preeminent Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages. Those documents helped Jewish scholars understand history documented previously by less reliable second- and third-hand accounts.
“It opened a window into medieval Judo-Arabic society,” he said. “Jews at the time lived very peaceably amongst their Arab neighbors. We sort of knew about that society, but this opened up this broad, expansive view we never had before.”
Glickman has been fascinated by the tale of the Cairo Genizah since 1985, when he learned of the story during his first year of rabbinical school.
He always enjoyed books; he was a self-described book nerd. He specifically liked classic works.
“I liked particularly the old ones, the heavy ones. The ones when you open them, they smell,” he said.
Glickman hasn’t written a book prior to his upcoming adventure. He pens a column once every five weeks for the Seattle Times and has contributed to several scholarly works about the genizah.
Schechter’s journey to the genizah began when two women brought him rare works written in Hebrew. In his quest to find their origin, Schechter was led to Cairo. Glickman said Schechter had to do a lot of “schmoozing” with local authorities to gain access to the genizah.
Glickman did some schmoozing of his own in his pursuit to tell the story of the genizah.
To gain access, he had to convince Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.
On the trip, Glickman hopes to meet Hawass, and Schechter’s great-grandson. Glickman will follow Schechter’s path the whole way, and meeting the man’s great-grandson will further the connection. One of Glickman’s favorite things about examining the documents is that he can connect with people who lived thousands of years ago.
“The study of these documents allows me to transcend time and space,” he said. “It makes it possible for the genizah people to transcend time and space as well.”