by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole
Writers like to complain about book tours—the rote radio interviews, the lumpy hotel mattresses, bad coffee, fatigue. And it’s true that the repetition is, at times, a bit much: “Trade one town for another. / Delayed / Now why did we bother? / An X on the calendar square, / New city, same stuff, / Seat backs and traytables up”—as the Fountain of Wayne’s canny song about a traveling rock band has it. But the fact is that, on the whole, we enjoy being on the road talking about our new book, Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza.
For one, it gets us out of the house.
No less important, it gives us a chance to highlight several aspects of the book that we consider critical, but that are sometimes overshadowed by the Indiana-Jones-like storyline, and also by plot-summarizing book reviews, enthusiastic though they’ve been.
Among these occluded aspects is the deep theme of value: What is it that particular communities, scholars, and generations prize or dismiss over time, and why? The Geniza is what it is because one particular Egyptian Jewish community chose to set aside not only worn-out holy texts (as most Jews did in their own genizot, or repositories), but, it seems, everything written in Hebrew letters. For them, the letter itself was sacred, and by protecting these manuscripts from profanation, they demonstrated a profound belief in the ultimate worth of the written word. In the age of Facebook, and now on Facebook, that’s something worth stating publically, again and again.
By the same token, the modern men and women who unearthed and re-membered the Geniza trove teach us something crucial about the need to see and reconsider for oneself the words that cling to the pages that were put in the Geniza. Each of the scholars in our book understood the value of something his or her forebears had not. And in doing so, they also demonstrated the ways in which grunt-work and dream-work come together in the finest, or most valuable, scholarship. One of the heroines of our book likened these labors to “mending broken chain, which … is of more use,” she wrote, “than making a few feet of new chain, as it makes all the existing links more useful.”
This question of value and the visionary reconstruction of tradition goes well beyond the realm of scholarship. It extends even into commerce and to people like Salman Schocken, whose story we also relate in Sacred Trash. An intellectually inspired entrepreneur and department-store owner (Gershom Scholem called him “the mystical merchant”), Schocken was a cultural patron whose imaginative sense of Jewish history and literature, past, present, and future, would lead to some of the greatest Geniza discoveries. It also gave rise to the founding of the publishing house that evolved into the company that brought out the work of Kafka, Buber, and Agnon (and, as luck would have it, Sacred Trash). This hybrid, cross-generational view of the world combines attention to both the finest detail and the biggest picture. It’s a vision embodied by Solomon Schechter and of so many of the heroes of our book, and it’s what we ourselves value, maybe above all.