Consider the remarkable tale of Ovadiah the Convert.
Born in a small village near Naples in the late 11th century, he was sent by his parents to a monastery to prepare for a life in the priesthood. But then, horrified by the bloody massacres of Rhineland Jewry during the first Crusade of 1096, he committed the entirely bizarre act of converting to Judaism.
Understandably “out of place” in Catholic Europe, he migrated to the more tolerant Ottoman Empire, settling by the early 1120s in Fustat, the Old City of Cairo. There, before his death, he penned in Hebrew a religious hymn in homage to Moses, entitled Mi Al Har Horev (“Who stood upon Mt. Horev”). He accompanied his text with musical notations — but not the cantillation known from Torah chanting. Rather, he chose a tune and a notational system familiar to him from the monasteries of Catholic Europe. When, centuries later, Ovadiah’s notation system was deciphered, it became clear that he had set his Hebrew hymn to Moses to the traditional chords of the Gregorian chant!
You can hear it online today at http://jew.sh/M4xk.
How did we come to know the story of Ovadiah the Convert? How did we discover what remains the oldest piece of written Jewish music?
The answer comes in three words: The Cairo Genizah.
A scrap of parchment containing Ovadiah’s poem was found by the scholar of medieval Jewish history, Norman Golb, in 1964 as he searched through the vast hoard of uncatalogued manuscripts at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s collection of Jewish manuscripts from the genizah (text depository) of the Ben Ezra synagogue of Old Cairo.
The story of Ovadiah the Convert offers just one tiny insight into the wealth of information the Cairo Genizah holds about Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Jewish history in ancient and medieval times. And, at last, general readers with a curiosity about the Jewish past have a sure guide to the story of the Cairo Genizah in the form of a new book by the local rabbi and Seattle Times columnist Mark Glickman. Titled Sacred Treasure—The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic (Jewish Lights, 2010), this book is a marvelous guide not only to the contents of the genizah, but also to the fascinating figures who have made its contents accessible to the world.
Rabbi Glickman, a textual scholar in his own right, is well-versed in the ins and outs of genizah studies as a discipline and guides readers through the technical details of genizah manuscript studies with a light touch. He also spins a darn fine yarn. Rabbi Glickman manages to tell two stories at once: The story of the material discovered after 1,000 years in a synagogue attic and the story of the brilliant and, at times, idiosyncratic scholars who discovered, deciphered, and organized the genizah texts over the course of the entire 20th century and into the 21st.
Imagine a room with the remains of some 300,000 manuscripts thrown every which way since the 11th century! Among the texts are biblical scrolls in Hebrew, Hebrew writing from the “unknown Jewish sect,” which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the 1940s, secular literature and documents of all kinds documenting the lifestyles, economic world, and private lives of generations of Jewish Cairenes, the musical jottings of a converted monk who joined his Catholic musical sensibilities to his new faith in a stunning synthesis — in addition to a letter to Maimonides, signed by his brother, David, before the ill-fated business trip that took his life!
Now imagine the scholars who devoted their lives to the Genizah and its texts. Here we find a rich portrait of Solomon Schechter, known primarily to contemporary Jews by the Jewish schools and summer camps established in his name. In “real life” he was one of the great rabbinic scholars of the early days of secular Jewish Studies, who first visited the Genizah in 1896 and recognized it as more than a moldering pile of useless scraps of parchment.
We meet as well twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson, two genteel, highly educated Presbyterian ladies, who (in 1892!) rode on camel-back from Suez to Gaza in sun bonnets and long sleeves and found the manuscript identified by Schechter as the long-lost Hebrew original of the apocryphal Second Temple Jewish text cited in the Talmud as “Ben Sirah.”
As Rabbi Glickman’s tale of the discovery of this trove of textual treasures unfolds, readers will grasp what exactly motivates scholars who hole up in musty rooms with wormy books. But, more importantly, readers outside of academic textual research will learn that there is an important lesson in the very existence of such a thing as a genizah. Let’s listen in as Rabbi Glickman explains. And let’s give him the last word:
There is something awesome about the power of writing, isn’t there? Pen touches paper and moves across the surface, leaving a trail of ink behind it. Just so. The shape of that trail forms letters; the letters form words; the words form thoughts, ideas, and images, sometimes of indescribable splendor. The written word can convey the evanescent content of one mind or heart to another. God knew this; that’s why God’s greatest gift to the Jewish people is Torah — a magnificent collection of written words. And even those of us who don’t use genizahs know it, too. Why else would we cherish our old letters, flowery certificates, and tattered children’s books? To save these papers is to connect ourselves to our past, retain long-ago experiences, and bind ourselves, if only fleetingly, to the souls of others. If that’s not holy, then what is? (pp.229-230)