In late February, my 15-year-old son Jacob and I had an adventure neither of us will ever forget: We visited the Cairo Genizah.
Jewish law forbids the disposal of sacred Jewish sacred texts. Instead, when, say, a Torah scroll or a prayerbook becomes unusable, we bury it, or we store them in a genizah — usually an attic or cellar in a synagogue set aside as a repository for damaged and destroyed Jewish documents. Usually, Jewish communities empty their genizah from time to time and transfer the documents to the local cemetery. Usually, but not always.
In 1897, Rabbi Solomon Schechter, then of Cambridge University, entered the genizah at the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt. There he found a massive trove of documents unlike any other. The Cairo genizah contained approximately 300,000 individual manuscripts — Torah scrolls, Talmud fragments, letters, medical prescriptions, court records, poetry, and much more. It held several of Maimonides’ handwritten documents, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest known piece of Jewish sheet music, and countless other similar treasures. It was the largest discovery of medieval manuscripts ever made, before or since.
Schechter removed most of the documents and brought them back to Cambridge, and the last of them were removed from the genizah by 1911. Since then, the Ben Ezra synagogue has been renovated and the Egyptian government now runs it as a tourist site. However — as far as I know — there have been no reported visits to the genizah chamber itself since 1911, and nobody has ever photographed it.
A couple of years ago, I decided to write a book about the Cairo genizah, and I thought it would be good if I could see the room for myself. All I needed, of course, was permission to go there and see it. No problem, right?
Wrong. It took literally hundreds of e-mails and phone calls to people all over the world before I was able to get the needed authorization. It finally came in the form of an e-mail from Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities. I could enter the genizah and, for a hefty fee, I could also take whatever photos and videos I wanted.
Friends warned me that permission was one thing, but actually succeeding in my mission was quite another.
“Many people come to Egypt with big plans,” a Cairo resident told me, “and Egypt laughs.”
Another friend warned me to be careful.
“There are groups who won’t want you to go there,” she said, “and you will be under constant government surveillance from the moment you arrive.”
And so, in late February, Expedition Genizah commenced. Jacob and I first traveled to Cambridge, where we saw many of the 193,000 manuscripts that Solomon Schechter brought from Cairo. We visited Solomon Schechter’s former homes, as well as other sites connected with the genizah story, and ate enough fish ’n’ chips to clog our arteries forever.
From there, we continued to Cairo, and on February 28, we visited the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
We were met at the synagogue by Gamal Moustafa, a high-ranking official at the Supreme Council of Antiquities. He showed us up to the women’s balcony, pointed to a small opening high on the wall, and instructed a worker to set up a ladder in front of it. When I climbed to the top of the ladder, the bottom ledge of the genizah entryway was at the level of my chest. I looked inside, and saw…nothing. It was pitch black!
“Can I go inside?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mr. Moustafa.
“Do you have a higher ladder?”
“No,” he replied. “Can you jump?”
Jump? Well, the entry was pretty high. But I’d been working at this project for a couple of years, and I wasn’t about to let mere wimpiness keep me out of the genizah now! Yes, with a good push of the arms and a fluid swing of my leg over the ledge, I could make it. Sure….
But then Mr. Moustafa added a catch. The synagogue had been restored in the late 1990s, vividly repainted in its original colors.
“But when you jump,” he said, “just don’t touch the wall.”
Finally, I had to acknowledge that I could never pass as a genizah gymnast.
“Uh…are you sure you don’t have a higher ladder?”
To my great relief, they did have a more genizah-friendly ladder. As they were getting it, I remembered that, on the keychain in my pocket, I had a tiny flashlight. Being careful so as not to fall, I reached into my pocket, got the flashlight, shined it into the genizah, and got the biggest surprise of our entire trip.
“There’s no floor!”
There was a floor, of course, but it wasn’t just two or three feet beneath the threshold where I’d expected it to be. No, it was down a good 15 feet or more beneath the entryway. If I had gone ahead and jumped into the genizah as Mr. Moustafa suggested, I would have plummeted down to certain injury and possible death.
Wouldn’t that have been a story?
Of course, Mr. Moustafa wasn’t trying to get me killed (I don’t think) — in fact, he was very helpful and accommodating. It’s just that nobody — not even he — had been up in that room in decades. He knew as little as I did about what we would find.
In the end, the genizah was empty, save for a couple of curious items on the floor that I will describe in my book. But as I peered into it, I was able to imagine the genizah as it once was — filled with centuries’ worth of literary gold, the accumulated words and wisdom of a once-great Jewish community whose descendants are now spread like dust to the four corners of the world.
Expedition Genizah also brought us to New York, where we saw more manuscripts, and, just as in Cairo and Cambridge, we met with fascinating scholars and visited genizah-related sites.
For both Jacob and me, Expedition Genizah was, as I said, an adventure we will never forget.