Sacred Trash, the Nextbook Press book by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, got two sweet reviews this weekend. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Cornell’s Glenn C. Altschuler praised the book’s “exquisitely realized” look at the finding of the documents in the Cairo Geniza, and the meaning of what was found. And in The New York Times Book Review, Anthony Julius, author of last year’s big-deal Trials of the Diaspora, lauded especially the book’s depictions of the scholars who unearthed and studied the Geniza’s contents. Slate Group head Jacob Weisberg tweeted that his “[f]avorite graph in today’s NYT was Anthony Julius explaining the meaning of the term ‘geniza.'” Presumably this:
The cache was known, and is still commonly referred to, as a “geniza.” This word, which is barely translatable, holds within it an ultimate statement about the worth of words and their place in Jewish life. It intimates the meaning “hidden” or “concealed.” But behind that notion, when applied specifically to manuscripts or books, two further, ostensibly contradictory meanings lurk. The works to be hidden or concealed have either a sacred or a subversive character. Those that are sacred are to be protected and preserved when no longer usable; works in that countercategory, which are subversive, and therefore fit only to be censored or suppressed, are to be put out of view. In neither case is the work accessible, but for quite opposing reasons. The one is to be treasured; the other, condemned. A geniza, then, serves the twofold purpose of preserving good things from harm and bad things from harming. Over time, “geniza” became the name for a place that held any redundant or obsolete documents. It was the great achievement of the men and women who worked on the Cairo texts to recover them from obsolescence. Where others saw rubbish, they found riches.