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The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit

Millennium Exhibition

As a source for Jewish history the University Library's Genizah archive
stands second only to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Stefan Reif is the director.

[Dr Reif with loose fragments]

Sacred archive. The vellum and paper Genizah fragments
languished unconserved in 32 huge crates.

"My day starts early, at 5.30 or 5.45. I try to get a good bit done before breakfast and certainly before coffee time as these are my best hours. Each morning I pray for about 15 minutes and do a whole programme of 20 minutes hard exercise.

When my son was young, I spent almost an hour with him on Jewish Hebrew study before breakfast each morning. Just before he got married I asked him whether he resented it. 'No,' he said. 'I knew I had you to myself 100 per cent'. He enjoyed it. My wife, Shulie, and I took a lot of care to educate our children in Jewish culture. I also taught my daughter, Tanya: we had Hebrew classes at home from nine to one on Sunday mornings.

Breakfast is only about ten minutes. I cycle to work at the University Library and home again so that is another half an hour of exercise each day. What I really enjoy about my job is what they call in Yiddish 'dancing at every wedding': you don't just dance at one wedding, you dance at everybody's wedding. In other words, I love the great variety. Above all, there is the scholarly side: working on the Genizah manuscripts, describing them, deciphering them, identifying and analysing them. You come across an exciting fragment, perhaps a thousand years old, that nobody has ever published. Nobody knows where it was written, why it was written or who wrote it so you work on it, wring out every drop of meaning you can and publish it.

The manuscripts came here exactly one hundred years ago. Two Scots women living in Cambridge, twins called Margaret Gibson and Agnes Lewis, visited Cairo and bought some Hebrew fragments which they brought home. They showed them to Solomon Schechter, then the University's Reader in Talmudic and Rabbinic Literature, who got very excited. One fragment proved one of his theories - disputed by a professor in Oxford at the time - that there had been a Hebrew version of Ecclesiasticus.

As a result, Schechter went to Cairo and persuaded the Chief Rabbi to let him have the remainder of the Genizah fragments - all 140,000 of them - to take to Cambridge for scholarly study. The money for the trip was put up by Charles Taylor, the Master of St John's: a mathematician and philosopher who was a pious Anglican but also had a great love for Judaism.

The Taylor-Schecter Genizah fragments are the world's most important collection of medieval Hebrew and Jewish documents. There are something like 210,000 items from this period in the world and 140,000 of them are here in the University Library. Yet when I came to Cambridge no more than 30,000 fragments had been examined in detail. There were 32 huge crates of material still unconserved.

The documents were stored in the Genizah, or sacred archive, of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo for a thousand years by officials who were concerned that nothing Hebrew, nothing from the Bible, nothing that was sacred or related in any way to Jewish life, should be destroyed. Though much crumbled away over the centuries, Egypt's dry heat preserved the vellum and paper remarkably. The fragments that survive illustrate every aspect of Jewish life, from the Bible to Rabbinic literature, to poetry, to philosophy, to recipes and to medical prescriptions for headaches, stomach aches - even impotence. Much of the collection is medieval, but it stretches in date from the sixth to the nineteenth century. Among the treasures is the original version of the Wisdom of Ben Sira - Ecclesiasticus in the Greek and Latin Bible - written in the second century BC. Jewish doubt about just how sacred this book was led to its exclusion from the Hebrew Bible - and eventually to the loss of its Hebrew text - but the Cairo Genizah ensured that it was not lost for ever by preserving a tenth-century copy.

Legal papers and business letters are well represented among the fragments but a surprising amount is personal: marriage contracts, music, children's school books, illuminated pages and family letters. Life and people don't change much. When husbands and wives correspond or parents write to their children you find exactly the same warmth of human relations as today. Running the research unit involves me in many other activities too. Our research team needs funding so that means going out and raising money, convincing people that the scholarly work we do is valuable and has relevance to the world today. I really enjoy the challenge of fund raising. When I came to Cambridge 24 years ago I think it was looked down upon, but I'm pleased to say that this has changed. Scholarship is important and I've never found any difficulty convincing men and women in the street how exciting it is to know what was going on a millennium ago in the Middle East. Someone once referred to me as an 'academic entrepreneur'. I think it was meant insultingly but I took it as a compliment: if 'entrepreneur' means being willing to sell the importance of something scholarly to non-academics, then, yes, I'm an entrepreneur.

I often lecture - in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester, anywhere the community want me to speak about the Genizah. Last week in Jerusalem 300 people came to a lecture I gave in English and another 300 turned up on a different day to hear me in Hebrew.

Having conserved all 140,000 fragments, we are now publishing them. Right now we are trying to finish a volume on Rabbinica: everything relating to Jewish religious law and tradition that is not the Talmud. A few weeks ago we published another on Palestinian Jewish poetry of a thousand years ago. In the course of the year, I've managed to write five or six articles and finish seven chapters of a general book on the collection.

At the moment we have a visiting scholar from Jerusalem preparing a catalogue of all the dated manuscripts we possess; this will give us a key to dating other items that are not dated. Another research assistant is preparing publication indexes so today we have also had a computer expert in to discuss this. I droop a little in the early afternoon so try to make sure that the early afternoon is the time I do administrative chores that don't require me to be terribly sharp. I pick up again at three or four o'clock and except for dinner I'm then off again until about nine.

I tend only to break for ten minutes' coffee, ten minutes' tea, maybe twenty minutes at lunchtime for a sandwich. Otherwise I keep fairly busy. I might be taking classes in medieval Hebrew literature at the Oriental Faculty during term time or teaching something related to Judaism in the Divinity Faculty. Why I work so hard is difficult to say, but I think it has to do with my upbringing in Edinburgh. Everybody knows that Jews are obsessed by education, by getting on and by working hard; my Jewish education was at home and in Hebrew classes run by the synagogue. But Scots Calvinists are just as obsessed. I went to a senior secondary school, the non fee-paying equivalent of a grammar school. It might have been free but God help you if you didn't work. The Church of Scotland atmosphere was such that wasting time was a criminal offence. So I'm stuck with it. If I stop for long to read the newspaper, I tend to feel guilty.

My whole family says I should relax more. They say: 'A few hours less won't make any difference'. But I don't think I am capable of it: I have this crazy desire to be achieving things. That's how it has been all my life. I read the occasional novel and watch television, usually documentaries or news programmes. But I would regard it as self-indulgence to listen to a radio play or watch television just for fun.

Shulie works in the same room at the Library and this year has been very much involved - more than I have - in preparing an exhibition for the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She has been working on the translations and the captions and planning all the exhibits. We both have our heads down during the day. It is very strange but at that time we rarely discuss anything but professional matters. Some institutions are reluctant to let husbands and wives work together because they think they won't get any thing done, but we actually encourage each other. As you might imagine, I'm not tolerant of people who don't work hard; neither is Shulie. We both like to get on with things. We met at university - London - when we were both doing Hebrew studies and have been involved in that ever since."

[Mrs Reif with conserved fragments]

Word perfect. Shulie Reif with fully conserved
10th to 12th century Judaeo-Arabic documents.

"Both my children, Tanya and Aryeh, are now married and living in Israel. Their lives would have been more comfortable in Britain, and they would have earned more money. They know that. But Jewish identity and commitment to the Jewish state loomed so large in their education and background, as well as in our lives and those of our parents and grandparents, that they chose to go to Israel. If you go back one hundred years, all my grandparents, and Shulie's, were living in Poland and Russia. Those that survived the Holocaust - many perished - made their way to this country, in my case to Edinburgh, in Shulie's to London.

Our lives, our education and our culture are therefore all bound up with the history of the Jewish people. For us it is not just an intellectual exercise working on these documents; it is life itself. But you don't need to be a Jew to respond. When you look at what people felt, wrote and said a thousand years ago you respond simply as a human being.

This year has been one of the highlights of my career because of our exhibition in Jerusalem: 50 fragments in an excellent museum, beautifully presented. It was the first time so many Genizah fragments had been on show anywhere in the world and the University, Peter Fox, came over for the opening. The Israeli president Ezra Weizman also came to see the collection in Cambridge during his state visit to Britain in February.

I've never met anybody who did not get excited about the Genizah collection. It is not just a Jewish phenomenon. It is as if we had a video of life a thousand years ago. It gives us so many insights into a world which has gone but which, in respect of the things that really matter in life, was not so very different from our own."

Interview by Pauline Hunt

This article ŠThe University of Cambridge 1997

If you have any questions, please email genizah@lib.cam.ac.uk
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ŠUniversity of Cambridge; last revised February 2002