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Q&A Wednesday: Deconstructing Genizah mythology, with Rebecca Jefferson

Ben Ezra plan
Mosseri included this sketch of the synagogue's original floor plan in his article 'The Synagogues of Egypt', noting he had some recollections of it and had drawn this with the help of friends.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Rebecca Jefferson
Wed 22 Dec 2021

Rebecca, you have a new book coming out in February 2022. What’s it about, and how did you come to be interested in it?

The book, The Cairo Genizah and the Age of Discovery in Egypt: the History and Provenance of a Jewish Archive (I. B. Tauris, 2022), solely focuses on what we now call the ‘discovery of the Cairo Genizah’. It attempts to tell the provenance stories of the many other Genizah collections around the world whose stories have not been told as fully as that of Cambridge’s Taylor-Schechter collection. My interest in it began when I started working in the Genizah Research Unit, inventorying the fragments in preparation for the global Friedberg Digitisation Project. As we counted all the fragments, I began to realise the collection was more than just the fragments that Schechter returned with in 1898. I began to dig. I started with the long-standing newspaper the Jewish Chronicle, to see how it covered the stories of some of the people involved, as they were leading members of Jewish community. I found an article ‘The Genizah Secret’ that told the story of Count d’Hulst, an officer for the Egyptian Exploration Fund who worked at the Bodleian, and how his contribution to Oxford’s Genizah collection had been overlooked. Having written a number of academic articles on the ‘discovery’ of the Genizah, I then decided to turn this research into a book. I had planned to cover from Greville Chester’s visit to Fustat in 1889 through to Jacques Mosseri, and the collectors in the 1920s and 30s, but when I started to dig in further, I found so many connections and aspects to explore that it ended up becoming a larger story than I had expected. The book is weighted more towards the events before Schechter than after.

Were there any things you discovered during the research that particularly surprised you? 

Many things! When I examined the provenance of other genizah collections, such as the Bodleian, I found that they challenge the story that all of these fragments were found in the Ben Ezra synagogue. The biggest surprise was the extent of the involvement of the Jerusalem traders and scholars. So many fragments in collections around the world passed through the hands of Jerusalem dealers in manuscripts – people like Moses Shapira, Solomon Wertheimer and Samuel Raffalovich. There was a whole network of people in Palestine involved in selling manuscripts, including David Kaufmann’s supplier; a man named Mordechai Adelmann. He’d been supplying Kaufmann with manuscripts out of Palestine for decades, including material that he’d discovered in Jerusalem genizot. He was also a good friend of Solomon Schechter’s, and was connected to the building of the Midrash Abarbanel Library that would eventually form the nucleus of the National Library of Israel.

We know that Schechter and Wertheimer corresponded and in one of Wertheimer’s postcards he mentions an old genizah in Egypt. Might Adelmann also have corresponded with Schechter and have been a source for Schechter’s information?

We don’t know. Not much of Adelmann’s correspondence has been preserved. Our evidence for them being good friends comes from a later letter that survives, as well as from Israel Abrahams who mentions in a letter to his wife that Adelmann and Schechter were good friends – school friends even. He describes Adelmann as ‘a somewhat inferior Schechter’. Schechter probably heard rumours about the Genizah from different sources, including David Kaufmann. I have tried to capture the events in a chronological way, to see how these connections were made and how one piece of information led to another. It’s a complex story, and there’s still more left to tell. At the same time that Genizah fragments from Egypt are passing through the hands of dealers, there are Yemenite manuscripts coming onto the market. Yemenite immigrants arrived in Palestine in the 1880s, bringing their manuscripts, and their manuscripts later get mixed up with Genizah fragments in the sales. My book shows, for example, how the batches of manuscripts Wertheimer sent to Oxford are a mixed bag – not all from Egypt by any means (though the bulk of it is from Egypt).

These people are friends but they are also human and surely wanted to keep cards close to their chest at times. Was there much rivalry?

There’s a lot of rivalry. There’s also a personal dynamic between Adolf Neubauer (curator of the Bodleian) and David Kaufmann – they really dislike each other and there’s a huge scholarly rivalry there which put them in competition with each other to acquire Genizah fragments. While they are attacking each other’s scholarship they also reveal things about their manuscript sources, which is fascinating and adds to the rumour mill.

Do you feel there’s an unsung hero of the ‘discovery’ and subsequent events?

I’d say there are many – the middle men and agents on the ground are the greatest of the unsung protagonists. Perhaps one of the main ones is Count Riamo d’Hulst. He pops up again and again through the whole story. He’s there at the beginning when the Ben Ezra synagogue is reconstructed and he discovers and examines fragments buried outside the synagogue in 1889, and he’s one of the first to discover fragments in some sort of subterranean chamber and bring them to light. It’s possibly thanks to him that these fragments are then shifted back into the synagogue and become what Schechter encounters. The Count knows where things are buried and he’s there on the ground conducting excavations after Schechter and alerts both the Bodleian and Cambridge as to the possibility of what remains buried. He’s involved right into the twentieth century. A large collection of fragments was given to the Bodleian by Joseph Offord in 1906 and from his letters you can see that he has been consulting with d’Hulst about where to find them. But no one knows much about d’Hulst or his part in the story, so I’d consider him unsung. Actually, when I think about it, I don’t think there are any heroes – or villains – of the Genizah story. I think there are people who rise to greatness at certain points, but they do have their imperfections and are occasionally less than scrupulous. I don’t want to judge them – I just want to tell their stories and leave it to others to judge. As a librarian, I understand on one level the thrill of collection building.

Was d’Hulst involved with Jacques Mosseri?

Only to the extent that he had brought attention to the materials that were buried. The community may have already had this knowledge but he brings it to the fore and Mosseri eventually learns about the buried fragments and conducts his own searches.

Did Mosseri witness fragments being buried himself as a child?

No, I don’t believe so. I think he goes asking about it later. He writes an article about the synagogues of Egypt ('The Synagogues of Egypt: Past and Present', The Jewish Review, 5 (1913–1914), 31–44), and includes a drawing of how the synagogue used to look. He gets that information from going around and interviewing members of the community and asking them for their memories of what it was like and what was there. D’Hulst does hint in one of his letters to the Bodleian later in life – when he is disgruntled and in straitened circumstances – that he knows where there are many more buried secrets, but that he won’t be sharing that information with the Bodleian. For other characters unsung, I would also include Solomon Wertheimer, and Rabbi Rafael Ben-Shim'on too. In the popular telling of the story they often come off as caricatures.

The naïve Orientals versus the wily Europeans?

Yes. If we are to go on Schechter’s depiction of the rabbi we are left with a man who was a copious coffee drinker and greets his visitors with big wet kisses, but he was a great and learned man. Schechter could, I think, be manipulative, and I think he manipulated the rabbi to a certain extent. He knew how eager Ben-Shim'on was to acquire printed materials. A lot of the dealers knew that Eastern Jewish communities revered printed texts and wanted to acquire them, and they would offer to exchange old texts for shiny new printed editions. Schechter did this with Ben-Shim'on and very much used his scholarly persona to win him over.

Schechter’s description of the rabbi – and the big wet kisses he gave him on the cheek – appears in a letter to his wife. Sometimes when you are corresponding with your family you might play up things for comedic effect.

True. I’ve also tried to bring out the fact that the story that has come down to us today was really told by the three men – David Kaufmann, Elkan Nathan Adler, and Schechter. They are the ones who construct the story starting with Von Geldern, to Jacob Saphir, to a few things coming out on the market here and there, through to Lewis and Gibson, and Solomon Schechter. The End. But they were the ones who created this legend, and we have structured it like that ever since.

Is there an aspect of the story that you think few people realise?

Aside from the role of the dealers, one essential point that has been missed over the years is the reconstruction of the Ben Ezra synagogue after 1889 when it was torn down. We just don’t know for sure what was there before, that is to say what had been inside the chamber prior to 1889, and what gets put back.

When Schechter writes about going to the synagogue, he describes it as a great, old synagogue, full of the dust of centuries. Did he know that he was breathing in dust that was just a few years’ old at that point, or is he playing up the antiquity of the venue for his audience? He would surely be able to tell if he was looking at a newly-rebuilt building.

When he writes to his wife about the other reconstructed synagogue in Mahalla al-Kubra he describes it as a ‘new-old’ synagogue, so he knows that is a reconstruction. And Lewis and Gibson also visit the Ben Ezra synagogue with him and they also describe it as a really ancient building. There’s one part of me that thinks he didn’t know, and another part that thinks he did but is playing it up for artistic effect. In his Times article ‘A Hoard of Hebrew Mss’ he does so much to create his own legend, but he’s also hiding things. We now know from his correspondence with Elkan Adler that his published statement that he had been given a letter of recommendation from the Chief Rabbi of England wasn’t true. His letter was from the Chief Rabbi’s brother, Elkan. He later explains to Elkan that he had said it was from the Chief Rabbi because it sounded more impressive.

Were there some things you wanted to cover in the book but had to leave out for various reasons?

I’d started to bring together details from the twentieth century, how collections such as that of Charles Freer were accumulated, and connections with the papyri trade, but I ran out of time and room. When I first started working on this with my publisher, I wrote a blurb describing it as a vast story that is more compelling and convoluted than ever told. And now I’m wondering if, when we really get into the detail, if it is compelling. It’s so big and complex. Even though my research has been on the detail aside from the Schechter story, when people ask me what I work on I always just tell them the Schechter story – it’s easier to explain, and it is colourful, dramatic, and compelling! It’s hard to tell a story with this person and that person and the other person and keep the reader’s attention. I hope that people will find it to be a good read, nevertheless.

One final question. Ben Outhwaite particularly wanted to know who wrote the best blurb for the back of your book.

Ha! I’m very grateful to Ben for taking the time to do that, and Judith Olszowy-Schlanger too.

Rebecca, we look forward to reading your book!

Rebecca Jefferson is Curator of the Isser and Rae Price Library of Judaica, at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

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