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Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 403-404

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A Jewish Archive from Old Cairo: The History of Cambridge University's Genizah Collection. By Stefan C. Reif. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2000. xix, 277 pp. $15.00 (paper). ISBN 0-7007-1312-3.

Almost every page of this phenomenal volume could become a chapter, but the narrative style is so economical and clear that it engages and leads the reader through the history, personages, and adventures that produced the publication of a musty archive of varied documents for the benefit of all who want to understand medieval Jewish life in the Mediterranean during Arab-Muslim governance. The author has been deeply and devotedly involved in supporting and guiding the acquisition, analysis, study, and translation of many of the more than 200,000 manuscripts found in the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue since becoming director of Genizah Research at the University of Cambridge Library.

The initial discoveries began in the 1890s and continue until the present by many collectors, both individual and institutional. The checkered history of the discoveries, collections, and treatments forms the story of this book, which reads like a mystery without a crime.

The photographs—of people and documents, of people analyzing documents, in both color and black and white—relate directly to the written contexts in which they are located and have helpful captions in most cases and sometimes nearby translations, whole or partial.

After the orientating "introduction," ten chapters with inviting titles follow. Each of them concludes with a "Guide to [Further] Reading" that is organized by the order of the subjects treated therein and provides a fully annotated listing of resources for further study. These guides take the place of footnotes and lead the interested reader into further research.

Other helpful features include a full list of the numbers, descriptions, and page locations of the excellent illustrations. These and the concluding indices—of subjects and sources, of manuscripts cited, of names, places, and institutions—assist in cross-reference review and rereading of this comprehensive "expertly guided tour" of the archive discovered just over a century ago, greater attention to which happened for many of us when copies of the Damascus Document/Zadokite Document, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, pointed to the great ancestry of the tenth- and twelfth-century copies found half a century earlier in Cairo, thus bracketing a millennium of Jewish life and literature and providing additional evidence for the origins of Karaite Jews, a group of scripture-centered dissenters from the authority of the rabbinical Talmud.

The chapters are full of surprises: the wide-ranging genres of the documents, from personal letters written by Moses Maimonides, copies of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), to documents that bear evidence in court deliberations, and just about every literary and nonliterary "genre" known today and in a great many [End Page 403] languages: Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic words written in the Hebrew alphabet, a large percentage of the manuscripts); Aramaic, Judaeo-Greek, Judaeo-German (Yiddish), and so on, all of which help us understand the labor involved in translation and the high degrees of literacy represented in the archival materials.

We are indebted to Professor-Director Reif for meeting us where we were and taking us on a tour of these incomparable documents. He may want to add entries to the indices for those unfamiliar with medieval and Jewish studies, for example, the translation of Hebrew ger as "proselyte."

His book justifies the seemingly exaggerated summary: "And so everyday documents continue. A teacher asks for a salary advance to buy medicine for his sick child, a protest is made at the lease of a house to a Muslim because it faces the women's entrance to the synagogue; experiences are undergone which, in the words of a contemporary, 'two camel-loads of paper would be unable to describe.' Crusades, slaves, postal services, leisure activities, and a host of other fascinating topics—there is no dark recess of mundane, medieval life in the Mediterranean area that is not illuminated by the Genizah...


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