The Next Find

Last Sunday Adath hosted a fascinating discussion of The Last Watchman of Old Cairo, by Michael David Lukas, which was this year’s selection for One Book One Jewish Community. Princeton University scholar Dr. Brendan Goldman gave a presentation about the Cairo Geniza which provided important background and context to the novel. Thank you to the OBOJC Committee for a great event!

I have written about the Geniza before, but its importance cannot be overemphasized. The discovery of over 350,000 textual fragments spanning a thousand years of history in the attic of an ancient synagogue in Cairo revolutionized a number of academic fields: Jewish history, Hebrew poetry, and the history of the Mediterranean basin in general, just to name a few.

Part of what makes the Geniza so exciting is that discoveries are still being made. Even over 120 years since Solomon Schechter cleared out the storeroom and brought back his treasure trove to Cambridge, the fragments have not fully been sorted and examined.

Thanks to modern technology, much progress is being made in getting a handle of this massive “horde of Hebrew manuscripts” as Schechter called it. The Friedberg Genizah Project brings together all of the collections around the world which contain fragments into one place on the Internet. Scholars can view digital copies of the entire corpus. Princeton also has a Geniza Lab that collects transcriptions of the fragments.

Geniza studies are not just for academics, however. The interested layperson can go to the site of the Taylor-Schecter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge and read articles about particularly interesting discoveries in its Fragment of the Month section. You can even get involved in research yourself with a project called Scribes of the Cairo Geniza, where you can sort and transcribe fragments that have yet to be fully deciphered.

The Scribes effort is an example of citizen science, where regular folks are able to help experts in their research projects. The same Zooniverse platform has 89 other projects you can participate in, including the search for planets in other solar systems. The Internet and big data make it possible for people with no specialized skills to help contribute to important discoveries.

I have already spent some time on Scribes of the Cairo Geniza sorting and transcribing fragments, looking for the next remarkable find. I haven’t found it yet, but I think that is the appeal: the next click could pull up a document that changes our understanding of Jewish history.

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