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Trash Talk

August 2, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

It was said of Agnes Lewis, the self-taught Scottish scholar of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, and her equally learned twin sister, Margaret Gibson, that they hurried down a street or hallway "like ships in full sail." They looked much alike -- same rounded frame, thick lips, hawkish eyes. Both, it is said, were vain about their "dainty hands," which they often "weighed down with antique rings." And oddly enough, both were widowed after just a few years of marriage to clergymen.

But to those who knew them well, they were distinct. Agnes, older by a full 20 minutes, was the more ambitious one and dominated the pair. Margaret was quieter, "more normal," people said. By the time Agnes turned 50, she had written three travel books and three novels, and had translated a tourist guide from the Greek. It is thought that Margaret assisted her sister in the writing of her non-fiction works, had edited her husband's translation of Cervantes'Journey to Parnassus while also becoming an accomplished watercolorist.

The pair were exceptionally close, and around Cambridge, England, where they resided, they were known collectively as the "Giblews." After their husbands were gone, they took their sizable inheritance and applied it to travel and study together.

By middle age, these women had learned between them nine languages -- to the European ones they knew, they added Hebrew, Persian and Syriac written in Estrangelo script. They studied the newest techniques in photography and, during their travels to the East, took thousands of pictures of ancient manuscript pages while purchasing piles of others. They then set out to translate what they deemed to be the most interesting of the lot.

As women and devout Presbyterians, they lived on the margins of male-dominated Cambridge -- degrees weren't conferred upon women there until 1948 -- and they counted among their friends many Quakers, freethinkers and Jews. But despite all their travels, perhaps their most important expedition took place in 1896 during a trip to Palestine and Egypt. They had gotten some "news" from Cairo and decided to act upon it.

Things Heat Up

After the twins had returned home, Agnes, suffering from what her sister called "a severe rheumatic illness, caused by undue exposure on the night when we had lost our tents in the valley of Elah," went out into downtown Cambridge to stretch her legs and bumped into the Romanian-born Talmud scholar, Solomon Schechter. It was a storied encounter.

All of this compelling detail comes in the opening pages of Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, the most recent entry in the Nextbook series known collectively as Jewish Encounters and published by Schocken. Things really heat up in the narrative once Agnes and Solomon get to talking.

As Hoffman and Cole write, "Even more of an oddball in the donnish context of Cambridge than Agnes and Margaret, the very Jewish, very blustery Schechter must, too, have cut a remarkable figure as he strode down King's Parade. With his bushy, red-tinted beard, unruly hair, and tendency to gesticulate broadly as he spoke, Schechter had been known to set off in the broiling heat of midsummer wrapped up in a winter coat and several yards of scarf. An acquaintance remembered first meeting Schechter, with 'his dirty black coat, smudged all over with snuff and ashes from his cigar, hands unwashed, nails as black as ink, but rather nice fingers, beard and hair unkempt, a ruddy complexion ... One ear was stuffed full of wool, hanging out, and he was always very abrupt in his speech.' Another recalled that his socks never matched.

"His resemblance to a bag lady apart, there was, as another colleague put it, 'the magic of prophecy about the man.' He also had, his wife would write years later, 'a genius for friendship; he loved people and they loved him.' Since his 1890 arrival in Cambridge, where he was first given the odd title Lecturer in Talmudic and later appointed Reader in Rabbinics, Schechter had gained the deep respect and affection of a range of the town's leading intellectuals ... ."

The day Agnes bumped into Schechter she told him of the recent foray in the Middle East. The twins were just now developing their photographs and sorting through the manuscripts they'd purchased. Some of them had come from Cairo. Agnes explained that Margaret had worked her way through "the Hebrew fragments and set aside what she deemed parts of 'the Canonical Books of the Old Testament' (the only sections of the Hebrew Bible that she, as a good Presbyterian, would know), assuming that the others were either talmudic passages or 'private Jewish documents.' " The twins were eager for Schechter to have a look at what they could not identify.

It took Schechter no time to make his way to Castlebrae, the sisters' Gothic Revival mansion. After huddling over the the large dining room table where the papers were spread, he identified "one vellum as a rare and valuable page from the Palestinian Talmud." He took up another dirty scrap of paper and declared it to be of considerable interest. He asked if he could take it with him to decipher it. Agnes didn't hesitate to give her approval.

'Please Be Secretive'

Within an hour of leaving Castlebrae, Schechter had sent a telegram to the twins saying: "Fragment Very Important; Come To Me This Afternoon." The twins, used to a "certain agitation" in their friend, didn't rush right over; instead, they sat down to lunch. But even before they started their meal, a letter arrived, "splattered with unblotted ink and scrawled on Cambridge University Library stationery in Schechter's lurching hand. The scholar explained that the fragment he had taken 'represents a piece of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus.' " Schechter insisted that this was the first time such a thing had surfaced and pleaded for the women to be secretive about his message and what they'd found.

Schechter was talking about an apocryphal book, also known as Ben Sira, that was believed to be missing for nearly a millennium, and which survived only in its Greek and Syriac translations. This precious fragment represented Schechter's first encounter with material from the Cairo Genizah, a storehouse in an old synagogue in the ancient city that was filled with discarded documents. Schechter eventually traveled to Egypt and hauled away masses of fragments and pages that amounted to one of the greatest manuscript finds of the late 19th century.

The early chapters of Hoffman and Cole's book move at the breakneck pace of a saga straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Once Schechter decides to depart the scene in Cambridge to become chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the pace of the book slows a bit. There were many scholars warring for a chance to have a crack at the genizah treasures, and Hoffman and Cole provide detailed biographies of each of these eccentric characters and the various parts they played in uncovering what all this mountain of writing meant.

But throughout Sacred Trash, the intellectual excitement never flags, since, in the end, the revelations the genizah provided altered our conception of what Jewish life was like in the ancient world and beyond. No manuscript discovery would rival it until Bedouin shepherds in the early 1950s stumbled upon the urns containing the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves at Qumran.

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