Thursday’s news report contained this item:
“Egyptian synagogue once home to famed ‘Cairo Geniza’ completes extensive renovation”
We can start with the somewhat depressing part of this story. The synagogue, restored to its “former” glory, with marble and gilt, is purely a tourist site. As with the synagogues of Venice and Prague, the vibrant Jewish community that lived there for centuries is now extinct, the synagogue a draw for those who want to run their hands over a piece of history, and for Jews and Israelis for whom a quick pilgrimage to bits and pieces of their history is a must. (I use the word former loosely, as the structure had been rebuilt several times over the centuries since the first building was built in the 9th century.) Its famous geniza is gone, as well.
The synagogue may have been destroyed and rebuilt over the ages, but it managed to keep its geniza intact – amassing a pile of hundreds of years worth of parchment and paper too sacred to bury, burn or scrape away and write over. The Cairo Geniza contained 400,000 separate items.
I have a tenuous connection with the Cairo Geniza, because one fragment, thought by some to be the oldest bit in the Geniza, is known as Halper 331. The Halper whose name was affixed to a number of Geniza fragments – Prof. Ben-Zion Halper – was my great uncle. Ben-Zion never visited Cairo, never saw the attic room where, in 1896, the American-Jewish scholar Solomon Shechter removed a good many of the hundreds of thousands of documents squirreled away there. But some of the Geniza fragments, in those days of wholesale cultural shoplifting, found their way to Dropsie College in Philadelphia, and my great uncle, who was a renowned Hebrew and Arabic scholar and translator and, from 1916 until his death, editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America, spent much of his life translating, cataloging and pondering these documents.
I never met that Ben-Zion Halper. He died young, right before my father was born, and my father was named for him.
Ben-Zion the elder was something of a wunderkind, so the family lore goes. He had been a penniless immigrant from Lithuania when he showed up in London to do his graduate work in the classics, having taught himself Ancient Greek and Latin the previous month in preparation. His wife remarried after his death and moved the family to England, and my father only connected with them late in life. But he carried the name with pride.
I have on my bookshelf a siddur-sized, blue-cloth-covered volume printed in 1921, of an anthology of translations from post-biblical Hebrew by B. Halper, passed on to me by my dad shortly before he died. “You can’t really read it,” he told me.
He had been a penniless immigrant from Lithuania when he showed up in London to do his graduate work in the classics, having taught himself Ancient Greek and Latin the previous month in preparation
My dad was right. B. Halper practically admitted as much in his forward, pointing out that the texts were mostly written in the language of prayers or the legalese of the Mishneh. Many had already been translated from the vernacular of the writers – Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, French or German – into Hebrew, so he was often translating a translation. In some cases, the text almost reads like Google translate, because Prof. Halper had left words directly translated, or even transliterated with notes, understanding the cultural gap was too wide to edit them into a story coherent to the modern ear. Let historical scholars write papers on what they thought the authors really meant.
And yet, just the short biographies at the start of each chapter give one a small window into Jewish scholarship from the 2nd century to the 17th. Eldad Ha-Dani was a native of East Africa who traveled to Spain and Babylon. Samuel H-Nagid lived in Spain, was vizier at the court of King Habus and wrote lyrical poems on “Leaving Cordova” and having been saved in “Mid-Ocean from a Tunny Fish.” Menasseh B Joseph Ben Israel wrote in Hebrew, Spanish and Latin, and convinced Cromwell to let Jews back into England. Isaac Judah Abravanel, born in Lisbon, was treasurer the court of King Alfonso of Portugal, left when the Jews were expelled from Spain, and went to Naples and then Venice. The Abravanel work B. Halper chose to include in the anthology is entitled “The Advantages of a Republic over a Monarchy.”
“When the turn of other judges and officers comes,” he writes, “they will arise in their stead, and investigate whether the first ones have not failed in their trust, and he whom they condemn shall make good the wrong he committed.”
Okay, some of the texts are not only comprehensible, but still relevant 500 years later.
Halper 331 is a fragment of a ketubah. There were gems in the geniza fragments he translated, including parts of the Sefer Mitzvot, written in Arabic in the 10th century, which he translated to Hebrew and English. But much of a geniza is made up of ketubot and such – documents that contain the name of G-d and were thus destined to be forever archived – as well as secular texts and poems and even copies of the Quran. B. Halper understood the significance of the ketubot as well as that of the sacred texts. There is something even shiver-inducing to think of a young groom, in the year 800-something, signing a wedding contract nearly identical to the ones wedded couples receive today. That cannot be conveyed in the building restored to the shiny glory of the late 19th century.
Even as Halper translated the psalms and prayers, he treasured the folklore, philosophical treatises and even the marriage certificates as the living historical documents they were of Jewish life. He was uniquely sensitive to the language that, because it was not spoken, rooted in prayer and legal texts, evolved only slowly. It meant that a German Jew living in the 19th century could read and comprehend a text written by another Jew living in Egypt in the 9th. He ended up cataloging 500 Cairo Geniza fragments before his death.
My dad, his namesake, moved to Israel when he was 85, and he struggled to learn a few words of basic Hebrew. But he did learn to say, with a smile, “shmi Ben-Zion (my name is Ben-Zion).” There is a Halper street in Bat-Yam named for Ben-Zion. It’s about two blocks long. But we made a pilgrimage with my dad to the street sign and took our pictures under it. There is nothing distinct about either the street or the sign, but the moment was surprisingly emotional.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who has a much longer street in Tel Aviv, supposedly raised the Hebrew language up from the ashes. Ben-Zion Halper helped give us that language’s rich history.