My first encounter with a "geniza"

The word “geniza” may be familiar to some of you because of the remarkable discovery of the “Cairo Geniza” in the 19th century.  Literally, “geniza” means “a place of burial” – but not of bodies.  It is a place where old, worn out, holy books find their final resting place.  It is considered disrespectful to discard them in the garbage, so they are buried or otherwise stored away.  Did I say “final resting place”?  Well, not always; sometimes curious people like myself disturb their rest and disinter them.  There is nothing disrespectful about this – as long as we treat them with deference.  One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.
My first experience with a geniza was not nearly as exciting as the discovery of the Cairo Geniza; nothing can compare to that.  But it was exciting nevertheless.  I was attending a yeshiva in Jerusalem and this particular building had been in use for quite some time.  There was a somewhat secluded roof area and, adjacent to it, a large covered area – which served as the geniza.  In order to reach it, one had to climb over a stone arch.  To fall from it meant certain death.  Few ever ventured there for this reason.  But I was young, foolish and curious so venture there I did.  The place was dark and danky.  It crawled with various spiders and insects and it contained numerous barrels and burlap sacks, all full of old books, manuscripts and other worn out religious items.  I was like a kid in a candy store but I knew nothing about old books at the time.  If I encountered something that looked interesting to me, I would keep it.  After each such expedition, I would wheeze and gasp for breath – because the dust was so intense.  My whole body would be covered with dust, spider webs and God knows what else.  Some of the books I salvaged were moldy and many had worm holes in them.  Over the course of a Summer, I had gone through every barrel and every sack.  My collection was mildly impressive.
Shortly thereafter, somebody had carelessly tossed a cigarette butt into the geniza – and the entire structure disappeared in a blaze.  Not the entire building; just the geniza.  This was about 30 years ago, and I still have some of the books I’d salvaged from that place.  They are not particularly valuable, but they were interesting enough for me to keep all these years.
Decades later, I had a similar experience.  I was married with kids and we lived in a multiplex here in the U.S.  The area we lived in had a small Jewish community which had been larger in the past.  One day, for whatever reason, I entered the basement and, aside from a litter of kittens, there were a couple of boxes containing old Hebrew books.  Most of them were of little value and in poor condition – but I did find a Yiddish manuscript that had (as far as I can tell) never been published.  It was a history of the town of Rotneh, Ukraine.  There was also an old photograph of an unknown child.  Since none of the other residents of the multiplex were Jewish, it was clear that those items had no owners.  They had obviously been there for many years.  Less than a week after my salvage operation, the landlord had the entire basement emptied and its contents hauled to a landfill.  It was considered a fire hazard.


This entry was posted in Jewish stuff and Israel. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to My first encounter with a "geniza"

  1. Patrick says:

    Are there any organizations that travel around visiting various genizas and salvaging things they see as of value?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *