Josh Fleet

Confessions of a Compulsive Genizah Diver


Sunday, Aug. 31, 5:54 p.m. — HaNetziv Street, Nachlaot, Jerusalem

Evenings and early morning are the best times to go. There’s light to see, but the sun won’t kill you. On the way from my office (aka Nocturno, a local coffee shop) to Machane Yehuda, Jerusalem’s central outdoor market, stopping at the genizah is an obvious, unavoidable choice.

We Jews are rather religious about names, especially the Hebrew name(s) we call that thing called “G!d.” An object containing a Divine name—like, an old, crumbling prayer book, for instance—cannot simply be tossed in the garbage. Instead, it should be treated like a human body. When a holy book "dies," it is buried—not burned, not shredded, perhaps upcycled, but definitely not dumped.

A genizah is a receptacle for these elderly sacred objects, purgatory before descending beneath the dirt and ascending to the Great Library in the Sky. Historians know much of what they know about Jews (and others) of antiquity because of the uninterred contents of dust-jacket bins and manuscraptoriums of yore, and now many miles of ancient text are being scanned back to life digiternal.

In America, community synagogues likely designate a room in their building—a Shaimos, literally “names,” for the holy titles contained within the pages of the old books stacked and stored there—for this purpose. I still remember our assistant rabbi barreling down upon a patch of sandy soil among the North Florida pine by the playground and pool behind our shul, upending the earth, filling the crater with reams of old paper and prayer-imbued ritual objects, and finally patting down the dirt of a new, holy hill. Anyone who wanted could fling in a shovelful just like at Jewish funerals.

In Jerusalem, many neighborhoods have a genizah. Just gotta look hard enough. Some sit beside the road, like those used clothing charity drop-boxes in strip mall parking lots, painted plain blue with official-looking metal signs (in Haredi areas) or in the more eclectic Nachlaot adorned with elaborate murals of the Old City and cartoon diagrams delineating proper use of this treasure box of infinite possibility.

I come from a long line of leisure-time pack rats. We came to the United States from the Russian hinterlands around 1890, and we’ve been based in the American South almost ever since. Before that, collective family memory is sort of a blur. Even the origin of our last name is shrouded in mystery, the only known explanation having been given by a family patriarch who was known to tell tall tales and elaborate joke stories. Perhaps the Fleets dug deep in Florida, and further weighed themselves down with sprawling collections of stuff, in an effort to establish something permanent. We were, presumably, religious Jews in the Old Country. I once read through a stack of faded copies of ancient-looking Yiddish postcards from some resolute strand of the clan that had stayed behind in the Ukraine, and the writer’s only concern was that his American brethren should send him a Hebrew calendar. Now, the family lives a thoroughly American Jewish life. Thanksgiving dinner is as sacred as the Passover Seder. We’re zealots when it comes to college sports, but the temple’s too far away not to drive there. And so, to collect is to connect to something beyond. It establishes personal ritual. Whereas my grandfather gathers old coins and has probably never gotten rid of a single pair of shoes, and my dad keeps crates bursting with restaurant menus in the garage, my weakness is books. The Holy City’s a great place to be for a bibliofiend. Once a rabbi-friend of a friend needed help moving from one end of Nachlaot to the other, and while schlepping stacks of boxed books, he offered, and then delivered, a nearly complete set of lightly used volumes of the Talmud. He had several sets. Of course, my shelves were already full. But these were free.

Just like “dumpster divers” might peruse grocery stores’ discarded wares and find stuff that's most certainly edible, even nutritious, not to mention free, I have a habit of delving into genizahs and rescuing books that have no business being buried. One can simply open the genizah’s hatch, rummage through the miscellaneous artifacts, and repurpose or (re)read as s/he sees fit.

Peeking in right now, however, it’s clear the thing’s been emptied. Recently. A thin layer of scrapped pamphletry lines the bottom. Without a partner to hold my legs aright as I dive head-first down the hatch and sift through the leaves—without an enabler to help this holy keg stand happen—there’s no way I’ll reach. And I can’t just climb in foot-first either. Down there in the dark is a heap of light. To stamp it out would be impossible. To stamp on it would be sacrilege.

The door crashes loud and hollow over the hole. I know when it’s time to move on.

6:24 p.m. — Geulah, Jerusalem

The open-air grocery bazaar, known simply as The Shuk, is about halfway between the genizah in my neighborhood and the one in Geulah, so I decide to venture into the black-and-white streets of this newfangled shtetl to check on their book depository before grabbing groceries and heading home. I know the general location of the genizah, I think, and on the first downhill turn spot purgatory’s outer chamber, a shabby table with stacks of even shabbier books. A hand-scrawled sign declares their price (5 Shekels, or about $1.39), and a few scruffy Breslover Hasidim, they of mighty sidelocks and never any despair, stand by debating something or other. Probably one of them’s trying to make a living selling these decrepit tomes. From the genizah they were likely found, and to the genizah they shall return. I’m headed there now, and anyway, I’ve learned my lesson. When Eli the Bus Guy first took me sacral spelunking, I drowned in a glut of stuff and walked away with nicked books too mystical and fringed garments too big. Some overweight Kabbalist must’ve recently cleaned out his closet. To my rookie eyes, this was a pile of free money. In reality, it was a hoard of Judaica and Hebrew worth far above my pay grade.

Spend enough time peering down this habit hole, you’ll find that genizahs are hubs of synchronous mystery. There was the time when we started learning a new chunk of Talmud and, being a broke newbie at the yeshiva, I wondered where to find a cheap copy to call my own. Wandering by the bin in Nachlaot, I peeked in to find a splendorous variety of slender volumes. The one underneath the one on top of the pile was, of course, the one I needed. Another time, while parting the sea of plastic bags and books, I felt a balled-up tangle of leather and just then an old man came by and asked me, in Hebrew, if there were any Tefillin straps, which I immediately pulled up and into view. He gladly accepted the strips of hide and went on his way. Then there was earlier this summer, during the heat of war, when I reached in and pulled up a slick charcoal grey volume: a Koren Tanach, a typographically superior edition of the Jewish canon, with rabbinic commentary at the bottom, in near perfect condition, with this pliable waterproof cover issued specifically to Israeli soldiers, according to the spine. That felt like a find. Now, this 5-shekel yard-sale deal for decimated chapters of Jewish intellectual history is too rich for my blood, so I venture on.

And on. After 20 minutes in Yiddish-flooded, sun-baked back-alleys, it’s clear that I should just head home or else have my pick of the day’s least desirable vegetables as the light fades and the stalls close. Anyway, I’m an introvert, I prefer to keep this habit private. To find the box would require asking for directions. The looks I get for wearing a purple T-shirt here—warrant enough for outside questioning—should suffice for the day.

Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2:34 p.m. — Shade, corner of HaNetziv

Yeshivish man, mid-50s likely, pulls a two-foot stick with a hook on the end from a purple canvas wheely bag. He digs deep into the container through one of its doors. I could join him but it's nicer to stand in the shade. Also, I don't want to create competition. This might be his livelihood: finding rare and/or old books to sell. Or, maybe he’s a scholar in search of lost commentaries, like Aryeh Kaplan, the Shaimos hunter, who used to pour over dusty parchment and pry apart crackling pages in search of the unicorns of Jewish text, the incunabula of a shrouded past, to better understand the present. This guy seems to be pulling up specimens of beauty, even as he leaves no bag unsearched. He moves over to the second door. I'll let him do the hard work. If in fact he's a collector, then he'll have only kept the really good stuff anyway.

He packs away both tool and treasure and is gone, but I stay leaned against this sun-stopping wall, real nonchalant like, tapping away on my phone, engrossed. The guy didn’t get far. He’s going through some abandoned randomness on the hood of a parked car. I just keep leaning and typing, wait for him to really skedaddle before making my move. At 2:41, he's gone. He's gone! Time to dive.

2:42 p.m. -- Nachlaot genizah

Easy to see the need for a hook-headed stick. Genizah's a quarter full (or is that three-quarters empty?) but way in the back is a decent-looking Mikro'ot Gedolot, commentary on some part of the Torah. Vayikra, aka Leviticus, upon closer inspection. And there’s thick-plastic sack of siddurim, prayer books, clearly visible. That far down, I'll never be able to reach and pull it out.

Some additional contents: Pamphlets from Chabad, old notebooks and newspapers, various neighborhood newsletters, sundry plastic bags with mysterious insides. Holy scraps, I guess. But there’s a theological canyon between that bound anthology of Bible commentary and the stacks of stapled announcements, mass-printed and as quickly mass-trashed. There’s a difference. Right?

This genizah is a snapshot of the entire spectrum of Jewish religious devotion to G!d—the good, the bad, and the smugly. Exodus 20:7, the Fourth Commandment, tells us never to take the Lord’s name in vain, and our tradition is so saturated with love and awe of the Creator’s most-sacred epithet that we know not how it’s pronounced and invoke, instead, HaShem. That name—literally, “The Name”—is Y-H-V-H, which we read as Adonai in the context of prayer, and sometimes transmogrify into the meaningless honorific Adoshem in apparently soulless (head)spaces. Fences around fences around fences because, historically paranoid of ourselves and everything else, without these barriers from entry we know we’ll fall into some dark pit. Which is where The Holy Printed Name ends up when it’s all read and done, because despite the seemingly endless concentricity of prohibitions, we place as great a value on text as self. Though G!d spoke the world into being and the Israelites experienced revelation at Mt. Sinai by way of the Divine’s voice, we’ve always had a complicated relationship with speech. Moses, our greatest prophet, was tongue-tied; at Sinai, we “saw the sounds” of divinity divulged; and though we pride ourselves on having both Written and Oral Laws, the latter is by now set in stone.

Text is life, and life must be handled with care. One may violate the Sabbath for a small list of things. Say a roll of paper towels is close to a candle in the kitchen and some wind blows through the window and tips the thing over into the flame and it ignites and tumbles over onto the otherwise empty granite counter. It’s the Sabbath, so, just as you can’t turn a light on or off, the roll must be left to its ashen fate. But let’s imagine that the flame shoots high and too near to the wooden cabinets, threatening to turn into a dangerous blaze. Well, then, of course you can dump water on the fire. OK, but let’s say that paper towel roll is instead a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures, now aflame. What should you do? Our books, as extensions of our bodies are the prophetic bridges between physicality and transcendence. Our sages say pages are people, too. So, quick! Don’t let that inferno spread.

You might think that with rise of virtual reality, and it’s infinite storehouses of digitized, translated and interactivated wisdom, would come less physical text. Maybe in some cultures. But observant Jews love reading about as much as they love the Sabbath, and you can’t swipe a Kindle or surf the ‘chives on the day of rest (that’s Commandment No. 5), so Yidden will print anything from emails and #longreads to photocopies of facsimiles of folios. It adds up, and even though the Most High is explicitly missing from much of this Xeroxed swag, He/She/It/All is implicitly present in all but name. If it’s Sabbath-appropriate reading material, the reasoning goes, then it’s too close to holiness for comfort and should be discarded with respect. If we won’t even invoke a nickname of the Compassionate One for fear of saying it in vain, G!d forbid we should treat the written word—seemingly any written word—as waste. And so, in a matter of days this receptacle will be full if not bursting. The cup doth truly overflow. It would take crazy person to sift through the blessing of it all.

Perhaps I should return tomorrow. With a stick.

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