Trip report: Discarded History

Seems like ages since I’ve done one of these, doesn’t it?

The little exhibition space attached to the Cambridge University Library doesn’t seem to get a huge number of visitors; it’s mainly people who are already visiting the library, I think. I understand why: it’s not very big and it’s not really near anything else. But that’s kind of a shame, because every time I’ve been there they have good exhibits.

jewish-schechter-geniza

Today I was at the library returning some books, and since I had half an hour to spare before a tutoring session I decided to see what was on downstairs. I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit currently there (until 28 October) is of manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, and it’s fascinating. This collection of hundreds of thousands of Jewish manuscripts accumulated over centuries in a genizah, which is a special storeroom where worn-out manuscripts are kept, sometimes in preparation for being buried in a cemetery. These ones weren’t buried, though; they just piled up in the synagogue storage for centuries until being brought to the UK in the 19th century.

Now, the original scholars who identified and collected these texts were interested in their religious content, but that’s not what this focuses on. There are appeals for charity, prenuptial agreements, lists of brides’ dowries, letters, government documents, school exercises, doodles, cheques, family letters, medical recipes, good luck charms and lots of other documents relating to the daily life of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo and elsewhere. Some of them show the Jewish community being mistreated by the Muslim authorities or by the crusaders — Jews from the community of Ascalon are trying to raise money to ransom prisoners taken by the Franks, for instance — but others depict a society in which Muslims, Christians and Jews are coexisting peacefully if sometimes uneasily.

Text-based exhibits are interesting, aren’t they? I mean, I don’t read Hebrew, let alone Hebrew on restored medieval documents. These things could have been napkins for all the difference it makes to me. Yet I found the stories they revealed much more compelling for being in the presence of the original documents.

I think my favourite story from the exhibit was that of Karima al-Wuhsha, a wealthy Jewish businesswoman who was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was worried that he would deny paternity so she arranged for witnesses to catch them in the act. She got kicked out of her synagogue by scandalised neighbours, but documents attest to the pious generosity shown in her will.

Anyway, it’s just a one-room exhibit, so you probably won’t go out of your way to see it, but if you ever do find yourself around the UL, it’s well worth stopping in.

Also, the free guide that you pick up from the rack by the door contains tons of source text rather than just pretty pictures. Recommended!

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Trip report: Discarded History

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