A guide for the perplexed

A modern-day tale of love and suspense: 1,000 years of Jewish history in Cairo.

For nearly a millennium, the genizah, or storeroom, of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo served as the final repository for discarded texts. Torah scrolls, prayer books, letters, receipts, amulets and other documents too worn to be of any use, but too precious – because of the Hebrew letters with which they were written – simply to be thrown away, piled up in the synagogue, preserved from rot by Egypt’s dry climate.

This “sacred trash,” as Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole aptly called it in their 2011 book of that name, has allowed scholars to rewrite the history of medieval Jewish society in the Mediterranean world.

But reading these bits of parchment is a notorious challenge. Over the centuries, the texts have crumbled and disintegrated. Poems break off midline, love spells have lost their magic words and letters are missing their signatures. Most difficult is piecing together the scattered fragments of a single page, a frustrating and painstaking task of sifting through reams of paper for the missing pieces.

The frustrations of genizah research came to mind when I read Dara Horn’s newest novel, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” in no small part because the Cairo Genizah features so prominently in her story. The genizah appears in all three of the interlocking narratives of this, Horn’s fourth book. It serves as a potent symbol, recalling the pit into which the biblical Joseph was thrown by his brothers in the Genesis story that the novel’s central plot reinterprets, as well as a metaphor for the transience of human memory.

Read the full review from 2012 in Haaretz.