“Both the second tablets and the broken tablets were placed within the Ark.”
Not all trash is equal. For Jews, sacred words are almost as sacred as humans. Once these written words fade of use they are buried, alongside no-longer-legible Torah scrolls, in especially reserved cemetery plots.
When does an object become sacred to us? How do we discard these sacred relics? What can we learn from the Geniza tradition about discarding our presence in a sustainable and sacred manner?
Geniza, translated as ‘the concealing’, is the name of this process as well as of the temporary storage location of the discarded words. For thousands of years, discontinued sacred scrolls, books and documents were deposited in a local Geniza. Stashed away in hidden caves and synagogue attics, random fragments had become collective time capsules, ancestral archives of precious trash, clues to our past.
The idea of the Geniza always captured my imagination: the treasure hunt for the crumbling proofs of devotion, the decay of decades, surprising secrets. This search has brought me here. It’s a thrill to be a student at JTS, home to not only live scholarship but also to a large collection of the fabled Cairo Geniza fragments.
JTS Geniza: Just over a century ago, Solomon Schechter led a team of scholars that discovered and recovered the extraordinary contents of one such Geniza, from Cairo’s oldest synagogue. The decoding and analysis of the 200,000 fragments has informed and transformed Jewish scholarship ever since. 35,000 of those fragments are archived in New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America Library.
REMAINS TO BE SEEN is an exhibition inspired by the research of the Geniza as well as by the ‘Found Art’ and “Ready Made” movements, incorporating ordinary objects, extraordinary memories, broken fragments, clues to ancestral legacies, torn and timeless. Traditional Geniza collections consist of written matter, containing the name of God. My Private Geniza Collection 2012 examines the sacred substance of the objects in our lives that are imbued with divinity, but not only through words.
I rummage. Flea markets, auction houses, museum archives, basements and attics: searching for private memories that become public domain as one generation passes legacies on to another. My father’s legacy is stories. No tangible evidence of his pre Holocaust life remains. Maybe that’s what I’m searching for. And maybe it is just human curiosity, hunting for the clues of our existence.
THANK YOU: Tobi Kahn, wise mentor for over 30 years – for inviting me to participate in this show; Sara Marcus of the JTS Library for helping to coordinate the objects from the JTS Geniza Collection; Gregory Gilbert and Shifi Rathaus for tireless and creative labor getting all the details beautifully handled, and special thanks to Tanner Veatch- the most helpful and insightful project assistant.
*Check out this video tour of the exhibition: