When it comes to nonfiction books, I’m a big fan of what I call “unofficial sequels.” These are books (usually in the field of history) that make great follow-up reading to an earlier published book dealing with the subject matter. Who cares if the two books are from different authors, it just feels like one book takes off where the earlier book ended. The first example that comes to mind is Bruce Feiler’s America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story. In my opinion it flows seamlessly from where Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World ends. Much in the same way, Jeffery Toobin’s The Nine: Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court is a great follow-up book to Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s 1979 expose The Brethren: Inside the Supreme Court. Taking it one step further, Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945, Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II and Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 when combined together form a rather nice trilogy, even though they’re the work of three different authors.
I’d like to add one more title to my little list of unofficial sequels. A few years ago as a present I received a copy of Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole’s Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza. It’s the perfect unofficial sequel to Janet Soskice’s The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels. Beginning almost at the point where The Sister of Sinai leaves off, Sacred Trash tells an amazing story.
In Sisters of Sinai, we learned of the discovery of a long forgotten trove of ancient manuscripts that spent centuries gathering dust in the hidden storage room or geniza of a Cairo synagogue. Thanks to the hard work of a pair of intrepid Scottish sisters and Cambridge’s Romanian-born community Rabbi, this priceless cache of Jewish documents was finally brought to light for all to study. In Sacred Trash, we learn just what was found in that dusty and decrepit storage room and how, over the years scholars were able to study the documents and as a result gain a greater understanding of the history of Jewish life in the Levant and neighboring areas.
As far as discoveries go, the Cairo Geniza was a historian’s jackpot. Imagine a huge pile of manuscripts representing a timeframe from the 11th century to the 19th. In among the worn-out Hebrew Bibles and other religious texts were also more commonplace artifacts like marriage contracts, divorce writs, wills, business records and personal letters. Ironically, it’s because of these more profane items found among the sacred ones that scholars now know what Jewish life was like in the region over the past centuries. Because of the invaluable light they’ve shed, the treasures of the Cairo Geniza have been dubbed by modern scholars as the “Living Sea Scrolls.”
Sacred Trash is a lot of fun. It serves up a nice slice of overlooked Jewish history and is readable, interesting and at times even a bit quirky. (After reading a few of the marriage and divorce documents quoted in Sacred Trash you will first chuckle and then agree with the author of Ecclesiastes that there’s nothing new under the sun.) I have no problem recommending Sacred Trash.