A treasure chest of everyday Jewish life in the 18th century

9 February 2012

The geniza of the old synagogue in Weisenau provides an in-depth look at the culture and everyday life of this old Jewish community. Professor Dr. Andreas Lehnardt of the Faculty of Protestant Theology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) has spent the last two and a half years carefully combing through this legacy from the 18th and 19th centuries. In the process, some very unique items have been discovered.

About two dozen gray boxes are stacked around the office of Professor Andreas Lehnardt. In a few days, they will move on to their new home in the Mainz city archives. A couple of the boxes lie open on his desk. One is filled to the brim with old Hebrew writings. Most of them are small fragments from books and many have been heavily damaged. "The mice built a nest in that one," comments the Professor of Judaic Studies from the Faculty of Protestant Theology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. In another box, there are some tefillin, which are phylacteries or small sets of black leather boxes for prayers that contain little scrolls of parchment with handwritten verses from the Torah. Lehnardt explains that "they were worn strapped around the arm and forehead." There is also a small collection of children's shoes, but, as Lehnardt admitts, "these are still quite a mystery to us at the moment." But he is absolutely certain about one thing: "Many of these finds are truly unique."

The forgotten synagogue in Weisenau

All these items were found in the attic of the Weisenau synagogue on the street known today as Wormser Straße. After being desecrated and plundered by the Nazis, this small house of worship for Jews was turned into a storage room and a chicken coop. It wasn't until the late 1970s that the town was reminded of this building's original function. And then, a treasure was found in the attic - the geniza.

In Judaism, the name of God is particularly sacred. "In fact, His name is never spoken," Lehnardt explains, "and writings that contain God's name in some kind of way must always be kept." Today, just as in the past, these writings are stored in the synagogue, in the so-called genizot. "This word doesn't translate exactly, but it means something like a storage room, but also a treasury," clarifies Lehnardt. Any slip of paper, even a trivial one, that might somehow contain God's name lands in this space. He also notes that "sometimes it is even enough if His name can be made out of individual letters on the page."

300 year-old writing exercises

Thus, it is no surprise that the geniza in Weisenau contains more than just religious writings. Lehnardt flips open the cover of a small book and points at the chapter title: "This here means 'multiplication.'" What he has in his hands is actually an arithmetic book from the 18th century. "Something like this really hasn't been kept anywhere else," he exclaims. He then pulls a single sheet of paper out of another box: "These are writing exercises done by a schoolchild." In a Christian household, this kind of material would just have been thrown away. There is nothing like this that exists anywhere else today. Some small child probably scribbled his first letters on this paper about 300 years ago.

"In Germany, we know of about a dozen or so old genizot," Lehnardt explains. "And, in fact, six of them are located in the German federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate." Recently, a geniza was discovered in Niederzissen. "We had to wear breathing masks when we went in there," he remembers. "The documents were pilled as high as my chest." As in Weisenau, everything had just been thrown in and nothing had been organized. This was simply a graveyard for these items as they had no future purpose, but they could also not be thrown away.

An unparalleled look at Jewish life

The genizot are a valuable source of unparalleled information about daily life centuries ago. Scholars and Jewish communities from around the world are interested in the contents of these unique collections. Lehnardt's research has generated a great deal of attention because it can shed light on all kinds of different historical questions, such as "Where was printing done?," or "What was read at the time?," to quote Lehnardt. He also tells that "in Weisenau, we found many Yiddish texts and even some light fiction which have never been found anywhere else."

An enormous range of different documents were found, most of which date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. There were children's stories and fables, the by-laws of a burial society, and a calendar with train connections and information about trade fairs in the region. There was even a "Kindbettblatt" that was used during childbirth. According to Lehnardt, "this was hung over the bed while a woman was giving birth. It had supposedly helped Lilith by keeping away demons and the evil eye."

This isn't the only item in the Weisenau geniza that points to superstitious or magical practices. "The educated Rabbis surely were not happy about these practices," comments Lehnardt. But such material provides a direct look at elements of everyday life that we only otherwise get through a filtered perspective.

Hopes for third-party funds

Lehnardt has been working on the geniza project in Weisenau for two and a half years. "At the moment, I see myself as a kind of archaeologist who is digging things up and then cataloging them." He is quite certain that the contents of the geniza will be of interest to several fields of research. "I'm hoping we will receive additional third-party funds," notes Lehnardt. After all, there are still many unsolved mysteries. Looking at the box with children's shoes, he comments that "we've only ever found a single shoe, not a pair." But, he still doesn't know why they were put in the geniza. Where was God's name on the shoes? Lehnardt would like to solve this puzzle, as well as many others. But, to do so, he needs both time and money.