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"Real life through letters" - A review of Delightful Compendium

November 9, 2008

From the October 2008 issue of Genizah Fragments, the Newsletter of Cambridge university's Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University Library
Have you ever wondered about everyday life during the Gcnizah period? Or planned to read S. D. Goitein's brilliant A Mediterranean Society, but were discouraged by the sheer bulk of its five volumes?

If so, then Burton L. Visotzky's A Delightful Compendium of Consolation is tailor-made for you, an historical novel told in the form of letters fictitiously derived from the Cairo Genizah.

Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, Visotzky spent much of his career researching rabbinic literature and cataloguing Genizah manuscripts before turning to fiction.

The epistolary format (often a difficult genre to master — and read) has been employed by Visotzky with great skill, for within the first few pages one is cast into a fast-moving world of adventure, filled with rebellious daughters and rabbinical lore, and a fair sprinkling of caravans, pirates and exotic locations.

The letters tell the story of the al-Tustaris, a real-life Karaite merchant family in eleventh-century Fatimid Cairo, during the
period from which the bulk of Genizah manuscripts is derived. The central character of the book is Karimah, who runs away from home with Ismail, a Muslim, and whose father, Dunash HaCohen al-Tustari, now considers her dead.

In his grief, he seeks comfort from his mentor, friend and trading partner, Rabbi Nissim (another true figure whose stories of consolation were discovered in the Genizah). Karimah, meanwhile, maintains contact with her brother, Iskander, from whom we learn details of the family fortunes and the vicissitudes in the life of a merchant trader. Close relationships between siblings are, indeed, an authentic feature of Genizah letters.

Through these letters, Visotzky skilfully weaves historical fact with familial stories and enchanting talmudic tales, though some of Karimah's escapades — such as her recruitment as a sailor — are somewhat fantastical. One is reminded, however, of the figure of al-Wuhshah, the businesswoman (also named Karimah) whose unusual personal and trading exploits feature in a number of Genizah documents.

The novel is set against the backdrop of a majority Muslim culture and paints a picture —which not always obtained — of harmony between the communities. The text is vivid, clear and full of warmth, additionally providing (for the uninitiated) a useful glossary and source notes.

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A Delightful Compendium of Consolation

A Delightful Compendium of Consolation

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