WILLIAMSTOWN -- Judaism as a religion has deep tradition -- stories, worship and culture passed on from generation to generation.
But around the turn of the 20th century, much of what scholars knew about significant periods in the history of the religion was upended by the discovery of a massive repository of ancient texts in Egypt -- the Cairo Geniza.
Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, husband and wife and co-authors of the book "Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza," will speak at Williams College today, explaining the discovery of ancient Hebrew texts and the scholars that pieced them together.
"The Cairo Geniza is arguably the greatest collection of Jewish manuscripts ever discovered -- a find so vital that one of the greatest scholars of this material called it "the Living Sea Scrolls," Hoffman said.
The first attempts at understanding the ancient texts began unceremoniously, with a few scholars huddled around a dining-room table in England to scour over tattered, old documents.
The process slowly evolved into the rewriting of nearly 1,000 years of Jewish history during the Middle Ages -- a span that had been, until that point, mostly a blank page in thousands of years of Jewish tradition.
"Communities would put their damaged holy books in a burial plot or a special closet, a geniza," Hoffman said. "The basic idea was that written works, like people, are living things and have an element of the sacred about them."
Cole and Hoffman's book follows the journey to find and understand the documents uncovered throughout the world, and the scholars who completed the work.
The documents ranged from the expected -- a Bible -- to the unexpected -- pages of magical spells.
"They've opened a window, or windows, onto almost every aspect of Jewish life -- from literature to sociology, politics to polemics, medieval interior decorating to messianism, prayer to pigeon-racing," Hoffman said.
The book is also partly a biography of Solomon Schecter, one the men most responsible for uncovering the swath of ancient texts, and those who worked with him.
The texts paint a portrait of life in the Middle Ages for people of all religions, not just Jews.
"Because Jews lived in such close proximity with their Muslim neighbors and often worked with them, it also presents a portrait of life as it was lived generally in the Mediterranean basin, between the 10th and 12th centuries especially," Hoffman said.
Edan Dekel, chair man of the Jewish Studies program at Williams, also stressed the importance of the texts in his field of work.
"The influence that the Geniza texts have had on the study of Jewish history and literature has been enormous," Dekel said.
He also said the work of scholars is not complete.
"The texts are our most valuable evidence for medieval Jewish life in the Mediterranean region," he said, "and there are still thousands of fragments waiting to be assembled and interpreted."
Williams is very excited to have Cole and Hoffman speak, Dekel said.
In 2007, Cole was one of 24 people awarded the MacArthur Fellowship Grant, a "genius grant," for his poetry. He's also won the National Jewish Book Award for his poetry.
Both Cole and Hoffman have taught at Yale University. Cole has also taught at Wesleyan University and Middlebury College, and Hoffman at New York Univeristy.
"Peter has spent years translating the Hebrew poetry of Muslim and Christian Spain, and many of these poems were discovered in the Geniza, so that was our initial point of seriously involved contact," Hoffman said.
Cole and Hoffman have also both been named Guggenheim Fellows -- Hoffman in 2011 and Cole in 2002.
Hoffman is a prolific biographer and author, and has had her essays published in many national publications such as The Washington Post and New York Newsday.
"They are two of the most dynamic, innovative writers working on Jewish culture and its interactions with other traditions," Dekel said.
If you go ...
What: Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman speak on ‘Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Geniza'
Where: Griffin Hall, Room 3, Williams College, Route 2, Williamstown
When: 7 tonight, Oct. 10
Admission: Free and open to all