Interview with Matti Friedman, author of The Aleppo Codex

I recently reviewed a fabulous non-fiction book, The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman, who I was fortunate enough to meet at BEA.  Here’s a little background on the book:

In an age when physical books matter less and less, here is a thrilling story about a book that meant everything. This true-life detective story unveils the journey of a sacred text—the tenth-century annotated bible known as the Aleppo Codex—from its hiding place in a Syrian synagogue to the newly founded state of Israel. Based on Matti edman’s independent research, documents kept secret for fifty years, and personal interviews with key players, the book proposes a new theory of what happened when the codex left Aleppo, Syria, in the late 1940s and eventually surfaced in Jerusalem, mysteriously incomplete.

The codex provides vital keys to reading biblical texts. By recounting its history, Friedman explores the once vibrant Jewish communities in Islamic lands and follows the thread into the present, uncovering difficult truths about how the manuscript was taken to Israel and how its most important pages went missing. Along the way, he raises critical questions about who owns historical treasures and the role of myth and legend in the creation of a nation.

Matti was nice enough to answer some interview questions.  Quasi-Spoiler alert: we discuss some outcome of his investigation, but you really need the background of the entire narrative to be spoiled.  So without further ado:

Julz:  You met some interesting characters during your investigation and made some friends, too.  But to delve into the world of smuggling and theft, you encountered some shady people also.  Did you ever feel in danger?

Matti: Not in physical danger, not really. But there were definitely times when I felt nervous  when I was dealing with unsavory characters and taping them surreptitiously, for example. Ive seen enough Sopranos episodes to know what happens when they find your wire.

For a time, I knew that there had been a murder connected to the codex but no one would tell me who had been killed or exactly what had happened, and for a few months I was a bit worried about that as well; I had this dream that the victim was a nosy reporter who got too close.

That turned out not to be the case, and I’m still very much alive.

Julz:  Do you think the family of the alleged culprit Benayahu will ever dissolve his private collection, thus revealing items like The Crown that were acquired illicitly?

Matti: I think that is highly unlikely. The only hope in the case of Benayahu, the former director of the Ben-Zvi Institute who is accused of being behind the disappearance of dozens of manuscripts, is an actual investigation by police or by another arm of the Israeli government into the case. Without an aggressive investigation equipped with search warrants and subpoenas were unlikely to get anywhere, and even if there is such an investigation it’s not clear they’ll be able to find anything at this point. And Benayahus link to the disappearance of the Crown pages is a possibility, of course, but not a certainty.

Julz: Obviously you developed an obsession over The Crown.  Now that you have an idea of what happened to it, is your mind at ease?  Can you put the subject to rest, or does your investigation continue?

Matti: Having spent four years on this story, I need at least four years of vacation. But where the story of the Crown is concerned once you’re in you’re in, and since the book has been published I’ve been talking to a lot of people about how to continue the investigation. My book marks the first time that all of the available information on the codex has been published, including quite a bit of information that is uncomfortable and controversial, and my hope is that the publication of the book will revive this story, get people talking and shake the tree  perhaps well see something interesting fall out.

Julz: What does a journalist in Israel do for fun besides digging around archives?  What is your typical reading fare?

Matti: Most of what I read is nonfiction  I just finished an excellent book called Who Wrote the Bible, by Richard Friedman, about the political and historical circumstances that produced biblical literature. I also recently read The Beauty and the Sorrow, by Peter Englund, which tells the story of WWI through the personal diaries and recollections of 20 different people touched by that war around the globe.

The best novel I read in the past year was Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, about Marines in Vietnam. I was thinking about that book for weeks afterward. And every few months I need to read a book by John le Carré.

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