Times of Israel writer Matti Friedman publishes his first book next week: “The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).
Friedman stumbled upon the Aleppo Codex and its mysterious story by chance, and found that a long-standing interest in archaeology and history helped him navigate its complicated maze of ancient and modern drama. As we wandered this week through the dim corridors of the Israel Museum’s Shrine of the Book, where part of the 1,100-year-old biblical manuscript is kept, Friedman talked about his own book — and the sacred book at its center.
How did your detective work on the Aleppo Codex begin?
In the summer of 2008, I was a correspondent for the Associated Press and was looking for stories that had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was what I was covering at the time. I encountered this manuscript, and I was kind of taken with it, and didn’t understand why I didn’t know about it if it was so important. I had never heard of the Aleppo Codex. I made some calls and found there was an effort under way to find some of the missing pages. I thought that was interesting, so I wrote a story that reflected the official version of events at the time.
I filed a 1,300-word article, and I kept looking into it. But when I tried to go beyond the official narrative, people stopped answering my questions, and that’s when I realized that there was a subterranean story here that was being concealed. It took months of work and persistence until I got scraps of information, and I collected more and more until things started to make sense. The story that emerged was very different than what I thought at first.
Did you anticipate that the book would involve so much traditional investigative journalism?
Around the same time, I had done some investigative work on the sale of land at the outpost of Migron, and that had been complicated. It involved collecting documents here in Israel and in the US and putting the puzzle together. But when I got into this story, I didn’t think that was what I’d be doing. I thought it was a nice story about how a very important book had been rescued and returned home. I didn’t know the story hadn’t been told — it didn’t occur to me that I could write something new about a manuscript that was 1,110 years old. I was quite taken aback to find that wasn’t the case and that it ended up being something resembling a classic journalistic investigation, involving sources and documents and Freedom of Information requests.
The book is starting to attract a good amount of media attention, both in Israel and abroad. Did you anticipate that kind of interest?
A biblical mystery is always something that’s going to grab attention, but the Aleppo Codex also presses very sensitive buttons in Israel. The story is about the problematic meeting between the country’s early European Zionist establishment and immigrants from an Arab country, and it’s also about what is arguably Judaism’s most important book. It’s not really a story about a manuscript, but about people — and what a book can do to people. I think that’s a subject with broad appeal.
What motivated you in your writing, besides a desire to solve the mystery?
I think all of the writing I’ve done since starting to work as a journalist has been an attempt to figure out what makes Israel tick. I’ve done it from different angles, and this is one of them. To understand this place you have to understand the way people understand their history, their religion and their divine texts. This story is a way of understanding more than a millenium of Jewish history, and especially the history of the Jewish world that existed in Muslim countries, the creation of the State of Israel and the dramatic events of the 20th century in the Middle East. Writing about the codex is a way of telling that story, and it’s part of my ongoing attempt to figure out the place where I live.