When Michelle Paymar heard that Cambridge University was finishing the final scans of its project to digitize its collection of documents from the Cairo genizah, she was surprised to learn that the BBC wasn’t planning on sending a film crew.
For the Vancouver-based filmmaker, this was a historical moment in the thousand-year history of the documents, which were written in medieval Cairo, spent many of those thousand years stashed as trash in the genizah, or storeroom, of the Ben Ezra synagogue there, only to be discovered in the 19th century and then helped to revolutionize the study of history in the 20th and now 21st centuries.
The footage that Ms. Paymar filmed at Cambridge in 2012 became the first pieces of “From Cairo to the Cloud,” her 2018 documentary on the genizah that is being screened by Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael on Saturday night. (See below.) This was the first feature film for Ms. Paymar, a longtime film and television professional.
Ms. Paymar said that when she first heard of the genizah many years ago, “it captured my imagination. The idea that there exists a time capsule of a period of Jewish history that I certainly learned nothing about in all my religious school education.”
Seeing the documents for herself — and in some cases being able to touch them — was “amazing” and “breathtaking.”
“To be given a piece of paper that has Maimonides’ handwriting was kind of mind-blowing,” she said. “This touched a human hand 1,000 years ago. It’s captivating — it brings you so close to the person who read this and wrote this.”
Ms. Paymar traveled around the world to make the film, meeting with genizah scholars in England, France, Israel, and even New Jersey. “I kept following the leads and interviewing people and educating myself about the genizah, and then sat down to put it together,” she said.
The digitization was carried out by the Friedberg Genizah Project, funded by Toronto philanthropist Albert Friedberg. In the film, she interviews the project’s chief scientist, Dr. Yaacov Choueka. “He was a brilliant man who passed away during covid,” she said. “He’s charming, learned, a computer genius — and he was born in Cairo.”
In all, the project scanned more than 100,000 documents and fragments, scattered in 70 libraries and collections around the world, reuniting the former inhabitants of the Ben Ezra Synagogue’s discard bin in the digital cloud.
The film shows how this digitization has opened up new possibilities for genizah scholarship.
“Genizah scholars were initially interested in the sacred religious documents and liturgical poetry and all those other wonderful discoveries,” Ms. Paymar said.
Most famously, Cambridge University professor Solomon Schechter recognized that a Hebrew fragment he had received from Cairo was from an unknown Hebrew original of the book of Ben Sira, which until then was known only from a Greek translation that had been preserved in Christian churches.
That was in the 19th century.
“In the 1950s, Shelomo Dov Goiten started working with what they called the documentary genizah, all the documents of human life,” Ms. Paymar said.
Dr. Goiten collected his discoveries in “A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza,” published in six thick volumes.
In those days, “if you were studying the genizah you had to have an absolutely prodigious memory,” Ms. Paymar said. “Goiten was one of those people who could look at letter he saw in the library in Cambridge, and when he saw another in the Jewish Theological Seminary, he would recognize it from the handwriting as the same document. To put pieces of the genizah together was an amazing intellectual feat.
“One of the goals of the digitization is not only to make it searchable, but to make it easy for fragments of the same document to be reunited,” she said. “You or I can go online and choose a fragment and ask the software to find something written by the same author. It gives you options listed in order of similarity. That’s where scholars, humans, come in and say, ‘Wow, that’s the next page’ or ‘That’s the bottom of this page.’”
There’s a New Jersey piece to the genizah story that Ms. Paymar tells in her film.
Marina Rustow is a historian at Princeton University and a 2015 MacArthur Fellow who works on the genizah.
She discovered that hidden in the genizah, and overlooked as extraneous by earlier generations of Jewish studies scholarship, were records of the Fatimid Caliphate that ruled medieval Egypt.
It was known that the Fatimids kept good records and wrote everything down. But their official archives were not preserved.
It turned out, however, that some of their records ended up in the genizah.
“Their decrees were written on expensive paper, with huge lettering and lots of space between the words,” Ms. Paymar said. After the decrees were promulgated, they were sold at the market as scrap. And sometimes, the scrap was bought by Jews who would write something on the back in Hebrew — something that would end up preserved in the genizah.
“Marina was working in the library one day with a colleague who was working on a collection of sheiltot,” rabbinic writings from Babylonia, Ms. Paymar said.
“He noticed that on the back was all this Arabic writing. He said, ‘Check this out.’ She looked at all the backs of these documents and was able to recreate a big chunk of the Fatimid archive.”
Yet where genizah scholarship has focused on joining words and sentences, one of the stunning pieces of the film is shots of the world of the genizah in full color. Ms. Paymar was the first filmmaker in years to secure permission to film inside the Ben Ezra synagogue.
“It took three Egyptian governments,” she said. “I had to start over each time it changed. I made some progress with Mubarak. I started over again with Morsi. Started again with Sisi. I got permission in Egypt from the Ministry of Antiquities, the National Police, the Tourism Police, the Press Office, the Jewish community of Cairo such as it is, and the Canadian Embassy even helped on my behalf. It was a big process. Up until the day before I was scheduled to shoot, I didn’t know if it would happen.”
Ms. Paymar reveled in the colorful finds from the genizah.
“I was really surprised that in this sacred chamber there were very many amulets and magical incantations, alchemy recipes,” she said. “You have this idea of the pious masses, that everyone was practicing Judaism in this perfect way, but people still had kitchen gods. They were putting amulets under the pillow to make a girl fall in love with them.
“I imagined this medieval world as one where people dressed in drab colors. It turned out the genizah people were incredible peacocks. Their appreciation of color and textiles was astounding. There are all these letters to merchants and between merchants about what kind of robes they were looking for, what kind of textiles, with specific descriptions of colors.
“At the same time, luckily, the Metropolitan Museum of Art released images from its wonderful collection of medieval Egyptian textiles. I was able to show the audience that these people were wearing amazing clothes.
“There are all these kind of amazing details about their lives.
“People really didn’t cook a lot at home in Cairo. It was expensive to buy fuel, so a lot of cooking took place in the marketplace. Jews were eating takeout in the Middle Ages. Stuff was cooked in the market, and they would have these containers with food they would bring back home. Some people would make food at home and bring it to the market to be baked,” she said.
“From Cairo to the Cloud” came out in 2018. Now Ms. Paymar is working on a short film that spins out of the discovery of the genizah. It’s about the sisters Agnes and Margaret Smith, who were friends of Matilda Schechter and her husband, Solomon, in Cambridge.
“Because they were Presbyterian, they didn’t fit in at Cambridge, just as the Schechters as Jews didn’t fit in,” Ms. Paymar said. “These women were widows and very wealthy. They devoted their lives to traveling and trying to recover sacred texts.”
It was an era where people sought earlier and therefore more authentic manuscripts of the Bible. The Smith sisters were leaders in this movement. Among their discoveries were the earliest Aramaic fragments of the Christian Gospel.
“They were in Cairo and they bought some manuscripts from a dealer,” Ms. Paymar said. “Though they were very learned and knew multiple ancient manuscripts, they couldn’t place this one document. They told their friend Solomon Schechter about it. He came over and he recognized it as a piece of Ben Sira in Hebrew.
“These stories started the whole genizah story, because once Schechter saw it, and he figured out where it came from, he went to Cairo and ingratiated himself with the Jewish community of Cairo and the leading rabbis there, and the Jewish community was happy to have him cart away most of the genizah.
“They remained friends when Schechter went to New York to work at JTS. My film about them is sort of my covid project. I hope I can put it together with the material I have. I’m not going to be going to Cambridge to interview anyone soon.”
What: Film “From Cairo to the Cloud” and Q & A with filmmaker Michelle Paymar
When: 8 p.m. Saturday night January 30.
How much: $10, to cover film rental costs
Register at: rinat.org/form/Cairo-to-the-Cloud.html