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New doc on Cairo Genizah premieres at Vancouver festival

Vancouver filmmaker Michelle Paymar pictured at Cambridge University

Vancouver documentary filmmaker Michelle Paymar was riveted when she began reading about the Cairo Genizah in 2010.

A repository of thousands of fragments of literature that had been hidden in Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue since the 13th century, the Genizah was revealed in 1896 by Solomon Schechter. It contained Jewish religious texts, love letters, business reports, shopping lists, children’s drawings and even hand-written drafts penned by Moses Maimonides in the 12th century.

After their discovery, the fragments were recorded, examined and dispersed to 70 libraries and collections worldwide. But in recent years, after a massive international effort, the Genizah fragments were digitized and they’re now accessible online.

Paymar heard about the digitization process as it reached its finale in 2011 and sensed its potential for a documentary. She called the head librarian at Cambridge University’s Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, where 70 per cent of the Genizah fragments are housed.

“I assumed journalists from prestigious media outlets were coming to film this important moment,” Paymar  recalled. When she learned that no one would be there to mark this important event, she grabbed her camera and boarded a flight to Cambridge to film as the last fragments were digitized. She interviewed prominent Genizah scholars in the U.K., Egypt, Israel and France, raised funds to support her fledgling project and gradually, over the next six years, created a remarkable documentary titled From Cairo to the Cloud, premiering at the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival Nov. 12.

The documentary describes the process of bringing the Genizah to light and discusses its importance in understanding Jewish life in Egypt over the time period it chronicles.

The Cairo Genizah has been called a “medieval Facebook full of so much mundane junk you could construct an entire world of it.” It represents a massive collection of digital images that deliver an unprecedented view into the richness of Judeo-Arabic culture at the height of the Golden Age of the Islamic world, a time of relative religious tolerance.

In the course of her research, Paymar was able to get close to many of the fragments. “The Egyptian Jews saved anything they wrote down, so you have shopping lists, love letters, children’s exercises and commercial letters detailing complex trading deals from India to Spain,” she said. “Nothing put into that Genizah was emptied for 900 years, so while you would expect to find sacred literature, there were also other things representing every possible aspect of life.”

The Genizah fragments offer intimate insight into what Jewish community life was like for 1,000 years, including lines that a child had to copy for misbehaving in class, records of what someone ate for lunch and details of how to medicate a headache.


One Genizah scholar described the experience of wading through the texts “like walking into a living room of people from the 11th century.” Another said the level of detail is “like looking back in time through the memory of God.” The handwritten, fragmented rough drafts for Moses Maimonides’ A Guide to the Perplexed are unedited and in their rawest form. “You can see where he changed his mind and crossed things out,” Paymar said. “You see Maimonides’ thinking, and that’s mind-blowing!”

There are many Canadian Jewish connections to the Genizah and the documentary. The Ben Ezra Synagogue restoration in the late 1980s was spearheaded by Phyllis Bronfman Lambert, an architect whose family funded some of the restoration. The process of digitizing the Genizah was bankrolled by Albert Friedberg, a Toronto philanthropist and businessman. Rabbi Mark Glickman, author of the Genizah book Sacred Treasure and a rabbi at Calgary’s Temple Bnai Tikvah, was one of the many experts interviewed.

It’s serendipitous that Paymar happened to be reading books about the Genizah at the time the fragments were digitized, and that the stories caught her heart and imagination. The process of creating the documentary was fraught with financial challenges, time constraints and red tape as the determined filmmaker fought for the opportunity to film in the Ben Ezra Synagogue.

“I started seeking permission to film in there when (Hosni) Mubarak was in power and had to start from scratch twice as the government changed over the next few years. It was very difficult to arrange,” she said.

Eventually she contacted representatives of Cairo’s Jewish community. “Once I had their help and the assistance of the Canadian Consulate, I was able to get permission from the Egyptian State Police, the Tourism Police, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and the press office.”

From Cairo to the Cloud is the first feature documentary about the Genizah and after its Vancouver premiere, it will be screened at the Cambridge Film Festival in the U.K., and at festivals in San Diego, Miami and Boca Raton in early 2019.


To learn more about the documentary visit cairotothecloud.com. Tickets for the Vancouver premiere can be purchased at vjff.org.