Documentary unravels history — and digital future — of mysterious Cairo Geniza
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Historical snapshotJews flourished under Islam in the 10th to 12th centuries

Documentary unravels history — and digital future — of mysterious Cairo Geniza

Film includes interviews with 40 experts who chart the strange discovery and continued scholarship of the mass of rare random documents that make for a rich ‘medieval Facebook’

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Arabic petition with Hebrew writing from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
    Arabic petition with Hebrew writing from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
  • Book for children from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
    Book for children from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
  • Prof. Solomon Schechter working on the contents of the Cairo Geniza that he brought back to Cambridge University,1898. (Courtesy of Michelle Paymar)
    Prof. Solomon Schechter working on the contents of the Cairo Geniza that he brought back to Cambridge University,1898. (Courtesy of Michelle Paymar)
  • Digitizing fragments from the Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
    Digitizing fragments from the Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
  • The oldest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript, from Iran at the beginning of the 10th century, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)
    The oldest dated medieval Hebrew manuscript, from Iran at the beginning of the 10th century, part of the Discarded History: The Genizah of Medieval Cairo exhibit on display from April 27, 2017 (Cambridge University)
  • Arabic document from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)
    Arabic document from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

In 1896, Cambridge University scholar Solomon Schechter jumped down into the dusty, insect-infected room-size geniza in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Cairo), Egypt. With that leap, Schechter opened an incredible window into the life of Jews in the medieval era.

With the approval of the then-chief rabbi of Cairo, Schechter removed the majority of the hundreds of thousands of document fragments from Jews from North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean that had been preserved in the synagogue’s geniza, a storage area for sacred documents awaiting burial. Those he brought back with him to Cambridge University.

The rest of the material — between 25% and 40%, depending on who is counting and how — ended up at another some 70 institutions and collections around the world.

Schechter and other scholars and collectors were initially interested in the Cairo Geniza for its fragments of manuscripts of sacred books and liturgy. But by the mid-20th century, academics — led by Shelomo Dov Goitein at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), located in Princeton, New Jersey — realized that the Geniza, which curiously had never been emptied for over nine centuries and essentially acted as a trash receptacle for all sorts of documents, was also a treasure trove of information on daily life in medieval society under Islamic rule.

Interior of Ben Ezra Synagogue, Cairo. (Ovedc via WikiCommons)

A new documentary, “From Cairo to the Cloud: The World of The Cairo Geniza,” traces the amazing story of the Geniza from its discovery by Schechter and other 19th century ancient manuscript hunters through to its digitization more than 100 years later. The film, which premiered in late 2018, is set to screen in Boston on May 16 and 18, as well in other cities worldwide this year.

Filmmaker Michelle Paymar (courtesy)

Michelle Paymar, who produced, directed and filmed “From Cairo to the Cloud,” told The Times of Israel she had been unaware of the Cairo Geniza until someone mentioned it to her some years ago.

“As an Ashkenazi Jew, I had little knowledge or education of Jews in the Islamic World. Around 90% of world Jewry lived under Islam in the medieval period. I didn’t know this or what was brought to Jewish civilization by it,” she said.

Paymar was fascinated to learn that Jews were well integrated into society under Islam. This was especially so in Fustat, the Egyptian city that served as the administrative center of power, and which eventually became part of modern-day Cairo. The Jews flourished under Islam in the 10th to 12th centuries, which is the period most predominantly represented among the documents of the Cairo Geniza.

“Jews were part of the scenery in the Arab world. One would definitely have preferred to have been a Jew in Cairo than in the Rhineland at this period,” Paymar said.

Digitizing fragments from the Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

“From Cairo to the Cloud” traces the story of the Cairo Geniza in a more or less chronological fashion. The narrative of how the Geniza was discovered, studied, and more recently digitized for greater access flows clearly. However, it is conveyed by an overwhelming number of academics, librarians and conservators. Paymar interviewed 40 people from various countries, and it is hard to keep track of who they are and how they are connected to the Geniza.

After introducing viewers to the concept of a geniza and showing an upstate New York Jewish congregation burying its worn out prayer books, the film goes back in time to the story of how Schechter, who later became the founding leader of American Conservative Judaism, learned of the Cairo Geniza.

Genesis of geniza’s exodus from Egypt

Solomon Schechter with the Book of Ben Sira (page that prompted him to go to Cairo to ‘discover’ the Geniza in the Ben Ezra Synagogue. (Courtesy of Michelle Paymar)

In 1896, Scottish scholars and twin sisters Agnes S. Lewis and Margaret D. Gibson bought some Hebrew fragments from a Cairo seller while on one of their ancient manuscript-hunting trips to the Middle East. When they arrived home to Cambridge, they asked Schechter to take a look at their haul.

Schechter identified one of the fragments as a page from the original Hebrew version of the Book of Ben Sira (the Book of Ecclesiasticus in the Catholic Bible, and part of the Apocrypha in the Jewish tradition). The book was written in the second century CE and had last been seen by Saadia Gaon (who died in 952). Up until that moment, it has been assumed that the book had been lost to history. This discovery changed the course of Schechter’s own career and opened up a window into a lost world that would keep scholars busy for generations to come.

After Schechter ascertained that the Ben Sira page came from the Ben Ezra synagogue’s geniza. Then, with financial support from his Cambridge friend and colleague Charles Taylor, he set out for Cairo in search of the rest of the book, hopeful of other significant medieval Jewish religious and literary documents.

Schechter secured permission to access the Geniza (either by charm or payment — there are differing accounts on this) and was astonished. It was nothing like other genizas, which usually contain only documents on which God’s name is written, such as prayer books, Bibles and Torah scrolls. The Jews of Fustat did not throw out anything written in Hebrew letters, which would include languages such as Aramaic, Judeo- Arabic, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Persian, and Judeo-German (Yiddish). The polyglot documentation indicates the Cairo community’s contact with other Jewish communities around the world.

Likewise, the geniza also contained documents in Arabic, reflecting the use of the general society’s dominant language by the local Jews, as well as the fact that paper with Arabic writing was often reused for other purposes.

Arabic petition with Hebrew writing from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

Today, it seems it was harder for Paymar to obtain permission to film inside the Ben Ezra Synagogue than it was for Schechter to gain access to its geniza and remove most of its contents to the UK. No one had filmed inside the synagogue since a BBC crew was allowed in in the 1980s. (The synagogue is decommissioned, but is open to tourists as a popular historical heritage site.)

“There were three governments in Egypt during the period that I worked on the film. As soon as I finally got a response from the Mubarak government, there was a regime change and I had to start all over again. Then when Sisi came to power, I had to make my request to his government,” Paymar said.

Eventually, with the assistance of the Canadian embassy in Egypt, Vancouver-based Paymar was granted access by the Egyptian authorities and the remnant of the Jewish community in Cairo. She entered the synagogue in spring 2017 with her camera — and a group of government minders.

Illustrated ketubah from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

The Geniza is accessed through a window leading to a room hidden behind a wall, and can only be entered by ladder from the women’s balcony.

In filming, it was important to Paymar to give viewers a sense of how immense the repository was. Somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 fragments were extracted from that room. They include everything from a draft by Maimonides in his own handwriting of his “The Guide to the Perplexed” to the most prosaic of items such as receipts, prescriptions and recipes.

“It’s more like the medieval Facebook: a collection of the detritus of the lives of masses of people, full of so much mundane junk that you can reconstruct an entire world from it,” said author Dara Horn, whose 2013 novel “A Guide for the Perplexed” was inspired by and deals in part with the Cairo Geniza.

Under the microscope

It was precisely these more quotidian and ephemeral — “documentary” in scholarly parlance — items that captured the attention of IAS’s Goitein. He was the first scholar to conduct extensive research into the documentary holdings of Cairo Geniza collections worldwide, devoting his life’s work to this beginning in 1948.

Dr. Marina Rustow (Michelle Paymar)

Dr. Marina Rustow, Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and Professor of History, is the current director of the Princeton Geniza Lab. She estimated that around 40,000 of the Cairo Geniza’s fragments (10% of the whole) are documentary. These are the documents that her lab has dealt with exclusively since 1985.

Rustow said that whereas in the past the emphasis was put on transcribing fragments, Princeton is now focused on describing them and also capturing any interaction anyone has with the Genizah documents, whether it be complete research or interim work.

“It’s easier to later transcribe groups of documents once they have been described and organized,” Rustow explained about the decision to shift the focus away from transcriptions for now.

Interestingly, Princeton does not actually own any part of the Cairo Genizah, thought it does have an enormous number of photocopies of the fragments.

Book for children from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

“This just shows that you don’t need to own the documents to do serious work on them,” said Rustow, whose students are using the documents to research subjects such as sexuality, gender, economics, and material culture in the medieval Islamic world. These topics and others are elaborated upon with excitement by the academics who appear in Paymar’s film.

Princeton and Cambridge each have platforms through which scholars and the public can access Cairo Geniza images, transcriptions, descriptions and bibliographies online.

“Online access has made matters much easier for specialists, but has also encouraged a much wider use of genizah materials,” said Prof. Stefan Reif, who established the Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge in 1974, which helped open up the field of Cairo Genizah studies further.

Children’s exercises from Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

Moving towards open access for digitized geniza fragments

When it comes to efforts to digitize and share the fragments electronically, “From Cairo to the Cloud” focuses mainly on the Friedberg Genizah Project (FGP), which was launched and funded by Toronto philanthropist and Judaica collector Albert Friedberg in 1999.

Dr. Yaacov Choueka, emeritus professor of computer sciences at Bar Ilan University, was brought on in late 2005 as chief computerization scientist, and tasked with establishing the computerization unit of FGP. The Jerusalem-based unit, called Genazim, created the software and algorithms that are the heart of FGP’s online research platform, which enables anyone with a computer to freely access digital images of both sides of every single Cairo Geniza fragment in the world.

Prof. Yaacov Choueka (Michelle Paymar)

According to Choueka, one of the greatest challenges of the project was obtaining the licensing rights to the fragment images. Immense efforts were expended in locating all the fragments dispersed globally. Then FGP had to convince all the various owners to either take digital images of their fragments (per specifications provided by FGP), or allow FGP staff do it.

“We heard that a Reform rabbi in Hollywood [at Temple Israel of Hollywood] had a single fragment framed and hanging on the wall of his office. We didn’t spare any effort to find it all. We ended up with about 99.5% of all the fragments out there,” Choueka said.

With more than half a million images to search, it would be hard to know if and how fragments fit together to create a full or partial page or document. FGP solved this problem by using facial recognition technology to develop a program that allows the platform’s users to search for “joins,” or probable match-ups of fragments. The computer can almost instantaneously search through billions of possible pairings and suggest between 10 and 20.

Amulets against scorpions from the Cairo Geniza (Michelle Paymar)

“In the past, these joins only happened if a scholar happened to remember how a fragment at one library looked and was reminded of it while looking at a fragment at another. In the first hundred years of Geniza scholarship scholars found only about 4,000 joins. The computer found 100 in the first couple of months,” Choueka said.

According to an agreement reached last year, FGP will be moving to the National Library of Israel. Rustow said she was excited that this could possibly signal an advancement toward interoperability among all the institutions with Geniza materials online.

Paymar is excited, too, but she also thinks that nothing replaces directly seeing and holding the original Geniza documents. She was amazed to see Maimonides’s distinctive handwriting, and in a short time was able to recognize it on various fragments.

“When I first saw — and then got to touch— some of the documents, I gasped!” Paymar said.

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