Dr. Avraham Malthête,  Alliance Israélite Universelle

Dr. Avraham Malthête,  Alliance Israélite Universelle

A FILM BY

MICHELLE PAYMAR

 

 

 

"The Geniza gave us a kind of video
on life a thousand years ago that is
totally unique. Every aspect of life
is represented there."
--Stefan Reif, Cambridge University Library (Emeritus)

Cairo to the Cloud tells the captivating story of the Cairo Geniza, a vast treasure trove of manuscripts discovered in the “geniza,” or sacred storeroom, of an ancient synagogue in Old Cairo. 

The Geniza is not only the largest cache of Jewish history ever found, it is a window into a vanished civilization, with over 350,000 documents illuminating over a thousand years of Jewish, Christian and Moslem life in the heart of the Islamic world. 

It is an accidental archive of unprecedented diversity, including religious texts and medical prescriptions, literary treasures and love letters, marriage contracts and business reports, magical amulets and children’s drawings. The voices from the Geniza echo through the centuries with uncanny intimacy and immediacy, bringing to life a long-silent world.

Manuscripts emerge from every segment of society, from the impoverished beggar to the celebrated scholar. We hear widows and orphans desperate for charity, traders reporting from perilous voyages around the Mediterranean, Europe, India and beyond, and eyewitness reports detailing the ravages of the Crusades. We eavesdrop on the prominent trader al-Wusha as she conspires to protect her illegitimate son, intercept a note passed between teenagers, and recognize the familiar words of an 11th century Jewish mother admonishing a son who (unlike his perfect brother) never writes. 

The Geniza contains previously unknown works by the renowned Hebrew poet Judah ha-Levi, sheet music that lay silent for centuries, and a Dead Sea scroll unearthed 50 years before the blockbuster discovery at Qumraan. Among the most breathtaking discoveries are hand-written drafts penned by Moses Maimonides himself, the legendary 12th century rabbi, scholar, philosopher and physician to the Sultan’s court. 

It is a collection larger, more varied and, arguably, more significant than the fabled Dead Sea Scrolls. Yet the captivating story of the Cairo Geniza is not widely known.

Until now.

The Film

Cairo to the Cloud is the first documentary feature about the Cairo Geniza, exposing new audiences to this unique treasure and the rich, complex world it reveals. Three generations of renowned Geniza scholars, along with computer scientists, archivists, librarians, conservators, photographers, artists, rabbis and writers, guide us along the journey, revealing their insights with an infectious passion.

Throughout the film, we hear the human voices behind the ancient documents through selected readings. The hand-written documents themselves visually anchor the film, while a rich landscape of paintings, illustrations, artifacts, archival photographs and films brings the Geniza world to life. A layered and evocative soundtrack incorporates Judaeo-Arabic motifs and instrumentation, propelling the story and supporting its landscape. 

Cairo to the Cloud brings the Geniza story into the present as we witness the continuity of geniza traditions by joining a synagogue community conducting a ritual burial of sacred books. Archives and libraries in New York, Princeton, Philadelphia, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and Jerusalem give us privileged, behind-the-scenes access to their manuscript treasures. We accompany an intrepid conservator in the Cambridge University Library as she cleans and repairs priceless Geniza manuscripts and go inside the University’s renowned digital lab as the last Geniza documents are digitized. Finally, we follow the digitized images as they’re analyzed and uploaded to servers in Jerusalem and computer scientists at Tel Aviv University confront the challenge of adapting facial recognition technology for Geniza research. 

Update

Except for a few additional scenes, filming is now complete. We need your support to help us finish the film. Donations to Cairo to the Cloud can be made through our Fiscal Sponsor, The International Documentary Association (IDA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Contributions are payable to the IDA and are tax-deductible in the US to the extent permitted by law. 

Please click here to make a donation through the IDA or visit the Donate page for more information.

Putting documents into the Geniza at the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo - Diorama Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv

Putting documents into the Geniza at the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo - Diorama Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv

“The Genizah...is an old Jewish institution. The word is derived from the old Hebrew verb “ganaz,” and signifies treasure-house or hiding-place. When applied to books it means much the same thing as burial means in the case of men. When the spirit is gone, we put the corpse out of sight to protect it from abuse. In like manner, when the writing is worn out, we hide the book to preserve it from profanation. The contents of the book go up to heaven like the soul”
— Solomon Schechter, 1897