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About The Author

Tamar YellinTamar Yellin

TAMAR YELLIN received the Pusey and Ellerton Prize for Biblical Hebrew from Oxford University and has worked as a teacher and lecturer in Judaism. She lives in Yorkshire, England.

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Reading Group Gold

For readers of The Ghost of Hannah Mendes and The History of Love comes a sweeping, award-winning novel of four generations of a Jerusalem family.
Returning to Jerusalem after a long absence, Shulamit Shepher becomes embroiled in a family feud over possession of the so-called Shepher Codex, a mysterious and valuable Torah manuscript discovered in her granparents' attic genizah, a depository for old or damaged sacred documents. In unraveling the origins of the codex, Shulamit uncovers not only her ancestors' history but must reconsider her own past, her present and ultimately, her choices for the future. The tale of the family Shepher, their aspirations, feuds and love affairs, is a haunting one of exile and belonging, displacement and the struggle for identity.
The Genizah at the House of Shepher has received numerous awards including:
• Jewish Book Council's 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature
• Hadassah Magazine's Ribalow Prize
• Short-listed for Jewish Quarterly's Wingate Prize. 


This story begins with a book and ends with a book. It starts in an attic and ends in another attic, that of the Yorkshire cottage where I now sit writing. It opens in the attic of my grandparents’ house in Jerusalem in the spring of 1987 and, eighteen years later, closes with the appearance of my first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher.
 
Genizah (the Hebrew word, meaning literally “hiding place,” refers to a depository for old or damaged sacred documents) is the saga of a Jerusalem family stretching over a hundred and forty-five years and four generations, but it is also a thriller about a missing biblical codex and the search for the true text of the Bible. The tale of the family Shepher, their aspirations, feuds and love affairs, is very much fiction, but the real-life history which inspired me to write it is just as full of mystery, intrigue and scholarly adventure, if not quite in the Indiana Jones mould, then perhaps as close as biblical studies ever get to that.
It concerns a series of events which led to the reconstruction of one of the most important biblical texts, the Keter Aram Soba or Aleppo Codex. Written in Tiberias in the tenth century, this is the copy believed to have been consulted by Maimonides when compiling the laws pertaining to Torah scrolls in his Mishneh Torah. The Codex was extensively damaged in 1947 when Aleppo’s Jewish community was attacked and its synagogue burned down. It is believed that members of the community attempted to save the book by hiding a few pages each. While some have been retrieved, about two hundred are still missing, including all five books of the Torah.
 
What is the link between the Aleppo Codex and the family Yellin? Around 1854 my great-great-grandfather, Shalom Shachne Yellin, left his hometown of Skidel in Lithuania to make the long journey to Jerusalem. A famous scroll-checker in his native country, he was asked by the rabbis of every community along the way to inspect their Torah scrolls, and it was two years before he finally reached his destination. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he was asked by the religious authorities there to embark on yet another journey: to Aleppo in Syria, to examine the famous Keter Aram Soba, regarded by many as the most perfect text of the Bible in existence. The Codex was kept hidden by the Aleppo community, who refused access even to the most respected of biblical scholars, but armed with a letter of recommendation signed by all the great rabbis of Jerusalem, Shalom Shachne was to study the text and compare it to that currently in use, noting down all the necessary corrections.
By this time my great-great-grandfather was seventy years of age and in failing health, so he appointed his son-in-law, Yehoshua Kimchi, to be his substitute. Kimchi was less adept, but by writing down all the necessary questions and instructions Shalom Shachne provided him with the tools necessary to complete the job. Some ten years after the rabbis’ first request, Kimchi set off for Aleppo. On his return, the book in which he had written his vital notes was kept at the house of Shalom Shachne’s son, Zvi Hirsch the Scribe, and for years the scribes and scholars of Jerusalem, seeking to solve problems or answer questions about the text and punctuation of the Bible, would visit to consult it.
Then, on the death of Zvi Hirsch around 1915, the book disappeared. My grandfather, Yitzhak Yaacov, under threat of conscription into the Turkish army, had gone into hiding, first in Jerusalem and later in Petah Tikvah. By the time he returned, his father’s books and papers had been put away. In the struggle to rebuild his life and earn a living—my father was one of eleven children—he never found time to investigate their contents, and in any case, was probably more interested in other things. As one of the first Hebrew journalists in the holy city he read widely and wrote copiously under numerous pseudonyms, covering politics, literature and religion, and at one time edited and published a weekly newspaper, Hed Ha’Am. He also worked as a teacher and compiled some of the early modern Hebrew grammars.
When in the 1920s my grandfather built his bungalow in the new district of Kiriat Moshe, he transferred the mass of documents into the attic, where it was gradually joined, over the next six decades, by a burgeoning archive of newspapers, diaries and family letters. After the destruction of the Aleppo synagogue a number of scholars and rabbis urged the family to try and find the book, but it never occurred to anyone that it was lying there, hidden in an old tin box, a few meters above their heads.
 
In April 1987 I was recalled to Jerusalem by the news that the house was scheduled for imminent demolition, and that if I wanted to see it one last time I must come quickly. It was a sad visit: the bungalow with its stone floors and red tiled roof, scene of so many family reunions, our home-from-home on so many long hot summer visits throughout my childhood, stood forlorn, its contents piled in dusty heaps. But it was also to be the scene of a revelation. Guided by my uncle up the rickety ladder to the attic, I was confronted by an unforgettable image: a haphazard family archive so vast that the very dust on the floorboards was composed of disintegrating paper.
Here were complete sets of all my grandfather’s newspapers dating back to 1910; diaries describing his experiences in hiding during the First World War; files of correspondence including letters between Shalom Shachne and his family back in Skidel, some written in code, full of anecdotes about the Jerusalem and Lithuanian communities. And, of course, the book. Seated amidst this treasure, running my hands through the soft dust of what had been already lost, the seed of the novel I would eventually write was planted.
 
When my uncle came across the old book in the attic he didn’t know what it was. He actually picked it up and set it down again, leaving it there along with other sacred documents for eventual transfer to a genizah. Fortunately, my cousin had a friend at the Gush Etzion Yeshivah, whom she invited to examine what was left. On his return to the yeshivah he mentioned to friends that he had seen books belonging to Shalom Shachne Yellin. One of those friends was Yosef Ofer, who had assisted Amnon Shamosh in the writing of a recent book about the Aleppo Codex. He realised immediately what the book must be, and was overjoyed. He arranged for the retrieval of the precious volume.
The family heard on the television news that the book which had been sought for so many years had finally been found. My uncle told Ofer: “We gave you a suit, but did not know that it had a treasure in its pocket.” And Ofer returned the book.
 
The family decided to donate the book to the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, but even now the saga was not quite over. Challenged by distant relatives, a legal contest ensued as the final act in this circuitous history. They eventually lost the case. The book was handed over to the scholars, and was instrumental in the landmark reconstruction of the Aleppo text, published in 2001 as Keter Yerushalayim.
The result of my own labours, meanwhile, took slightly longer to appear. Proficient but not fluent in Hebrew, with limited access to sources and a somewhat open-ended notion of what it was I wanted to achieve, my researches took place haphazardly over years and continents. The writing of the novel itself became a rite of passage, the search for a final text mirroring painfully, sometimes, the theme of textual perfection in the Torah that I was exploring. My story was not only to be an academic thriller, but an interrogation of Jewish identity, a meditation on exile and belonging and, along the way, a love story. In constructing what I call the “mythical history” of the family Shepher, I was re-imagining and striving to come to terms with my own family narrative and with my place in it.
 
Now the work is done and the book lies before me, at once solid and oddly unreal, a simultaneous source of naches, satisfaction, and frustration in that it could never encompass all I wanted to achieve. But then I remember the rabbinical dictum: “It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” And I put it aside, and turn to another book.

Reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Quarterly © 2005
 
 
 
KEEP ON READING
Recommended Reading
 
The King James Bible
Short of reading the Bible in the original Hebrew, this majestic translation offers the next best reading experience. The biblical writings breathe through The Genizah at the House of Shepher and animate the central theme. Of course, the Bible is not just one book but many, and the reader can pick and choose among them. My own favourites include Exodus, Kings, Isaiah, and Ecclesiastes (“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”).
 
Everyman’s Talmud by Abraham Cohen
The Talmud itself is vast and beyond the reach of the unschooled reader, but this fascinating précis covers a wealth of themes from God and the Universe to Domestic Life and The Hereafter. It provides a window into rabbinical thought in all its glimmering complexity, and was an invaluable resource while I was writing Genizah.
 
Dictionary of Jewish Lore and Legend by Alan Unterman
If Genizah has inspired you to learn more about Judaism and Jewish history, I recommend this richly illustrated mini-encyclopaedia. Its brief entries are great to browse through at random, and cover every imaginable topic from angels to immortality and original sin to the ten lost tribes.
 
Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Edited and Translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
I often turned to this book for inspiration while I was writing Genizah. No other poet writes more beautifully of Jerusalem, or more movingly of the Jewish experience of exile.
 
Waterland by Graham Swift
This lovely novel taught me a great deal about how to structure a multi-layered history, moving effortlessly through the generations of a family living in the English fens.
 
Possession by A. S. Byatt 
At first glance, nothing could seem further from the territory of Genizah than this story of a secret love affair between Victorian poets. But this account of a passionate quest to uncover and piece together the fragments of a lost history made a deep impression on me while I was writing my own novel.


Why do you write?
 
I can’t recall a time when I didn’t want to write. Even before I knew how to form letters, I used to fill notebooks with line upon line of scribble in my eagerness to record those first stories I can no longer even remember... I write in order to pursue some vision which is always hovering in my head, whether it is a theme, an emotion, a place, or a character. I love words. I love making sentences. It’s the only kind of work which really satisfies me.
 
Would you tell me more about those early days? They seem very important since your prose is so autobiographical and your pivotal character is a very perceptive, very sensitive and very bright young lady who is usually the narrator. Do you recognise yourself in her?
 
Everything happened before I was eighteen. Love, death, and betrayal. To me childhood has been the source of all my creativity. Not only my somewhat death-drenched adolescence, the loss of my parents (they died when I was in my teens) but the earliest affections and attachments, to people and to places, and the even earlier inchoate impressions, of the garden of my infancy, the house where I grew up. When I was eighteen years old I locked the door on my parents’ house and drove away to university, and I never went back. My life was spliced there. Much of what I have written since has been a re-imagining, in one way or another, of what Yehuda Amichai calls “my childhood, of blessed memory.”
 
It’s always risky to make assumptions about the autobiographical content of a novelist’s work. When I take the material of my own life and turn it into fiction I take whatever liberties with it I please. To me it is like a piece of clay the potter molds: I will change it and shape it, add, alter, and subtract. It bears the same relation to reality that a dream does, where you seem to recognise things and yet they are strange. A reader can’t fix on any one element in a story of mine and assume it is factual truth. As for the young lady you refer to, perhaps you recognise her more easily than I do. As a writer, I am a non-person. When I write about her she is the same to me as any other character I create: she may or may not have elements of me; she may have characteristics which are not mine at all. The characters in books are not real people; they are fictions. The very act of writing fictionalizes everything.
 
Before becoming a novelist you have been (and still are) a very successful story writer. Many of your stories have appeared in a variety of prestigious magazines, identifying you as an excellent stylist and very accomplished author. What is your ideal prose form?
 
I feel most comfortable with the short story. I like to write economically. Not minimalistically; but I like every word, every sentence, to have weight. When I write stories I can be as brief as I like. And yet a short story can embrace an entire life, an entire universe.
 
Everything that is written, instinctively finds its own form; if it works, there is an inevitability about it. One should not write as a story what can be told as a poem. A novel which could be a story has failed to justify its existence. I sometimes think I can achieve more depth in a short story than I can in a novel, simply because the words have more weight and value. There is nothing wasted... Yet I can’t resist the epic pull of the novel. There are themes, scenes, narratives only the novel can convey.
 
Are you aware, while you write, of the various influences of other authors on your fiction? Could you identify some of them?
 
I was a very strange young writer: I hardly read at all. Until the age of about fifteen, though I wrote prolifically, it was only with the greatest of effort that I could be induced to read a book. I can’t begin to estimate the lasting damage this may have done me as a writer... However, there was one significant exception to the rule: I would read anything by or about the Brontë sisters. So I can honestly say that almost my whole literary education, at that crucial early stage, was conducted by the Brontës and their biographers. Fortunately, they were good teachers. I acquired an extremely wide vocabulary just from reading their books, and a sense of the rhythms and structure of the English language which perhaps can only be acquired from the great Victorian novelists. I absorbed the passion of their writing. I also picked up all sorts of historical and literary knowledge, because when you learn about the Brontës you learn about their entire world, too.
 
All through my teens I was reading and writing poetry. All the great poets, in particular Shakespeare and Keats, taught me the importance of sound and meter in language, and that imagery is what gives life to language. I write for sound and I write for image. Where those two coincide there is a sort of inevitability about the sentence.
 
The other great influence in my youth was the Hebrew Bible. I studied biblical Hebrew intensively from an early age. The beauty, the extreme economy of that language served as a kind of counterbalance to the rather florid and wordy style I was absorbing from the Victorians.
 
I am a passionate reader now. The writers who inspired me in the past do not necessarily do so any more. I still read the Victorians with pleasure, but I wouldn’t want to try and write like them. My mentors now are all foreigners: when I read Kafka, or Primo Levi, or Garcia Márquez, I feel inspired, because of the beauty of the language and the—how shall I put it?—enigmatic clarity of their work. That is a quality I also try to achieve. I love Katherine Mansfield, too, who has a foreign sensibility because she was a New Zealander. At present my absolute love is the German writer W. G. Sebald—he was a great inspiration to me when I was writing Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. I had already conceived and begun writing the book, when I discovered Sebald’s The Emigrants. It filled me with joy because I saw someone writing passages of continuous prose, without dialogue, without even paragraph breaks—and it was unstoppably readable, utterly compelling. I thought: It works, it’s permissible. You can get away with it.
 
Are you in the constant process of maturing as a writer?
 
I hope I will go on maturing as a writer for as long as I continue to write. Life seems to me to be like a series of veils—you pass through one, you think you see more clearly, then you experience the lifting of another veil. Writing is the same. It is a continual learning process.
 
In many ways the writing of The Genizah at the House of Shepher has been the story of my whole adult life. I first thought of the book in 1987, when I visited my grandparents’ house in Jerusalem for the last time before it was to be torn down. There in the attic we found a family archive so vast that the very dust on the floorboards was composed of disintegrating paper. Amongst the letters and diaries and the back numbers of the newspaper my grandfather edited before World War I was a little black bible of tremendous importance, which had been missing, until that point, for over seventy years. It contained vital notes, made by one of my ancestors in the late nineteenth century, of the textual differences between the Aleppo Codex and the standard Hebrew Bible. The Aleppo Codex, one of the oldest and most perfect manuscripts of the Bible in existence, had been lost in a pogrom in 1947, and it was with the help of these notes that it would ultimately be reconstructed.
 
As I sat there in the attic surrounded by my family’s history I was possessed by an ambitious vision: to write a novel covering several generations and moving between Lithuania, Jerusalem, England, and Azerbaijan. It would somehow comprehend the whole of Jewish history back to the Garden of Eden and down to today, where it would examine complex questions of contemporary Jewish identity. And at the heart of the book would be the mystery of a Codex, an embodiment of all the themes of truth, myth, history I would be exploring...


1) “My heart is in the East and I am in the farthest West,”sang the poet Judah Halevy. How is the East/West dichotomy explored in The Genizah at the House of Shepher, and how does it drive the narrative? Do you think the pull of the East versus the lure of the West is a central Jewish experience and is it unique to Jews?
2) Genizah has been described as a thriller, a family saga and an exploration of identity, exile and belonging. How do these elements fit together and complement each other? Do you feel that the novel belongs to any particular genre? Is it important that it does?
3) Tamar Yellin has described the function of the Codex in the novel as “a metaphor.” How do you see the Codex working on this metaphorical level? What are the questions raised by the existence of a variant text of the Bible? Do they have answers?
4) The novel covers four generations, each through one main protagonist: Shalom, Joseph, Amnon and Shulamit. Which character do you empathise with most? What family characteristics do they share and how do they differ? Shulamit believes that spiritual conflicts and personality traits can be handed on through a family in the same way as physical features. Do you agree? Have you ever felt this way in your own family?
5) Though Shulamit is a woman, she focuses mostly on her male ancestors. Why do you think this is? Do you think Shulamit has more in common with her male forbears than with her female ones?
6) The history of the Jerusalem district of Kiriat Shoshan is paralleled to some extent by that of its neighbouring Arab village, Deir Yassin.What effect does this parallel history have? Do you feel that there is any political bias or message in the novel? What does the novel have to say about Zionism and the Middle East conflict?
7) Shulamit has a tendency to be “on the fence” about many important life issues and decisions. In what ways do her actions towards the end of the novel serve to resolve her dilemmas? Do you regard her as a weak or strong character? Where do you think her story will take her after the close of the narrative?
8) Through exploring her family history Shulamit—a “floating person”—seeks to rediscover her own identity and place in the world. To what extent can she really do this? Are we defined by family and how important is knowing our family history to our sense of who we are? Is knowledge of the past essential to building a future?
Reprinted courtesy of The Toby Press.

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