Genizah at the House of Shepher: A Novel

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Overview

Winner of the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature (Jewish Book Council)

Winner of the 2006 Ribalow Prize (Hadassah Magazine),

Shortlisted for the 2006 Wingate Prize (Jewish Quarterly)

Shulamit Shepher pays one last visit to her grandparents’ home in Jerusalem after a fateful discovery—a mysterious and valuable Torah manuscript that’s been stashed away in the attic genizah, a depository for old or ...

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Overview

Winner of the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature (Jewish Book Council)

Winner of the 2006 Ribalow Prize (Hadassah Magazine),

Shortlisted for the 2006 Wingate Prize (Jewish Quarterly)

Shulamit Shepher pays one last visit to her grandparents’ home in Jerusalem after a fateful discovery—a mysterious and valuable Torah manuscript that’s been stashed away in the attic genizah, a depository for old or damaged sacred documents, has been uncovered. So begins a remarkable journey that spans four generations of the family Shepher, one that begs Shulamit to reconsider not only her ancestors’ history and heritage but her own passions, faith, and choices for the future. Haunting and illuminating, The Genizah at the House of Shepher is a tale of love and loss, exile and belonging, tradition and myth that no reader will soon forget.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Warm and engrossing, rich with historical detail and unmet yearning... More than anything, this wide-ranging novel is a meditation on the power of the Holy City, able to restore or shake the faith of whoever enters." - Publishers' Weekly

"Filled with myth, mystery, and history... this novel gives the flavor of Jerusalem neighborhoods through the modern era. Recommended." - Library Journal

"Assured, professional and profound... She's got a kind of Vermeer pitch to her work, just a quiet quality. This novel is beautifully crafted and combines all sorts of mythic and mundane themes and ideas in a very assured way." - Jewish Chronicle

"[A] writer of rare distinction." -The Guardian

"In Shulamit, debut author Tamar Yellin gives us a Jewish heroine for our time... Shepher is the Hebrew word for beauty. This stunning book has its proper name." - Bookpage

Publishers Weekly
The history of the family Shepher is a "record of theft, domestic discord, mutual blame-laying and bad luck." Despite that-or perhaps because of it-this British author's debut novel is warm and engrossing, rich with historical detail and unmet yearning. The discovery of a mysterious, handwritten volume of the Bible, apparently the property of biblical scholar Shulamit Shepher's great-grandfather, brings Shulamit from her home in England back to her family's small bungalow in Jerusalem. There, in an attempt to unravel the book's origins, she recounts her family's troubled history, beginning with her great-grandfather Shalom, who disappeared for two years and returned addlebrained and clutching this strange book, known thereafter only as the Codex. Shulamit has inherited her great-grandfather's scholarly interests, but not his traditional Jewish practice. Still, she welcomes the attentions of a religious zealot named Gideon Ben Gibreel-who seeks the Codex for reasons he won't reveal-even as she tries to decide whether the book is the key to reviving her academic career. More than anything, this wide-ranging novel is a meditation on the power of the Holy City, able to restore or shake the faith of whoever enters. As Shulamit notes, "Of all the cities of the world Jerusalem has one of the shabbiest gates of arrival, and coming or going one is greeted by graves." (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In Yellin's debut, Shulamit, a British biblical scholar and daughter of a third-generation Jerusalemite, returns to Jerusalem to seek out her roots. A codex has been found in her grandparents' attic, a veritable genizah of documents from many generations of the family. Shulamit's investigation of the manuscripts illuminates the lives of her great-grandfather, who traveled to Babylon in search of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Her grandfather, meanwhile, was a follower of the Zionist principles inherent in what is now called political Zionism. The mystery of the codex is heightened when a stranger claims to be a descendant of the tribe of Dan, one of the ten lost tribes. Filled with myth, mystery, and history, this novel gives the flavor of Jerusalem neighborhoods through the modern era. Recommended. -Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, MD Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A warmly portrayed, densely researched fictional history of a scattered Jewish clan migrated to Jerusalem. In alternating chapters, English-born biblical scholar and first-novelist Yellin brings the various threads of the Sepher family together through the story of the so-called Sepher Codex-a priceless 13th-century copy of the Five Books of Moses-supposedly smuggled into the Holy Land by great-grandfather Shalom and hidden in the family home's "genizah," or attic, for decades. In the present, Shulamit Sepher, a 40-year-old unmarried English lecturer in biblical studies, has returned to Jerusalem to say goodbye to her family home at Kiriat Shoshan, run by aged Uncle Saul, before the house is torn down in the name of progress. She has spent many memorable summers in that house ("a visiting child, pale and alien in [her] English skin"), accompanied by her brother Reuben, now an echt Englishman who, unlike her, does look back. Uncle Saul, however, assumes Shulamit has come for the Codex, and soon she learns how precious it is-when she's followed by a persistent, religious, and not unattractive fanatic who claims he's from the tribe of Dan and commissioned with the task of returning the Codex to its rightful owner. Meanwhile, great-grandfather Shalom's ancient history unravels: a corrector of scrolls by profession, he first leaves his home (and wife) in Vilna for Jerusalem in 1861, starts a new family, then eventually sets off for Babylon on a long search for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. His story, with the history of the Codex, makes for a fascinating, labyrinthine journey, joined to the modern-day suspense surrounding the treasure's mysterious whereabouts. In the end, it all encapsulatesin one family the history of the Jews from Moses' reception of the Torah on Mt. Sinai on through the Diaspora, culminating in the forging of the Zionist state-all via the pious adherence to the holy books. Cohesively combines the epic and personal sense of sorrow and nostalgia rooted in home.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312379070
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 7/22/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,323,192
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.22 (h) x 0.96 (d)

Meet the Author

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 Guide

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

 

 

 

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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.

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  • Posted October 2, 2011

    Mesmerizing

    I love this book. I found myself caught up in the lives of the characters. I bought it because my book club considered reading it, but selected another book instead. I would have much prefered discussing this book. The author writes very well, and her themes are well worth a discussion. I will definitely recommend that my book club reads and discusses it.

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