Book Review: The Genizah At The House Of Shepher Tamar Yellin
Every family has its attic, its storehouse, or genizah as its named in Hebrew, where the past is documented through papers, artefacts, and memories. You don't even have to have physical space; a genizah can be the memories and the stories of the family that have been passed down. It's whatever form the repository of the family's history comes in.
In Tamar Yellin's first novel The Genizah At The House Of Shepher the genizah in question is both a musty, dust hole, in the rafters of the Shepher family's last home in Jerusalem. Miraculously in amongst old moulding newspapers and notebooks a treasure has been unearthed. A heretofore-unknown Codex of the Torah has come to light and with it the possibility to reverse the family's seemingly perpetual decline in fortunes.
The history of the Torah (Old Testament in the King James version of the Christian Bible) is like that of any ancient document that was copied by hand from the original over the early part of its life. Very few copies, or Codex, from those times are the same. Here a character changed for another, or a word order different there.
While in a language like English that may not seem to make much difference, with biblical Hebrew changing a few characters could change the meaning of a whole chapter. Or at the very least a verse which in itself can have serious implications to biblical scholars, especially when you consider that rabbinical scholars will spend their lives debating and dissecting the various meanings and connotations of words in a specific chapter of the text.
According to Jewish myth the Torah existed for nine hundred and forty-seven generations before the creation of the world, and when God created the world He used it as His blueprint and guide; for what better tool to use to create and imperfect and cryptic world, then an imperfect and cryptic Torah. According to Ms. Yellin's recounting, some scholars believe that at the end of time Elijah will return and sort out all the textual difficulties.
Of course until then that means there will be lots for religious scholars to debate to their hearts content. From what I understand this seems like an ideal circumstance, since it appears there is nothing more that endearing to the heart of a rabbinical scholar then arguing the minute points of textual interpretation of the Torah with their fellows.
Don't worry this is pertinent to the story, which as I mentioned earlier revolves around this previously unknown Codex. Shulamit Shepher's father had left Israel in the 1930's to live in England, where he proceeded to marry an English Jewish woman and raise two children. While her brother Reuben fled the family to escape the oppressive depression of his father and the suffocating love of his mother, Shulamit followed in the footsteps of her grandfather and great-grandfather in becoming a biblical scholar.
However unlike her fore fathers it's not her faith that motivates her study of the holy books, rather a sense of duty and the need for a vocation. Still this does nothing to lessen her love for her work, or the texts that she reads and recites to her students. For it also her means to connect to her family and its history, as the texts are filled with reminders for her of the stories about her great-grandfather, and her grandfather his only son.
But it wasn't even the Codex, which would have been a great temptation to a biblical scholar like herself, which brought her back to the house of Shepher in Jerusalem. It was a letter from her Uncle Cody telling her that the old house was to being given up now that the final resident, Aunt Batsheva, had died. So it was sentiment and nostalgia that brought her from England for one last visit to the house she had spent summers in until her father died.
It's not until she gets to the house that she even finds out about the Codex, as her Uncle Saul has taken up temporary residence and almost the first words out of his mouth are to accuse her of being one of the vultures after the Codex. When she finally convinces him she's not after the Codex, and to kindly explain what he's talking about she's thrilled. What biblical scholar wouldn't be to find out that her own family owned an unknown variation of the Torah?
But it's not that simple, or course. It seems that Uncle Cody has decided it should be given to the people, and has passed it on to an educational institute who are supposed to be checking it for authenticity. There are all the other members of the Shepher family who either claim ownership of the Codex or want it sold at current market value and the proceeds divided up amongst them all.
And who is the mysterious Gideon who also lays claim to the book, saying Shulamit's great-grandfather stole it from his people long ago and it needs to be returned. Since the provenance of the Codex claims that its origins lie with one of mythical lost tribes of Israel Shulamit has a hard time not only believing him, but can't believe her ears when he asks her to steal it for him.
Tamar Yellin's The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a beautifully written book redolent of the spice of Hebrew legend. Interspersed with the story line of the Codex is the history of the family dating back to her great-grandfather Shalom Shepher and his strange quixotic obsession with the lost tribes of Israel. So obsessed with them in fact that he set out on a two year quest in search of them and returned claiming to have stayed with them for a good deal of the time.
It's a story about exile, from one's land and from one's dreams. Shulamit's parents are restless people whose lives are disturbed by reality not living up to their dreams. For her mother it was Israel not being the land of Milk and Honey but of intolerable heat, bad plumbing and a family who she couldn't speak to because she had no Hebrew.
Her father was discontented with life in prewar Israel and left to start a new life in England. But he became the ultimate exile there for his passport read he was the citizen of a country that no longer existed – Palestine- as of 1949. The irony is not lost on Shulamit that her father was a Jewish, stateless, Palestinian. It's not till their death that they both find peace in Israel, buried beside each other in the family plot.
Like the Codex each new generation of the family contains a variant that changes their meaning ever so slightly from the generation before them. Shulamit's brother Reuben completely rejects his past and claims to be the first generation. Reuben, now Mike, and his beautiful wife and angelic child will have nothing to do with the sadness and pain of being exiles.
But it also means they will know nothing of the wondrous myths and stories that have been the legacy of Shalom Shepher the scholar and his great quest for the lost tribes and his claims that through numerology and the proper Codex of the Torah one could figure out the exact date of the Messiah's arrival and the apocalypse. Somewhere among all his papers there might even exist the answer.
Even though Shulamit was born in and raised in England and finds the history and the weight of Jerusalem oppressive it's where her history is and it can't be forgotten. The introduction of the Codex and it's variants, a different blueprint to shape the world with no matter how slightly, has released her from the sadness and pain that dogged her parent's lives. She can travel between her two worlds easily; Jerusalem and England, and not feel like she doesn't belong.
The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of wandering, exile and how difficult it is to find out where you belong. Moses never made it to the Promised Land, his God had ordained otherwise. He was allowed a glimpse into it, before being asked to give up his soul. She would not come willingly and it took all of God's love and strength to gather her to Him. Nobody likes not fulfilling their dreams.
Shulamit has seen the Promised Land and it is in herself and she can live there everyday. She only needs to have the strength to keep her promises to her self. The Genizah At The House Of Shepher is a story of choices and how, like the variations in the Codex, even the smallest can make a huge difference in the way our world turns out.