Friday, August 27, 2004

PREVIEW: The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin

Several interesting, creative, passionate novels are being released in the next nine months or so. The Genizah at the House of Shepher by Tamar Yellin is one such novel. It exists at the edge of fantasy but often has a wonderfully fantastical quality to it. After writing short stories for many years, Yellin has made the leap to long fiction with her first novel.

What is the novel about? As Yellin herself describes it:

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.

That real life history involves Yellin's great-great-grandfather.

[The novel was inspired by] 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 of an expert, 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.

The story of the book's reappearance in real life is also part of the basis for Yellin's novel.

Anyone who has read Yellin's fiction in Nemonymous, Leviathan 3, The Third Alternative, Stand, and other fine journals knows that she is a consumate stylist. Her sentences are to die for. Here, for example, scenes set in Jerusalem fully evoke every aspect of the spirit of that ancient city.

There was the city of streets and there was the city of roofs. It was possible to cross Jerusalem without setting foot on the ground. Every cat knew this and so did every robber. On cool evenings the citizens of Jerusalem went up onto the roofs and enjoyed the breeze. Women sat behind perforated walls where they could observe without being observed. Neighbours could be visited by stepping from one roof to the next.

The city was crowded and the houses small. Nevertheless whole rooms went to waste, as it was the custom to throw rubbish into the bottom chamber of the house, where it festered until the local boys carried it away on a donkey through the Dung Gate and flung it onto the spoil heaps which adorned the edges of the city.

And the Dung Gate, when questioned on the matter, said, Rather the rubbish of Jerusalem than the jewels of the whole world

The Genizah at the House of Shepher will be published by Toby Press in March 2005.

Yellin has a messageboard and will soon have a web site.



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