A trip down memorabilia lane

While sifting through the contents of a Jerusalem attic, first-time novelist Tamar Yellin pieces together the history of an ancient Jewish family.

attic 88 (photo credit: )
attic 88
(photo credit: )
Tamar Yellin's first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, short-listed for the prestigious British Wingate Prize, tells a story of mystery and intrigue that weaves through four generations of a Jerusalemite family. In England attics are the stuff of childhood dreams and nightmares. Secret places hiding forgotten treasures or marauding monsters. Undisturbed home of sprawling spider colonies and dusty relics. In Jerusalem, apartment living means there is no culture of attic trove. And yet Jerusalem was a city of houses under whose pitched roofs lay the dusty decay of neglected family artifacts and memorabilia. It was in such an attic that Tamar Yellin found herself in 1987 surrounded by the disintegrating paper of her family archive that stretched back almost 150 years. And among these dusty heaps was an extraordinary treasure - a volume of notes, written over 100 years ago by her great-great-grandfather, Reb Shalom Shachne Yellin. On a mission to Aleppo, in Syria, he had detailed textual differences between the Aleppo Codex and what is regarded as the standard Hebrew Bible. The Aleppo Codex, one of the oldest and most perfect existing Bible manuscripts, was thought to have been destroyed with the burning of the Aleppo synagogue in 1947. But in subsequent years over half the pages have been rediscovered and have become the property of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Finally, the Codex was reconstructed - with the help of sofer (scribe) Reb Yellin's book of notes. You can see the original Codex in the Shrine of the Book, in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. A visit to www.jerusalem-crown.co.il reveals Yosef Ofer's authoritative guide to the Codex, and you can also view the original on www.aleppocodex.org. Sitting in that Jerusalem attic Yellin began to construct a story inspired by her own family history, deeply rooted in the city of Jerusalem. And with her economic, elegant writing she draws a perceptive and loving image of this city. "The whole of Jerusalem feels that way - the smells, the sounds, the atmosphere," she relates to In Jerusalem. But when writing this novel, she immersed herself for several years in the history of the Old City in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so much so that she used to dream of it sometimes. "I remember being very moved when I first saw the restored ruin of the Hurva synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, that great arch against the sky," she says, "because I had read so much about its building and destruction and seen it standing whole in so many photographs." Now, of course, that simple evocative arch is no more. Bags of cement and blocks of building material now promise a new Hurva. As if the pristine can truly replace something as monumental as a single span. That single span seems an appropriate metaphor for the way Yellin writes. Well known as a writer of short-stories, she employs the same skills in the novel. Each word fits comfortably and carefully on the page. The structure - physical and emotional - is carried clearly and cleanly by a seemingly effortless style. This book took her almost 20 years to complete. During those years she has published other material, including a book of short stories, Kafka in Bronteland, and another, as yet unpublished, entitled Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. In this collection the story "Ephraim" features a young man who obsessively writes and rewrites the slim volume he can never finish. She readily admits that it "is pretty descriptive of my own tormented obsession with Geniza [discarded religious texts]." The book is a work of fiction, but Yellin does explain that "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." She has described the novel that unfolded as not only "an academic thriller, but an interrogation of Jewish identity, a meditation on exile and belonging, and, along the way, a love story." Though the story itself is compelling, I was much more enthralled by my encounters with the individual members of the Shepher family than the so-called "thriller" element. One reviewer called this book a "Jewish Da Vinci Code." But while Tamar Yellin writes much more elegantly than Dan Brown, don't reach for The Genizah at the House of Shepher if all you are looking for is a rip-roaring yarn. The book has a wonderfully haunting quality. Some pictures conjured by her writing stayed with me long after I had finished the book. I recently read that Tamar Yellin had completed this book in an attic in her native Yorkshire in England. Her views are of fields, moor and sky - but I have the distinct feeling that the sights, smells, and sounds of Jerusalem have a unique and profound resonance in her inner being.