The Genizah at the House of Shepher
 
May-25-10
Tamar Yellin
 

In the attic of the Shepher house at Kiriat Shoshan in Jerusalem, aging paper turns to dust. The trash and treasures of three generations of the family tumble into chaos.

In this genizah, an accidental find is made. It is a book, a codex, a bound manuscript of the Torah that doesn’t precisely match the accepted version of the Torah today.

Is this a national treasure? Will it change the fate and fortunes of the Shepher family? Does it even belong to them?

Shulamit Shepher was born and raised in England, and is a Biblical studies scholar and professor. As a child, she spent summers in the house at Kiriat Shoshan. Her life since has been a string of opportunities she never could commit to: a career as a singer and marriage to the man who may have been the love of her life. She’s never stopped wondering if she’s wasted her life.

Her great-grandfather, Reb Shalom Shepher, was a Torah prodigy in his youth and a scribe. He left his home in Skidel, Lithuania, in 1858 to live in Jerusalem. His son built the house at Kiriat Shoshan. His grandson, Amnon, Shulamit’s father, left Palestine for England in 1938.

As he grew older, Reb Shepher became obsessed with calculating the date when the Messiah would come. He became convinced that he had to travel to find the ten lost tribes of Israel and invite them to join their brethren in Palestine before the Messiah arrived.

When he returns to Jerusalem, gaunt and in ill-health, he claims to have found the lost tribes. He brings back a book that they have given him, the Codex, which gets stored in the genizah and forgotten.

The finding of the Codex sets off a storm in the family. Is it valuable enough to end their financial woes? Which of them really owns it? Should it be given to the State of Israel as a national treasure without compensation?

At the borders of the family debate is a man named Gideon. He approaches Shulamit and tries to enlist her support for his claim that the Codex was taken from his family by Reb Shepher during his travels and now should be returned to them.

A relationship deepens between Shulamit and Gideon. But it requires Shulamit to decide whether Gideon’s claims are valid and whether she should make a commitment to help him acquire the Codex.

The 130-year saga of the Shepher family echoes the family history of author Tamar Yellin. Yellin was born in Northern England to a Polish immigrant mother and a third generation Jerusalemite. She studied Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford. This is her first novel.

This is a beautifully written book. The story often bogs down with characters mired in indecisiveness and an inability to move forward. Many of them seem to be turning into dust like the debris in the genizah. While Shulamit ultimately finds her way, the process at times seems almost magical.

© Jeannette M. Hartman 2010

  From Issue:11.05
Reviewed by: Jeannette M. Hartman
 
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