Fic­tion

The Genizah at the House of Shepher

Tamar Yellin

November 10, 2011

From the Rohr Judges

Tamar Yellin is an artic­u­late, intel­li­gent, and pas­sion­ate defend­er of the val­ue and the majesty of the tra­di­tions of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture; and it is not sur­pris­ing as a result that she has pro­duced a nov­el which serves both as a pas­sion­ate defense of that tra­di­tion and is a note­wor­thy con­tri­bu­tion to it. In The Genizah of the House of Shep­her, which is loose­ly based on episodes from the writer’s life, a con­tem­po­rary schol­ar gets wrapped up in her family’s his­to­ry with the man­u­script known as the Shep­her Codex. The adven­tures that ensue explore Jew­ish time and Jew­ish space. The streets of Jerusalem from a cen­tu­ry ago open up to the read­er as if one is watch­ing an old news­reel; and char­ac­ters from the book argue, think, talk, and read the liv­ing and lived debates of Jew­ish his­to­ry. If the nov­el itself has its own secret man­u­script hid­den with­in it, that man­u­script is noth­ing less than much of mod­ern Jew­ish life writ small; to pack all that in is a remark­able achieve­ment for any work. In short, this is a book for peo­ple who are deeply in love with books, with lit­er­a­ture, and with Judaism.

Excerpt

Tel Aviv is not like Jerusalem. No tem­ples were built here. No mes­si­ah will come. In all the vis­tas of his­to­ry it is noth­ing but dunes. 

The nights in Jerusalem are cool; the nights in Tel Aviv are mild and sweaty. Jerusalem air is full of pine and spices. Tel Aviv air is full of tar and sand. 

Once a Jerusalemite always a Jerusalemite. Yet how many Jerusalemites flee to Tel Aviv. If I lived here I couldn’t choose between them. My soul would belong to Jerusalem, my body would belong to Tel Aviv.

Tamar Yellin On…

How She Writes

I work up a lad­der in the attic of my weavers’ cot­tage. For years it was a dark, dusty hole, filled with mem­o­ra­bil­ia of my past life. 

Now it is my eyrie, my high place.” It’s the brain of the house. I feel I need to be high up to do brain-work. 

There’s no view, only a sky­light. But hang­ing on the wall direct­ly in front of my desk is a pic­ture of a gar­den walk shel­tered by labur­nums, lead­ing to a stone pedestal. I imag­ine that the pedestal is my ulti­mate goal. It’s an image of des­tiny. But of course, I can’t enter the pic­ture, so I nev­er get there

Her Trip to New York as a Rohr Finalist

The main high­light of the trip was get­ting to meet the oth­er writ­ers. That was what I was look­ing for­ward to most. Where I live in the rur­al north of Eng­land, it can be rather an iso­lat­ed life for a writer, which is not always such a bad thing, but nev­er­the­less, I’ve always had this thirst to meet with oth­er writ­ers, with my con­tem­po­raries. The inter­net facil­i­tates that to some extent, but there’s no sub­sti­tute for meet­ing and con­vers­ing face-to-face. I was deter­mined to snatch every moment I could to sit in the hotel bar with them, to get to know them, talk about their books, share a few jokes… Actu­al­ly, our con­ver­sa­tions cov­ered rather a wide range of sub­jects, from writ­ing about the Holo­caust to Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer! 

What I didn’t expect was that the orga­niz­ers of the prize would make every­thing so haimisch for us — that there would be so much won­der­ful food!

Being a Part of a Writ­ing Com­mu­ni­ty, Specif­i­cal­ly the Sami Rohr Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Institute

When I was a young girl, want­i­ng to be a writer, I always had this dream of being part of a salon, a sort of Parisian Left-Bank group of authors who would get togeth­er in cafes and drink espres­so and talk about Lit­er­a­ture. This is per­haps the next best thing, espe­cial­ly as I don’t actu­al­ly like espres­so. It’s not that one needs to be part of a com­mu­ni­ty in order to write — I’m actu­al­ly some­thing of a lone wolf, as I think a lot of writ­ers are — but, hav­ing writ­ten, and being already some way along one’s cre­ative road, it is inspir­ing and, in a way, it gin­gers you up to encounter these oth­er minds. 

With all the mod­ern advances in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, there is still no sub­sti­tute for face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion or for break­ing bread togeth­er. Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is per­haps more var­i­ous now than it has been at any time. The ques­tion of what makes writ­ing Jew­ish is keen­er than ever. By embrac­ing the full vari­ety of new writ­ing and rais­ing its pro­file this project can only enrich the cul­ture. In the future I hope to see writ­ers from across Europe and beyond emerg­ing to engage in our conversation.

Chal­lenges of Writ­ing Fiction

Get­ting it right. I write and write and write and maybe thir­ty per cent of it makes it to the final cut. As Kaf­ka said, All things resist being writ­ten down.”

Inspi­ra­tions

Writ­ing is in my blood. My grand­fa­ther, Yitzhak Yaa­cov Yellin, was a writer, and his book, Avotenu (Our Ances­tors), was always on our book­shelf when I was grow­ing up. When­ev­er I looked at that yel­low spine on the shelf I knew that being a pub­lished writer was possible. 

The Bronte sis­ters were my great lit­er­ary hero­ines when I was young. Yes, I know, that sits rather odd­ly with Avotenu. But that’s my dual her­itage. York­shire and Jerusalem. Now when I’m look­ing for inspi­ra­tion I will read a page or two of Kather­ine Mans­field, W. G. Sebald, Pri­mo Levi. My sources of inspi­ra­tion are very eclectic.

Advice for Emerg­ing Writers

It’s so hard to get noticed nowa­days. Even a good book can slip under the radar. Prizes are what get books noticed in these times, but not all the best or most deserv­ing books win prizes. 

Frankly, my heart goes out to the strug­gling writ­ers out there. I’d tell them: Per­se­vere. My nov­el took thir­teen years write and anoth­er two years to find a pub­lish­er. It was turned down by half the pub­lish­ers in Lon­don. I was also told by an agent that it wasn’t the sort of book that would appeal to the Amer­i­can mar­ket. Write with all your heart and soul and intel­li­gence — love writ­ing, because that is what mat­ters most. But keep going, because suc­cess when it comes is very sweet.

Discussion Questions

From: Toby Press

1) My heart is in the East and I am in the far­thest West’ (Judah Halevy). How is the east/​west dichoto­my explored in The Genizah at the House of Shep­her and how does it dri­ve the nar­ra­tive? Do you think the pull of the east ver­sus the lure of the west is a cen­tral Jew­ish expe­ri­ence and is it unique to Jews?

2) The Genizah at the House of Shep­her has been described as a thriller, a fam­i­ly saga and an explo­ration of iden­ti­ty, exile and belong­ing. How do these ele­ments fit togeth­er and com­ple­ment each oth­er? Do you feel that the nov­el belongs to any par­tic­u­lar genre? Is it impor­tant that it does?

3) Tamar Yellin has described the func­tion of the Codex in the nov­el as a metaphor.” How do you see the Codex work­ing on this metaphor­i­cal lev­el? What are the ques­tions raised by the exis­tence of a vari­ant text of the Bible? Do they have answers?

4) The nov­el cov­ers four gen­er­a­tions, each through one main pro­tag­o­nist: Shalom, Joseph, Amnon and Shu­lamit. Which char­ac­ter did you empathise with most? What fam­i­ly char­ac­ter­is­tics do they share and how do they dif­fer? Is Shu­lamit right to feel that spir­i­tu­al con­flicts and per­son­al­i­ty traits can be hand­ed on through a fam­i­ly in the same way as phys­i­cal features?

5) Though Shu­lamit is a woman, she focus­es most­ly on her male ances­tors. Why do you think this is? Do you think Shu­lamit has more in com­mon with her male for­bears than with her female ones?

6) The his­to­ry of the Jerusalem dis­trict of Kiri­at Shoshan is par­al­leled to some extent by that of its neigh­bour­ing Arab vil­lage, Deir Yassin. What effect does this par­al­lel his­to­ry have? Do you feel that there is any polit­i­cal bias or mes­sage in the nov­el? What does the nov­el have to say about Zion­ism and the Mid­dle East conflict?

7) Shu­lamit sees some of her errors as deriv­ing from a ten­den­cy to sit on the fence.” (Jerusalem Report) In what ways does Shu­lamit sit on the fence and do her actions towards the end of the nov­el serve to resolve her dilem­mas? Do you regard her as a weak or strong char­ac­ter? Where do you think her sto­ry will take her after the close of the narrative?

8) Through explor­ing her fam­i­ly his­to­ry Shu­lamit — a float­ing per­son” — seeks to redis­cov­er her own iden­ti­ty and place in the world. To what extent can she real­ly do this? Are we defined by fam­i­ly and how impor­tant is know­ing our fam­i­ly his­to­ry to our sense of who we are? Is knowl­edge of the past essen­tial to build­ing a future?