The Family as Text: Tamar Yellin’s “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”

Tamar Yellin has constructed a novel around an ingenious premise: that families are like texts. Just as ancient manuscripts of sacred books contain the same basic text but show surprising, odd, or idiosyncratic variations, so the members of a family, over many generations, share the same fundamental content but display individual peculiarities.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005) follows the Shepher family over several generations, as the family produces variants on itself, and as the family guards a biblical codex—a bound text of the Bible—that reputedly contains some surprising and significant deviations from the standard version. The story is told by Shula, an adamantly single, no longer young textual scholar from England. She’s come to Jerusalem to visit her aunts, uncles, and cousins and find out more about the codex.

(Yellin won the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this work. My book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award and received an honorable mention. I’ll be writing about last year’s and this year’s finalists in the weeks to come—and I’ll be meeting the other authors this summer for a writers’ institute sponsored by the prize committee. I hope the authors will allow me the freedom to praise them when I think praise is due and criticize when I think that’s called for—and trust they’ll do the same for me.)

Yellin artfully weaves the stories of Shula’s forbears into her own story of textual and personal discovery, as a mysterious young haredi Jew named Gideon, from the Caucasus Mountains, pursues her and the codex, telling her that it is the only true version of the Bible.

Shula faces a choice: will she treat the codex as she has treated other biblical texts she has studied over the years—as an object of research with no transcendent meaning? Or will she choose to believe Gideon’s unbelievable story about the Codex’s provenance? In parallel, will she see herself as a text to be studied, or believe that her personal variant of the Shepher text is complete and true?

The interplay between the textual and the human keeps the story going, as Shula tells the story of her great-grandparents and grandparents. The end of her father’s one true love affair turns up in another version in Shula’s own sometimes reaffirmed, sometimes regretted rejection of a man who once loved her.

Two elements of the story bothered me, however. First, Yellin has Gideon present himself as a scion of the lost tribe of Dan and the codex as the true text preserved by this tribe. The lost-tribes motif has been so overused in Jewish fiction that I almost groaned out loud when I saw it here. It adds a fantastical Da Vinci Code element to the story that seems out of place in the metaphor, and in the realistic and touching narrative, the author so carefully develops.

My second problem reveals my prejudices as an Israeli reader. Yellin’s portrayal of Israel is what we here in these parts label galuti—it reeks of the Jewish exile. Her Jerusalem is largely populated by old Ashkenazi Jews, many of them religious. When Shula encounters her young cousin, an IDF soldier, she marvels at this muscular Hebrew the way Ben-Gurion swooned when he first saw bare-chested Jewish fishermen in Jaffa: “like a Greek statue … a member of an alien race.” Ouch. I was a Jewish soldier and now my son is. I would not describe either of us as Greek or alien. We’re just folks. Can Shula, who spent much time with her family in Israel when she was young, really find the sight of her cousin in uniform so surprising?

Maybe it bothers me, too, because this soldier is not a variant of the Shepher text, as the theme demands he should be. He’s portrayed as some sort of New Testament mutant in the family.

These reservations aside, Yellin’s tale of a woman reading herself is an intriguing first novel, and I look forward to more of her work.

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