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The Genizah at the House of Yellin

Tamar Yellin describes the scholarly adventure which fuelled her new novel

Tamar Yellin  |  Spring 2005  -  Number 197


This story begins with a book and ends with a book. It starts in an attic and ends in another attic, that of the Yorkshire cottage where I now sit writing.

It opens in the attic of my grandparents’ house in Jerusalem in the spring of 1987 and, 18 years later, closes with the appearance of my first novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher.

Genizah (the Hebrew word, literally meaning ‘hiding place’, refers to a depository for old or damaged sacred documents) is the saga of a Jerusalem family stretching over 145 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.

It concerns 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 200 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 70 years of age and in failing health, so he appointed his son-in-law, Yehoshua Kimchi, to be his substitute. Kimchi was less adept, but by writing down all the necessary questions and instructions Shalom Shachne provided him with the tools required 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. My grandfather, Yitzhak Yaacov, under threat of conscription into the Turkish army, had gone into hiding, first in Jerusalem and later in Petah Tikvah. By the time he returned, his father’s books and papers had been put away. In the struggle to rebuild his life and earn a living – my father was one of eleven children – he never found time to investigate their contents and, in any case, was probably more interested in other things. As one of the first Hebrew journalists in the holy city he read widely and wrote copiously under numerous pseudonyms, covering politics, literature and religion, and at one time edited and published a weekly newspaper, Hed Ha’Am. He also worked as a teacher and compiled some of the first modern Hebrew grammars.

When in the 1920s my grandfather built his bungalow in the new district of Kiriat Moshe, he transferred the mass of documents into the attic, where they were gradually joined, over the next six decades, by a burgeoning archive of newspapers, diaries and family letters. After the destruction of the Aleppo synagogue a number of scholars and rabbis urged the family to try and find the book, but it never occurred to anyone that it was lying there, hidden in an old tin box, a few metres above their heads.

In April 1987 I was recalled to Jerusalem by the news that the house was scheduled for imminent demolition and that if I wanted to see it one last time I must come quickly. It was a sad visit: the bungalow with its stone floors and red tiled roof, scene of so many family reunions, our home-from-home on so many long hot summer visits throughout my childhood, stood forlorn, its contents piled in dusty heaps. But it was also to be the scene of a revelation. Guided by my uncle up the rickety ladder to the attic, I was confronted by an unforgettable sight: a haphazard family archive so vast that the very dust on the floorboards was composed of disintegrating paper.

Here were complete sets of all my grandfather’s newspapers dating back to 1910; diaries describing his experiences in hiding during the First World War; files of correspondence including letters between Shalom Shachne and his family back in Skidel, some written in code, full of anecdotes about the Jerusalem and Lithuanian communities. And, of course, the book. Seated amidst this treasure, running my hands through the soft dust of what had been already lost, the seed of the novel I would eventually write was planted.

When my uncle came across the old book in the attic he didn’t know what it was. He actually picked it up and set it down again, leaving it there along with other sacred documents for eventual transfer to a genizah. Fortunately, my cousin had a friend at the Gush Etzion Yeshivah, whom she invited to examine what was left. On his return to the yeshiva he mentioned to friends that he had seen books belonging to Shalom Shachne Yellin. One of those friends was Yosef Ofer, who had assisted Amnon Shamosh in the writing of a recent book about the Aleppo Codex. He realized immediately what the book must be, and was overjoyed. He arranged for the retrieval of the precious volume.

The family heard on the television news that the book which had been sought for so many years had finally been found. My uncle told Ofer: we gave you a suit, but did not know that it had a treasure in its pocket. And Ofer returned the book.

The family decided to donate the book to the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, but even now the saga was not quite over. Challenged by distant relatives, a legal contest ensued as the final act in this circuitous history. They eventually lost the case. The book was handed over to the scholars, and was instrumental in the landmark reconstruction of the Aleppo text, published in 2001 as Keter Yerushalayim.

The result of my own labours, meanwhile, took slightly longer to appear. Proficient but not fluent in Hebrew, with limited access to sources and a somewhat open-ended notion of what it was I wanted to achieve, my researches took place haphazardly over years and continents. The writing of the novel itself became a rite of passage, the search for a final text sometimes mirroring painfully the theme of textual perfection in the Torah that I was exploring. My story was not only to be an academic thriller, but an interrogation of Jewish identity, a meditation on exile and belonging, and, along the way, a love story. 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.

Now the work is done and the book lies before me, at once solid and oddly unreal, a simultaneous source of naches, satisfaction, and frustration in that it could never encompass all I wanted to achieve. But then I remember the rabbinic dictum: It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. And I put it aside, and turn to another book.

Tamar Yellin is a novelist and short story writer whose fiction has appeared in a wide range of publications, including the anthologies Mordechai’s First Brush with Love: New Stories by Jewish Women in Britain (Loki Books) and The Slow Mirror: New Fiction by Jewish Writers (Five Leaves Press). She has a website at


An extract from Tamar Yellin’s new novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher

Married at the age of 13, the narrator’s great-grandfather, Shalom Shepher, divorces his wife in order to travel to fulfil his dream of going to live in Jerusalem. Soon after his arrival in 1862, he marries again.

I have said that my great-grandmother had a reputation for being hard, and she was: as cold and hard as a brass candlestick. There was no love at the beginning of her marriage and there was no miraculous love at the end. Every day Batsheva cooked a chicken for her husband and father. She gave Raphaelovitch the white meat, rightly assuming that Shepher would prefer the dark. When her husband passed through the kitchen in the morning she was plucking the feathers; when he came back at night she was boiling the bones. They did not exchange a word of endearment on either occasion.

Soon after her marriage she sold off her wedding jewellery and went into business making vinegar. Hence her local nickname, Batsheva the Sour. When not cooking chickens she was busy boiling and straining, mixing and reducing, fermenting and straining again, before pouring the vinegar clear and golden into shining bottles which she sold from the house on Habad Street. With the profit she began to experiment, for my great-grandmother was a born scientist. She attempted fermentation from the juice of oranges and figs, and prickly pears which she collected by hand outside the Dung Gate. She made orange vinegar, fig vinegar and pear vinegar. She even made vinegar from honey. She went down to the spice market and bought seasonings of rosemary and thyme and laurel leaves, garlic and cinnamon and hot red peppers. All the wonderful varieties of sour and spicy, pungent and fiery, blossomed under her skill. To the women of Jerusalem, who were profoundly superstitious, she explained the properties of every bottle: how this one cured headaches, and that one soothed ague; this one acted as a tonic, and that one encouraged restful sleep. She used the knowledge she had picked up from the felaheen women in the market, and what little she had read, and for the rest invented, though she never displayed imagination in any other area except the making and using of vinegar.

With the bottles left over from each batch she began to make pickles, and the making of pickles became a new voyage of discovery and a new obsession. She pickled lemons with hot peppers, figs with cinnamon and cloves, and cabbage with coriander seed. She experimented by curing vegetables in brine and softening olives in lye. From the ink-maker on the Street of the Jews she obtained copper sulphate crystals and vitriol, cited in the ancient recipes, and alum and lime for crispness and colouring. Her hands became scarred from the abrasive mixtures, and wherever she moved her clothes left an acetic tang in the air. She developed a genius for converting the natural sweetness of fruit into acidity. Nothing satisfied her in her quest for new combinations: almonds and walnuts, tomatoes and melons, even rose petals and mint, all underwent the process with greater or lesser success. ‘If you can eat it, pickle it,’ she said.

The cool places of the house on Habad Street became filled with sealed mysterious crocks and heavy jars in which pickles bloomed like strange flowers. To Batsheva they were things of beauty, alterations of nature and therefore a kind of art. Purple cabbages in cross-section, magnified lemons and medleys of distorted fruit were ranged like specimens around the courtyard.

Instead of sweetmeats she served up pickled onions, sauerkraut and spiced pickled cucumbers which gave Shalom Shepher acute indigestion and brought bitter acids to his throat. The cucumbers, which were to form the bulwark of Batsheva’s reputation, were made to a secret recipe and may or may not have had hallucinogenic properties. They were especially popular with students of the Kabbalah.

Isaac Raphaelovitch kept a crock of cucumbers on the table, and no meal was complete unless he finished off with one, much as other men would finish off with a cigar. He encouraged his son-in-law to eat them too, inventing stories about their nourishing effect on the brain, or their improving action on the eyes. The great sage Shammai, he said, had been practically raised on pickled cucumbers. Shalom Shepher was dubious, but thought it would probably account for Shammai’s sour temperament.

‘I married the rose of the Sharon,’ he joked, ‘and she turned into a field of cucumbers.’ Meanwhile he bought sticky sweets, left them in his pockets and allowed them to melt, and sometimes he stood outside the confectioners’ stalls in the bazaar, gazing at the tiers of forbidden pastry soaked in syrup and sprinkled with nuts, or filled with honey and dusted with cinnamon, reflected in polished mirrors, row upon row. In his hunger for something sweet he chewed the carob pods which lay scattered under inaccessible trees, and nibbled dried figs, and even sucked for hours at a piece of cloth soaked in wine while he studied. He longed for the soothing milky dishes of Pentecost, or the sweet almond bread baked at New Year; and week to week he looked forward to his Sabbath invitation at the house of the rabbi, whose plump wife served slices of apple strudel after the service.

Batsheva extracted the sweets which had stuck to the insides of his pockets and threw them away in disgust, and her heart did not soften for a moment towards her foolish and sweet-toothed husband. She went on serving him with vitriol and spices, and turned all the household fruit to gall, while she and her father, both long-faced, dark and lanky, munched on pickled cucumbers as if it were a conspiracy.

The only tenderness she felt was towards the multitude of cats which leapt the roofs of Jerusalem and came down to her cistern to drink. She put out water for them, fed them scraps and ran her long, acid-reddened hands along their smoky backs. The cats knew where to come, and congregated in her courtyard among the pickle jars. And it is often the case that those who have no affection for their fellow humans feel an affinity with cats.

Isaac Raphaelovitch, raising an admonitory finger, warned his son-in-law against the dangers of allowing her too much freedom. ‘Take charge of your wife’s earnings and make yourself master in your own house,’ he said. ‘After all, you don’t want her to be building herself a nest egg.’ My great-grandfather ignored this piece of advice, though in later years he would have cause to regret it.

Nor did Batsheva pay much attention to her husband’s doings. She was not impressed by his debating in the study house, since she never witnessed it. He made less money selling parchments than she did from her vinegar and pickles. Once she had enjoyed reading, but the requirements of business and family now demanded that she abandon books. She followed the religion of the kitchen. The Sabbath meant meat and candles; New Year, honey cake and tailors’ bills; Passover, spring cleaning and fresh utensils. And everything had somehow to be paid for.

She maintained a sceptical attitude towards her husband’s reputation. So far as piety was concerned, she had seen far too many madmen on the road already. As for his exceptional eyesight, she snorted: ‘He can’t see in the dark.’ Reb Jacob Itchka the wagoner suggested once that Shalom Shepher might be one of the 36 righteous men who appear in each generation. Batsheva retorted: ‘Reb Itchka is one of the 40 million fools.’

But Isaac Raphaelovitch was delighted with his son-in-law. Here was his opportunity to study with a true scholar, and he never stopped pestering him for an hour’s reading. Shalom Shepher was obliged to humour him. Naturally, Raphaelovitch was eager to display his learning and to impress the young man with his list of books. His reading, on the whole, was spiced with pure nonsense. Often Batsheva would put her head round the door and observe how they sat, her father bent over the page, her husband leaning back with his eyes shut; her husband apparently asleep, her father unashamedly picking his nose.

Some time passed before speculation ended and the marriage was blessed with children. In due course Batsheva gave birth to a daughter, and then to another daughter. Before long there were three, a daughter, a daughter and a daughter, all of them initiated from an early age into the mysteries of vinegar production. With their long solemn faces and their dark lank hair, wielding their miniature funnels and saucepans in the kitchen of the house on Habad Street, there could be little doubt that they were the offspring of Batsheva Raphaelovitch.

In all there would be 13 children, of whom seven survived. Six daughters grew up and married impecunious scholars. One married an adventurer who left for America, got off the boat in Ireland and disappeared. Another was widowed young, turned to good works and neglected her relatives. A third, Hannah Raisl, took up with a watchmender so bad at his trade that for 30 years she ran the business herself.

The only son was my grandfather, Joseph Shepher. He had my great-grandfather’s build and my great-grandmother’s colouring. He had Reb Shalom’s stomach and Batsheva’s bile. In short, he inherited the worst characteristics of both his parents, though, much to his credit, he made the best of them.

From an early age he suffered bouts of acute indigestion. This might have been hereditary or it might not. It might have been the result of hidden longings, or it might have been caused merely by excess acid. Batsheva the Sour did not spare any of her children. It is said that even the milk they sucked at her breast contained its own measure of gall.

The Genizah at the House of Shepher is published by the Toby Press at £14.99.

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