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
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
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
‘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
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.