It all began in the attic of a stone house in Jerusalem, in 1987. After her grandfather died, English author Tamar Yellin came to Jerusalem to say goodbye to the house in Kiryat Moshe, where she had spent the summer vacation months of her childhood.
In the attic, the Yellin family found an archive of documents of all sorts, portraying 150 years of the family's history: letters, photographs, diaries written by the grandfather, Yitzhak Yakov Yellin, who was a published author and journalist. There was also the beginning of a novel he had written, and a very old printed bible that aroused the whole family's curiosity.
Along the bible's margins were strange notations relating to the text, written 100 years ago by Yehoshua Kimchi, a son-in-law of Yellin's great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Shalom Yellin. Kimchi had traveled to Syria to compare the accepted version of the Hebrew Bible at that time to a bible kept in Syria, known as the Keter Aram Tzova, or Aleppo Codex, which is now considered the most accurate text of the Bible.
Rabbi Yellin, who was a Torah scribe and repaired damaged Torah scrolls and biblical texts, used the notations to make a copy of a complete, accurate text of the Bible. This rare bible was ultimately donated by the family to a research institute, but not before legal discussions concerning the ownership and rights to its contents.
In the meantime, the old bible gave Yellin an idea for a novel. Yellin, who was born and raised in Leeds, began writing stories when she was six and always wanted to be an author. After discovering the family treasure, Yellin decided to write a novel with autobiographical foundations. It took her almost 20 years to finish the book, during which time she worked as a teacher and wrote several other books and novels. "The Genizah at the House of Shepher" was finally published in 2005, by Toby Press in Jerusalem.
A year ago the book won the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature. Yellin is the first winner of the new prize, granted by the Jewish Book Council of America.
The ancient codex
Yellin's book, recently published in Hebrew by Toby and translated by Devorah Bushri, is narrated by Shulamit Shepher, an English Jewish teacher in her 40s who comes to say goodbye to her grandfather's house in Jerusalem and finds herself face to face with her family's past as well as questions of identity and belonging. The book describes the Shepher family's history, which closely resembles that of the Yellin family: from the great-great-grandfather, who was a Torah scribe and decided to leave a Jewish village in Ukraine and travel to the Land of Israel; through bustling Jerusalem at the end of the 19th century; to the author's father, who went to live in England where she and her brother were born.
Shulamit, the novel's protagonist, comes to see her grandfather's home in Jerusalem one last time. The house is about to be demolished to make room for a multistory apartment building. In the attic, of course, the family finds an ancient codex. Its historical and monetary value is so great that the family immediately begins to squabble over it.
This book has been described as the "Jewish Da Vinci Code," due to its historical detective motif, but Yellin laughs this off, denying any resemblance. "The element of mystery surrounding the codex may arouse some comparison," admits Yellin, "but I began writing the book in 1990, long before 'Da Vinci Code' was written. It happened following my visit to my grandfather's house. I came to Jerusalem to see it one last time. I loved the place and have many fond memories. When I arrived there, like Shulamit in the book, the house was very dilapidated. Then I saw the family's huge archive."
Yellin, 44, lives with her husband in Haworth, a village in Yorkshire in the north of England. Her father, a third-generation Jerusalemite, left Mandate Palestine in 1938 to study in England, and his plans were disrupted by World War II. He met and married Yellin's mother, the daughter of Polish immigrants.
As a child, Yellin learned Hebrew from her father and attended an afternoon Hebrew school from age 11. She went on to study Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford, and then trained as an elementary school teacher. She has so far published a collection of short stories, "Kafka in Bronteland," and her second novel, "Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes," is due out in September. Yellin dedicated "The Genizah at the House of Shepher," to her parents, who died when she was a teenager. Her father, Aryeh Leib, died when she was 14, and her mother Edna followed him four years later.
"I think of them as a sort of trilogy," says Yellin of her three books. "They're all around the same themes of belonging and identity, and a young woman who's been orphaned because of parental loss; it's a big experience for me and I wrote about it a few times."
What do you and Shulamit, your protagonist, have in common?
"She is a fictional character, of course, but the archive and the family story are similar. We both share the issues of identity, belonging, of being uprooted."
Shulamit searches for her identity. Have you found yours?
"Writing the novel was a process of self-discovery. I joined Shulamit on her journey, researched the history of my family and the Old Yishuv [Jewish community] in Jerusalem. I had to reconnect with my past in order to transfer it to the book."
How do you define yourself - as English or Jewish?
"The two combine. I don't know which comes first. I am very English. I love the English countryside and English literature, which has become a part of me. But at the same time I am very Jewish and I have a strong connection to my Israeli roots.
"These two sides of me clash with one another, but also encourage my creativity. I light candles on Friday nights. The whole family gets together for the Passover Seder. I learned in heder and I know Judaism up close. I express this in my writing, which always deals with questions of belonging and the search for identity. I think these issues will never let me rest. The new novel I just finished writing is very English. It's about the history of a small English village and the people who live there. But there, too, these issues come up."
For my father
"The Genizah at the House of Shepher" won the Harold Ribalow Prize and the Sami Rohr Prize.
"These are a huge boost to my writing career," says Yellin. "The Rohr Prize organizers want to bring all the Jewish authors from all over the world together and form a community. This is how I met Yael Hedaya and Amir Gutfreund, who were candidates for the Rohr Prize last year, and Naomi Alderman, a young writer from England, and American author Michael Levin. We are all supposed to meet at a seminar in New York in July, with this year's prize candidates, to share experiences and ideas and talk about writing and Judaism. This is a wonderful opportunity."
You write a lot about longing: for Jerusalem, for geographic areas, for beloved places.
"The Shepher family always longs for something. It doesn't matter where they are, [they] always want to be somewhere else, to be someone else, to develop a new career. They feel they don't fulfill themselves. I think that comes from my father. To a great extent this book was written in his memory. I felt he was always full of longing. He arrived in England as a young man, to study there, but the war broke out and he never managed to study. He was a very intelligent man and in this respect he never fulfilled his potential. He also always wanted to go back to Israel. But he met my mother and fell in love. She was a Jew who was born in England. Year after year they planned to make aliyah, and during my childhood I thought 'Next year, we will make aliyah,' but we never did. He died in England and was buried in Israel. Maybe I inherited longing from him.
"But yearning is also a Jewish preoccupation. 'My heart is in the east but I am on the very edge of the west.' On my visits to Israel during my childhood, I always missed England, the cold winds, the green hills and the horses, the Yorkshire countryside. We were always here in August, the heat would hit me and I longed to go back. But on the plane on the way home, when I saw Israel disappearing beneath me, I would fill with longing for Israel. Wherever I was, I always yearned to be somewhere else."
Yellin's protagonist is very isolated and feels she is not living her life properly.
"She is somebody who cuts herself off from her roots," explains Yellin. "That can lead to a deep feeling of loneliness. If you are not connected. I write a lot about lonely people, solitary people; I think loneliness is something I think about a lot. I myself, although I'm married and I have family and friends, am quite a solitary person; I like to be alone. As a writer you need to be alone a lot. I'm quite happy in my own company. But I fear to be alone involuntarily. Perhaps by writing about lonely people is to exorcise it; to describe it is walking through it.
In Haworth, Yellin is the only Jew. She teaches Judaism in elementary schools. "I speak with non-Jewish children about Judaism," says Yellin. "It's part of their curriculum on religion. Sometimes I meet other teachers or community workers, and once or twice I encountered anti-Israel responses. I am a very emotional person, so the moment I get such reactions my heart stops beating. I get very upset and can't cope with it."
Would you like to reach a non-Jewish audience?
"I want to become known beyond the world of Jewish literature. I am ambitious. When "The Genizah at the House of Shepher" was published, I was a bit naive and thought that non-Jews would be interested in the book. Maybe when it comes out in paperback it will reach a broader audience. I will not always write about purely Jewish subjects."
Click here for a review of the original English edition of The Genizah at the House of Shepher, "A Jewish Da Vinci Code?"(21st January 2006))