Last week, the Jewish Book Council announced that Tamar Yellin, author of “The Genizah at the House of Shepher” (Toby Press, 2005), is the first recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Rohr, who currently lives in Miami, spent his early years in Europe before moving to Bogotá, Colombia, where he made his fortunate as a real estate developer. His children and grandchildren established the eponymous prize to encourage and promote writing of Jewish interest.
Yellin’s first novel is part family history, part academic treasure hunt. Shulamit Shepher, the protagonist, is a biblical scholar from England. During a visit to her grandparents’ home in Jerusalem, she’s drawn into a fight for possession of a potentially valuable manuscript — a handwritten volume of the Bible, recently discovered in the family attic. In a telephone interview, Yellin described the true story behind “Genizah”; her upbringing in Yorkshire, England, and her new writing projects.
JL: What inspired you to write “The Genizah at the House of Shepher”?
TY: The inspiration for the novel came from my own family history. I was born in England, but my father was a third-generation Jerusalemite. My paternal grandparents lived in an old stone bungalow in Jerusalem, which was a family center of sorts. When I was 24, I heard that the house was going to be demolished, so I went back for one last visit. My uncle took me up a rickety old ladder up to the attic, and we discovered an amazing family archive. There were diaries and newspapers. Among all these documents, my uncle found an old printed Bible — an ordinary-looking book with notes in the margin. We didn’t know what it was, so we hired an expert. As it turns out, back in the 19th century the religious authorities in Jerusalem asked my great-great-grandfather, a Torah expert, to travel to Syria and examine the Aleppo codex, regarded by many as the most perfect text of the Bible. He was too old to go, but he sent his son-in-law, [Yehoshua Kimchi], in his stead. So [Kimchi] traveled to Aleppo, studied the text and compared it to that currently in use, noting down all the necessary corrections.
In 1947, there was a pogrom in Aleppo. The synagogue was attacked, and much of the Pentateuch was lost. At that point, the religious authorities tried to find my ancestor’s little bible — the only surviving record of the Aleppo codex. For decades we didn’t know where it was, but all along it was above my grandfather’s head, in the attic.
Ever since I was a child, I had wanted to be a writer, and suddenly my own history seemed like an appropriate topic. So after years of research — 13 in total — I wrote “Genizah.”
JL: Your Web site mentions your “Jewish heritage” and “Yorkshire roots.” Do you feel any tension between your birthplace and your inherited culture?
TY: Yes. In a certain sense I am, and have always been, a true Yorkshire woman. I love the English countryside. When I was about 10, I fell in love with the Brontë sisters and it was my dream to live on the Moors. At the same time, I was surrounded by Jewish culture. My father was very nostalgic for Jerusalem — he always felt like a stranger in England, and his sense of exile rubbed off on me. As a child, I traveled to Jerusalem every other year to see family and considered settling there permanently. So I belong in two places at once, which sometimes feels like I belong nowhere.
JL: What’s your next project?
TY: I have a book coming out later this year, called “Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.” I’m also working on a new novel, with an English setting.
This story "A Chat With Tamar Yellin, Winner of New Fiction Prize" was written by Juliet Lapidos.