Tamar Yellin – The Genizah at the House of Shepher

Religion has always fascinated me. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and have a pretty decent grasp of the Bible. Biblical stories were my bedtime stories and I prayed to the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. As I grew up, I began to explore other religions – never as faith-altering explorations, just to understand the similarities and differences. I suppose I always have been and always will be hungry for knowledge – maybe that’s why I read.

I’ve read books that center around all sorts of faiths – from Eastern Religions to spirituality of natives from Africa to South Dakota. I respect the beliefs of others. When I saw Tamar Yellin’s The Genizah at the House of Shepher (2005), I had to grab it; it contains all things I know I love in a book – religion, family stories, intrigue, love, and loss.

A genizah is a “hiding place” for old or damaged sacred documents. Jewish faith requires that sacred texts and anything containing God’s name not be destroyed, thus these depositories were established. When Shulamit Shepher returned to her family in Jerusalem, she knew she’d be facing her family’s ghosts and demons, but she never expected what she actually found in the attic, the family’s genizah – a place to store more than just religious artifacts.

Shulamit is a rootless person; after abandoning her faith and her family, she buries herself in her studies and has become a true scholar, lecturing in biblical studies. Twenty years pass and she receives a letter from her uncle telling her that the family house is going to be destroyed and if she wants to see it one last time, she must come. She flies to Jerusalem.

When she arrives, her uncle tells her about the Codex, a religious document found among the family’s belongings. Thought to be worth thousands, the Codex is a keter Torah – a handwritten copy of unknown origins. Shulamit’s uncle has given it to the Institute to authenticate, but the Shepher family has already started bickering and fighting over it. Shulamit is eager to see the document, to study it – what biblical scholar would not want to see the unknown manuscript that has been in her family for years? The Codex could MAKE her career.

With the thread of the Codex holding the story together, Yellin presents a family saga of faith, loss, and exile. Shulamit, going through items in the genizah, begins to learn more about her family, begins to remember the legends she’d been told as a child, and slowly begins to connect with her past – she begins to “heal” when she embraces her family and their combined history. The Codex is a character, but it is a secondary character; do not read this novel if you’re looking for a thrilling suspense novel like The Da Vinci Code.

The writing is simply stunning and the family lore is fantastically dependent on religion and myth. I thought the novel slightly incomplete – it began to fall flat after such an amazing start. This is Yellin’s first novel so there is plenty of time for her talents to improve and her novels to be consistently “tight.” It’s definitely worth a read, even with the problems I have with the last fifty or so pages. If you like family sagas and have a fascination with how faith runs families, read it – you won’t be disappointed.

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