A house of broken dreams
Nothing defines the history of the Jewish people so much as exile. Exile and expulsion in successive stagesfrom the Promised Land in the first place, then from this or that countryconstitute the tragedy of the Jews, their poetry and paradox, their ironic survival. So deeply ingrained is the millennia-long dream of return to Israel that it can never be quenched, not even by a Jewish family's literal, physical residence on a Judean hillside overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem.
This is where the family Shepher comes to live, a rocky place with pepper trees and scorpions, a few minutes' walk from the Western Wall. One way or another, four generations of Shephers feel the perverse, irresistible pull of exile, until at last the current daughter of the clanthe bemused, brilliant Shulamith, an unmarried Englishwoman of 40finds herself planted, as ineradicably as ever, back in the Diaspora.
In Shulamith, debut author Tamar Yellin gives us a Jewish heroine for our time, a woman both steeped in ancient lore (she is a Biblical scholar) and acutely conscious of her own puzzling moment in history. A curse looms over Shulamith's family, passed down through the generations on account of great-grandfather Shalom's possession of a book, a variant of the holy Torah, which he improbably stole from remnants of the Ten Lost Tribes in Azerbaijan. Shulamith meets and befriends Gideon, an enigmatic figure charged with reclaiming the stolen book. A romance springs up between them, as sweetly fugitive as an exile's dream of Zion.
The inexhaustible richness of Yellin's book is best summed up in the twofold meaning of the word genizah of the novel's title: for observant Jews, a genizah is a place where damaged or discredited documents which bear God's nameand which therefore cannot be destroyedare stored in perpetuity. In The Genizah at the House of Shepher, the genizah is the House of Shepher: a repository of broken dreams, a family filled with God's presence yet mired in dysfunction. Shepher is the Hebrew word for beauty. This stunning book has its proper name
Michael Alec Rose is a professor at Vanderbilt University.