May 07

A World Written: In Conversation with Tamar Yellin

Dr. Dan Friedman

For a poet the principal unit of beauty is the line: for a prose writer it is the sentence. Crafting sentences which construct the line between heresy and orthodoxy, between Yorkshire and Yerushalayim, between the mundane and the profound is the particular gift of Tamar Yellin, the winner of this year’s Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. At $100,000 it is proudly described by its granting body, the Jewish Book Council, as the largest-ever Jewish literary prize – with runner-up prizes of $7,500 for Our Holocaust by Amir Gutfreund (translated by Jessica Cohen; click here for Gutfreund’s short story in this month’s Zeek) and Not Me by Michael Lavigne.

Yellin has only published two of the many books she has written thus far – Kafka in Brontëland and The Genizah at the House of Shepher. A third, entitled Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes – which Yellin researched simultaneously with Genizah – is due in the fall. Despite her relatively brief publishing history, Yellin’s identity is heavily bound up with her vocation as a writer. In preparing for our conversation and then talking to Yellin about her work I wondered about the propriety of literary interviews. For her, reading is “giving yourself up to the reality that is on the page” and trying to find the biography that lies behind the reality of the page seems a confused intrusion on the part of a prurient reader. So why would you read about the author if you could read her book?

As someone who grew up around the corner from the Brontës and who read Kafka all through college and graduate school, I hoped my interest in Yellin’s life was slightly more excusable than general celebrity journalist prurience. She grew up around the corner from me, went to Leeds Girls’ High School (the same school as my sister), and her father – a crucial influence in her life – taught my grandfather (a crucial influence in mine) Hebrew. Until I received a copy of Kafka in Brontëland last year though, I’d never heard of her. Now she’s the recipient of the Rohr Prize as well as two other prestigious Jewish prizes (the Harold U. Ribalow Award and the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction), making her the most celebrated, and possibly – from admittedly an extremely short list – the most famous Jewish writer Yorkshire has ever produced!

If my discovering Yellin is akin to finding a literary treasure in my own back yard, the feeling is appropriate: finding a treasure in your own back yard is, almost literally, what her novel is about. Indeed, if it weren’t for her family’s actual involvement in the recovery of the Keter Yerushalayim – one of the most important versions of the Biblical texts still extant – the scope of The Genizah at the House of Shepherd would seem excessively fanciful. As it is – and as is Yellin’s way – the ramifications of what she writes are explained but understated. The phrase “each changed word means a new book, a new world” is repeated to emphasize its breadth of application and importance. Like, for example, Freud’s statement in Moses and Monotheism that “the distortion of a text resembles a murder.” However, it is only as the meaning settles into the reader's thoughts that the enormity of its implications becomes apparent.

What would you do if you found an ancient copy of biblical texts with small but noticeable changes to the traditional, accepted texts in your grandfather’s dusty attic? What would those variations mean to the stability of the Jewish tradition? What would that mean to your own, your family’s, everyone else’s sense of identity? If, furthermore, your parents had died when you were in your teens, you would be just like Yellin, who “didn’t know where [she] belonged” and become “a lost person for a while.” As a writer, the discovery of the notebook – radically destabilizing though it was – provided an opportunity to “reconnect with family history.” And for Yellin, the “writing of the book was a search for [her] own past and identity” and the start of re-writing her family history through what she has called the “mythical history” of the house of Shepher.

Unlike Kafka in Brontëland, which deals more explicitly with the dissonance between her home and her heritage – the “fertile creativity” of being Israeli-Jewish in Yorkshire – The Genizah at the House of Shepher is about a literal, metaphorical, and literary journey back to her father’s family in Israel. The Israeli family seems as numerous as the English family seems absent and, in fact, Yellin’s father was one of eleven children. The book is dedicated to both of Yellin’s parents, but the story of Shulamit’s father, Amnon, is told in loving detail and is central to the novel whereas his eventual wife, Shulamit’s mother, is peripheral at best. In the Bible “Tamar” is the deeply beloved sister of “Amnon,” a non-coincidence about which biblical scholar Yellin said to “make of that what you will!”

Having probed into the dedication inscribed at the gateway to the novel and used it to compare author and protagonist it is important to note that authors are neither their narrators nor their protagonists. Tamar and Shulamit share a number of biographical points and physical perspectives. Yet the psychological perspectives of the two – both the real and the fictional – are quite separate. As Yellin puts it, "I'm much nicer than her! She thinks bitchy things about people. She's a bit more of a nebbish than me! Too much gnawed by her regrets." Discussing this point with her – she complained wryly that everyone keeps thinking that she's Shulamit – brought the point home to me that Shulamit is a composite of many views of what Tamar could become or could have been seen as but definitely is not.

The similarities of truth to fiction are manifold but the transformation of that truth (verifiable events) into fiction (stories about those events and others) is pivotal. Kafka lies further in the background of her stories than might be suggested by the title of her collection, but Yellin did read him “heavily” for a “phase” (although this, ironically, included “repeatedly reading the first page of The Castle without ever getting past it”) and she owes some of the shifting sense of the written world to his shorter pieces. Kafka himself once said that he learned to write fiction by changing the “I” of his diaries to “he,” but that seemingly insignificant shift of pronoun signals a profound shift. There are equivalences between Yellin and her protagonists, yet she speaks not with their single voices rather she speaks through all her characters – and she feels a responsibility for her entire written world.

The statement of this responsibility is not a platitude. There is a Jewish legend, which Yellin cites in Genizah, that the writing of the original Torah and the creation of the world were intertwined and coterminous events. As the Ineffable Being wrote the Torah in letters of fire the world as we know it came into being. This legend provides a comforting but frightening metaphor for writers: writing is a form of creation and power, but it entails a high degree of responsibility. With each change of detail, with each rethought sentence, whole worlds are transformed. However much this is true for the general act of writing, it is manifoldly true for the received texts of the Hebrew Bible. The existence of different versions of biblical texts upon whose unflagging exegesis Jewish religion and culture has been built necessitates a whole different set of Jews and Jewish views. If, over thousands of years, there have been variations in how they have been copied (or, more heretically, variations due to there being multiple originals), then these variations are crucial because they mark bifurcations not just in a text, but in a worldview – even bifurcations in the world itself.

If the world is created from the word of God and that word of God exists in different versions, then the world might exist in different versions. Not only does Yellin play with the translations (“kal v’chomer” becomes “extrapolate,” the Shulkhan Arukh becomes “The Laid Table") but she knows, and shows, the possibilities of radical alternatives – if Genizah was a science fiction novel people would be explicitly walking in from alternate universes. One of the last pieces of the novel to fall into place for Yellin was Gideon ben Gibreel, the laconic, other-worldly kaftaned Jew who seems to come from such another universe. He shadows Shulamit from her arrival at her uncle’s house and is at the very least from an obscure sect living in de facto exile. If he is not a descendant of the lost Tribe of Dan living in exile as the Kuzari he comes straight out of the tales of fantasy Shulamit’s Great-Grandfather told about his trips beyond the River Sambatyon in search of the ten lost tribes. Gideon embodies the possibility of alternatives within a type of orthodoxy, but he also represents an alternative type of exile from Jerusalem from the exile that Shulamit in her way, and Tamar in her way have endured.

The character comes from a chance meeting Yellin had in Jerusalem winter 1990 while she was doing some research. While at the Atarah Café, then located on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, she saw a man across the room with “blonde ringlets, radiating an aura.” He was sitting with someone who had a high-pitched giggle whose annoying presence distracted the entire clientele. After a few minutes “the laughing guy had gone, the Jesus guy was at the table. He said ‘I have a feel for people. I can sense such Shepher Ruach.’ I felt as if everyone at the café was looking at me – I said goodbye.” This story from nearly two decades ago shows where the name “Shepher” (Hebrew for “radiance”) comes from (providing the pleasingly alliterative “Shulamit Shepher”); and it provides a location that appears in the novel, also showing us where the character Gideon comes from. At the same time it tells us nothing about the process of transformation that leads from this encounter to its fictional elements in the novel.

Yellin’s novel brings elegant context and insight to the textual and cultural questions that come from actual real experience (her grandfather’s book including significant notes on the Aleppo Codex was found in her grandfather’s attic by her uncle and cousin). She has written that this gave her the “seed” of her novel but it is for her achievements as a writer that she has been recognized, not for her biography or autobiography, and it is the peculiarly writerly element to the discovery of the codex that she has taken and made her own as a writer.

Although The Genizah is obliged to unfold continually in terms of plot – something to which her short stories are not so obliged – it still maintains the sense that each scene is fully conceived, each sentence fully written. When it is made into a film there should be no quick cuts, rather a lingering on the scenery, the faces, the texture of the air. For a writer to succeed only after decades of writing (like her near neighbours the Brontës, Yellin wrote novels and created worlds in her childhood) means writing with the knowledge of suspected failure dogging every step. Failed artisans and discarded manuscripts litter her stories. The genizah that gives the novel its title is a box that holds a collection of discarded manuscripts of which only one is of any interest. Granted that manuscript is of earth-shattering importance but the chance that saw it discovered is the only thing that saves it from total obscurity. Uncle Saul is a writer whose brother (Shulamit's father) found the cache of poems and stories – exhuming the pile from the mattress and, in full family view, laughing at the serious ones and finding the comic ones unfunny.

The fear of banality hovers under the dust of each sentence as if every word, like a hidden genizah, might discover, alter, or destroy a codex, a world. The repeated phrase that “each changed word means a new book, a new world” informs the care with which Yellin invests every sentence. Even the craft of each sentence is under siege – perhaps the care that is taken, the meticulous preparation, is just an illusion born of a diseased mind. Mr. Applewick, the eponymous piano mender in one of the stories from Kafka in Brontëland, describes in loving detail the tools of his trade and the scrupulous care he takes in storing those tools but the job he undertakes is his last and the careful picture he has painted of his working life is ripped apart when we see how the house and workshop are described in a cold, objective, passive voice of a police report. After speaking to Tamar this feels like a more realistic portrait of her life as a writer than Shulamit Shepher, or any of her carefully fictional protagonists.

“People need to know where they come from and where they are,” Yellin told me. "Shulamit starts off like a floating person and she tries to find out where she comes from. She still ends as a floating person but knows a bit more, knows more about where she comes from. People need to know where they come from and where they are. It's how we construct Jewish identity – how we search it. She's taking a journey." I was reminded of one of the most delicately poised lines in Kafka in Brontëland, where the writer-narrator of "New Story for Nada" says: “I carry my life like water in the palm of my hand.” Exile is distance and it is in the analysis or the coincidence of the two distances that Yellin's true pathos arrives. That moment at which exile seems most powerful and almost extinguished at once. When we seem almost at home and yet there is no home to have, these are the stories that make up Brontëland: the story of the Italian child who will remember no pasty English father, the story of daughters whose homes cease to be homely, the writer whose willingness to go to the page seems undermined by her absolute vulnerability.

Fiction is the truth for Tamar Yellin. The trite biographical questions of an interview come back to the sine qua non of being an author – a single-minded concern with what is on the page, why it is there, and what does it do. However much Bono might be right in his attempts to save the world, we trust him because he is a rock musician not because (at least to start with) he has any expertise in human rights, environmental science, or representative politics. Writers ask to be judged on the page: some like Boll or de Man need dramatic intervention to be judged separately from their biography; some only need gentler separations. Knowing that it took her fourteen years to write her debut novel it is easy to believe that Yellin considered and re-considered every sentence of The Genizah at the House of Shepher and the distance between her life and her craft.

Yellin’s new book will be out in the fall, a composite novel comprising tales of the ten lost tribes that she discovered while researching The Genizah. In it I expect to find the careful examinations of the large and small exiles in evidence in her first two books, the lyricism of her careful, slow statements giving pacing to tales with plots already built in. Having spoken to her confirms my suspicion that she is physically and vocationally compelled to, as she put it, “hone and hone and hone the sentences” until they reach the smoothness and epigrammatic quality of this one from Genizah: “The line of tension between choice and chance is the thread by which the miracle of existence hangs.” For Yellin, the line of tension and the thread upon which existence hangs is a reworked sentence.



Dr. Dan Friedman is the Chair of English at Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the Associate Editor of Zeek, and a freelance writer and poet.