Genizah at the House of Shepher
week following his bar mitzvah, in the spring of 1853, my
great-grandfather, Shalom Shepher of Skidel, got married.
He took up residence with his father-in-law, the Rabbi of
In those days he studied a lot and ate
a lot. Eighteen hours were spent with the holy books, one
hour was for walking and four hours were for sleeping. That
left a whole hour in which to eat, and a great deal of food
can be consumed in that time.
The marriage room contained a chest, a
chair and a bed. Shalom Shepher instructed his wife in the
rites of marriage. She crept out at night to sleep with her
Shalom Shepher told the Rabbi of Bielsk:
"If you have married me to a child who neglects her husband
and prefers to sleep with her sisters, I will divorce her
and marry a woman instead."
From that time the Rabbi forbade his daughter
to sleep with her sisters any longer.
Shalom Shepher ate a lot and studied a
lot. He read the commentaries and the commentaries on the
commentaries. He read Talmud, both Mishnah and Gemara, and
above all he read Torah, until, were you to commit the sacrilege
of sticking a pin through the pages of that holy book, our
hero could have told you every word through which the pin
Two maxims from the sages were carved upon
his soul. One was:
It is not your duty to complete the work;
Neither are you free
to desist from it.
He loved this paradoxical epigram, with its eternal invitation
to feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
The other was:
Do not say: When I have leisure I will
Perhaps you will have
In Bielsk he perfected the skills he had begun to develop
in Skidel. He learnt to split hairs and chop logic. He learnt
to filibuster and digress, to draw out the sweetness of an
argument. He developed the art of pilpul, that scholarly tug-of-war
beloved of the rabbis, and fostered the ability to take every
side at once in order to prevent a debate from reaching any
As he spoke he had a habit of twisting
one sidelock round his finger, which reminded the others of
his extreme youth and also irritated his opponents beyond
expression. He became known for his learning and his good
looks. The latter were a little exaggerated in legend. He
was short in the leg and broad in the chest, and like many
members of my family had a tendency to flatulence and high
blood pressure in later life. But he had large quantities
of red-gold hair, which were taken to denote kinship to King
David and also generosity.
He made life hard for the Rabbi of Bielsk.
At the age of sixteen, Shepher was the greater scholar. He
also had a superior sense of humour, which is essential if
one is to understand the writings of the sages. The Rabbi
would declare something kosher, and Shepher would contradict
him; the Rabbi, unnerved by his brilliant protégé,
conceded; whereupon Shepher would dig up another precedent
and once more pronounce it kosher. One might say that he ran
rings round the Rabbi of Bielsk.
Before he reached his eighteenth year he
had established himself as a corrector of scrolls. From that
time, because of his great diligence, there was an increase
in the number of parchments consigned to the genizah of the
local synagogue, where because of their errors they could
not be used, and because they bore the name of God they could
not be destroyed; and where they would remain until they were
buried, or crumbled into dust, or, as sometimes happened,
were lost in a fire.
It was his particular pleasure to sit in the attic genizah
of the synagogue at Bielsk. There, with a five-rung ladder
between himself and the world, he studied the texts and documents
which had been placed there when they became too dilapidated
for further use. Although he was only eighteen, the beadle
of the synagogue referred to him as Reb Shalom. My great-grandfather
accepted the title of respect. He was the greatest corrector
of scrolls in Lithuania.
he was eighteen years old Reb Shalom became ill. Despite the
consumption of a whole chicken cooked daily for him by his
wife, he grew thinner and thinner. Eventually, for the first
time, he lost his appetite.
After a while, seeing that he did not get
any better, he decided to visit a great doctor in Vilna, the
Jerusalem of Lithuania.
The great doctor examined him and noticed
that he was spitting blood. He said to him: "I can't
do anything for you, but if you can manage to go to Italy
you might get better."
Reb Shalom pondered for a few moments.
At last he said: "How would it be if I went to the Land
The doctor did not know what he was talking
about. "Do you mean Palestine?" he said.
Reb Shalom did not know what the doctor
was talking about.
"What is the name of the city you
have in mind?" the doctor asked.
Reb Shalom replied: "Jerusalem."
"Oh, yes," said the great doctor.
"Jerusalem will do just as well as Italy."
Shalom Shepher returned to Bielsk and told
his wife that he was going to live in Jerusalem. Immediately
she burst into tears.
"How can I leave Mummy and Daddy?"
He said: "If that's how you feel about
it, we can get a divorce. We haven't any children so it will
be an easy break for us."
He went to his father-in-law and told him:
"I am going to live in Jerusalem and my wife doesn't
want to come with me. Since that's how she feels, I shall
give her a divorce. We haven't any children so it should be
easy on her. I will send her some money every month until
she finds another husband."
And he divorced her.
Then he made a small bundle of his prayer-shawl,
phylacteries and psalter, and set off on foot for the Black
It took him two years to reach the Black
Sea. He was ill on the journey and wherever there were Jews
they took him in to convalesce. He never recovered his appetite
and his appearance was that of a dying man, but he knew it
was not death, but great spiritual yearning that possessed
Wherever there were Jews and they discovered
who he was, they brought him their scrolls to correct. He
lingered in many communities examining the holy parchments.
For this reason it took him a long time to reach his destination.
And when my great-grandfather reached the
Black Sea he boarded a small Greek ship for the coast of Palestine;
and it was another six months before his ship came within
sight of the port of Jaffa.
In November 1938 my father boarded the vessel 'Methuselah'
at the port of Jaffa and sailed for Southampton. He was possessed
by a great spiritual yearning to leave Palestine and go to
Like his forbear he was short and stocky,
with the same tendency to heartburn and painful wind which
plagued him all his life. Indeed, I wonder whether there is
not some connection between great spiritual yearning and the
inability to digest food. Some people never yearn spiritually
their whole lives and always enjoy excellent digestion. I,
on the other hand, feel my yearning as a hard obstructive
lump somewhere under the sternum, and to eat means to suffer.
In that respect I am my great-grandfather’s spiritual
"My heart is in the East and I am
in the farthest West," sang the poet Judah Halevy. "How
can I taste what I eat, how can I have appetite?" My
great-grandfather stepped on a boat to the East, and my father
stepped on a boat to the West, and I am in England with chronic
The act of climbing on a boat is in fact
no cure for this type of malady. Nor is taking a ship or an
aeroplane. When my father reaches Southampton he will yearn
for Palestine; when Shalom Shepher enters the gates of Jerusalem
he will be possessed by other dreams. Such men father anxious
This much I know about that fateful departure
of 1938. He wore a white shirt and no tie. He smoked a cigarette.
Across his forehead was one long, angry eyebrow. On his lip
was a scar where the lip split open every winter. He was twenty-three
years old and he felt as though he had lived for centuries
and was sick of life as only a twenty-three-year-old can be.
On the quayside below, the woman he loved was waving him good
No photograph was taken of the occasion.
No-one described it to me. Yet the image stands in my mind
of this decisive moment.
There are certain choices from which all
things flow. My great-grandfather travelled east and begot
my grandfather. My father travelled west and met my mother.
The line of tension between choice and chance is the thread
by which the miracle of existence hangs.
Tamar Yellin, 2004