Arts & Culture

Hunting the Tribes

Tamar D. Yellin is the author of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her first post. Such are the vicissitudes of writing and publishing, nearly twelve years have passed between … Read More

By / October 26, 2009

Tamar D. Yellin is the author of Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes. She is guest-blogging on Jewcy this week, and this is her first post.

Such are the vicissitudes of writing and publishing, nearly twelve years have passed between the writing of my novel, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes, and its appearance last month in paperback from St Martin‘s Press. At that time I was working on what turned out to be my first published book, The Genizah at the House of Shepher. The research for that novel – which ranged over a hundred and forty-five years and several countries – had carried me to sources in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Oxford and Toronto, but it was a place much closer to home, here in Yorkshire, which provided me with my richest and most inspiring material.

The Porton Room in Leeds Central Library is a wonderful, random, surprising, bounteous accumulation of Judaica brought together, seemingly, from all sorts of locations including various defunct synagogues in the city. Tucked away in a corner of the fourth floor and rarely visited (or so I was told; the librarians tended to use it for staff meetings) the room itself was atmospheric: large, high, with Victorian cornices, vast windows and a big conference table running down its centre, it looked out onto the neighbouring Town Hall and its recumbent stone lions, opened by the Queen herself in 1858. A stately but shabby room, at least, that is how I remember it after twelve years; for reasons I shall explain I left abruptly one afternoon in 1998 and have not been back since.

The room was tall and so were the bookcases, filled to repletion with books on all kinds of Jewish subjects; so many of them, in fact, that they spilled into the corridor and took over another wallful of shelves out there. Here I browsed Talmud in English, and dipped into the Guide To the Perplexed (enough to cull a good quote, at least), and examined old maps of Palestine, and stumbled onto a treasure-store of information, misinformation, lore, legend and nonsense about the ten lost tribes.

Early on in The Genizah at the House of Shepher, one of the characters, the deeply religious Shalom Shepher of Skidel, is possessed (like numerous other Jews of previous centuries) by the determination to go off in search of the ten tribes of Israel: those carried away into exile by the Assyrians in the 6th century BCE and thereafter lost to the pages of history. An ancestor of mine, one Joshua Kimchi, did actually undertake such an escapade back in the late nineteenth century, with rather disappointing results. Stories about the tribes circulated freely in Yiddish chapbooks among the Jews of Eastern Europe, often highly fanciful, describing the tribes as living in a state of luxury and self-determination unknown in the shtetl. The coming of the Messiah, of course, depended on the ingathering of Jews from the four corners of the earth: the whereabouts of the tribes was therefore a subject of keen interest not only to Jews but to some Christians eager to precipitate the Second Coming.

It’s well-known among writers that research can be seductive, that it can, in fact become a substitute for the writing of the book itself. In my case, the ambition behind my first novel was so high, my consciousness of my own ignorance so crushing, it did seem sometimes that the more knowledge I acquired the less I knew. But every writer knows, too, that there are times during the process of research when signs and symbols seem to appear, links are miraculously made and everything falls into place like a jigsaw puzzle. I had that feeling while sitting in the Porton Room.


There under the presiding portraits of (I assumed) Mr and Mrs Porton, I read and made notes for hours on the history and pseudo-history of the tribes, far more than I needed to write the relevant chapters in my book, but a novelist’s research is like an iceberg – only the tip of it shows. And as I read the idea came to me for another book, for my Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.

I read of the Dutch Jew, Manasseh ben Israel, who in a bid to get Oliver Cromwell to readmit the Jews to England penned his The Hope of Israel in 1652. In this he strove to prove that the Jews were already scattered to all four corners of the earth and that only the British Isles remained to be populated: if they were only admitted there, the biblical prophecy would be fulfilled and the Messiah (or Jesus) would come. To this end, he maintained by quoting ancient sources that the native American population was descended from the tribes, that they were indigenous to the Indies, India and China. Cromwell did readmit the Jews, but probably more for trade reasons than eschatological ones.

Then there were those who, for complex motives of their own, sought to prove that virtually every ethnic group on the planet was in fact Jewish. Take this observation, from Maurice Fishberg: "Successive investigators have discovered that the English, the Irish, the Basques, the Spanish, the Franks, the Huns, the Romans, the Greeks, the ancient Peruvians and Mexicans, the dead peoples of Central America, the Japanese, and many others are the descendants of those carried by Shalmaneser into a distant land… That they ‘look like Jews’ goes without saying."

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was, in addition, a contingent of what I can only call British supremacists seeking to establish descent from the tribes and so claim biblical promises of glory for the nation. These were among the most curious and amusing accounts. A certain Mr Harris writes: "The people whom we call Saxons were not natives of England but captured it from the ancient Britons, and had themselves come from the shores of the Black Sea. ‘Saxon’ is traced to ‘Sac’s sons’ or sons of Isaac." "Great Britain!" he further muses. "A strange name for a few small islands at the far-western point of Europe! It sounds almost absurd when you come to think of it. Is it because this country has been the home for these many centuries of the nation of Israel, the greatest nation that the world has seen or ever will see? … It is said – and I do not think it is any secret – that the Royal Family of England are deeply interested in this subject."

As I continued to read, I found myself falling into deep ruminations on the nature of ethnicity, origin and identity, all of which seemed to become more fluid, more equivocal with each turning page. Either we were all Jews or – by the same token – none of us were Jews in the strict sense of the word: we were all mixed, mongrel types, with ancestries more complex than we could possibly imagine. This seemed to be summed up in the title of an article by Joseph Jacobs in the Popular Science Monthly for 1899: Are Jews Jews?

Identity and belonging have always been my subjects. I thought I would like to write something which played on this conundrum metaphorically through the notion of the ten lost tribes which, according to one account, "melted away, like snow in water." I would use the tribes as my structural reference point, but I would write of individuals who all, each in their own way, struggled to find their place in the world, their sense of belonging. And I would take a break from the head-crackingly difficult Genizah.

I spent many happy hours in the Porton Room, scribbling away, so absorbed in my work that I often did not notice if anyone else came or went. Mostly I was alone, until, one afternoon, bent over my notebook, writing with intense concentration, I felt a presence behind me. I did not turn or stop writing. But I felt, like the blast of a pheromone, a wave of pure malice. Then it was gone. I turned, and my handbag had vanished.

That was the end of my time in the Porton Room. Sadly, it closed with a police interview and phone calls to my bank. I’ve never felt like returning. In any case, I think I had got what I needed. When I look through my notebook I come to the place where my notes abruptly break off: "They are in league with the Kuffur-at-Turk, who worship the wind and live in the wilderness, and who do not eat bread, nor drink wine, but live on raw, uncooked meat. They have no noses, and in lieu thereof they have two small holes through which they breathe."