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Last update - 02:28 16/09/2005
Of Indians, Noah and a new Ararat
By Tali Goldschmid
"Isra-il" ("IsraIsland") by Nava , Yediot Ahronoth Books, 278 pages, NIS 88
This is the tale of a talented Jew, among whose many enterprises are playwrighting and journalism. Somewhere in the 19th century, during his trips around the world, he became familiar with the phenomenon of Jewish persecution and decided to found a place that would serve as a city of refuge for all the Jews in the world.
In fact, this is a tale of two such Jews. While one of them - Theodore Herzl - won eternal glory and his vision succeeded in a dazzling, unprecedented way, the vision of the second (in fact the first; chronologically he preceded Herzl), however, was not realized and his fate was oblivion.
Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) was an American Jew who was active in many areas and who wanted to make use of the principled tolerance of the New World to the benefit of his people. To this end he purchased the territory of Grand Island in the Niagara River in New York, with the aim of founding there the state of the Jews, which would be called Ararat. The cornerstone-laying ceremony was a fabulously theatrical event, held in the city of Buffalo in September, 1825.
Among the participants was the chief of the Seneca Indian tribe. Handel's oratorio "Judas Maccabeus" was performed. Noah himself, wearing a purple robe and a necklace with a gold medallion (both of them apparently borrowed from a theater), made a speech, declared himself the sheriff of the state of Ararat and laid its cornerstone, on which the Shema Yisrael ("Hear O Israel") prayer and the Hebrew date were engraved.
The historical kernels of this true and unknown story (which in any case sounds amazingly fictional) form the infrastructure of Nava Semel's new book "Isra-il" ("IsraIsland"), and serve as its plot stimulus. But the author is not lured into the attractive option of "alternative history" along the lines of "what would have happened if" that is, what would the state of the Jews looked like had it been established at the start of the 19th century as part of the federal union [of America?](which seems to
be echoed in the concept of a "New Israel" that surfaced a year or two ago).
Semel takes upon herself a more complex, extensive and challenging task: She makes use of the historical story as a platform to deal with the question of Jewish/Israeli identity, particularly Jewish identity, which appears in various guises in most of her books.
The book is divided in three parts, each of which ostensibly constitutes an independent story, but in fact all of them are linked to one another by many symbolic and surprising strands. The first part is the most realistic of three and it is set in September 2001. Here, a police investigator of Native American origin, named Simon T. Lennox, is asked
to trace an Israeli, Liam Emmanuel, who came to the United States in the wake of a mysterious legacy and has been defined as missing. Tracing the movements and the personality of the missing man enables the author to put into her detective's mouth comments and questions about the identity of Israelis/Jews.
This principal of outside observation of Jews always through the eyes of someone who is also an outsider in some way (an Indian, a black person) recurs in all the parts of the book, and serves not only as a literary trick, but also as a conceptual infrastructure. This allows not only for a different view or discourse concerning what has already been seen and discussed to the point of exhaustion (the issue of the essence of Jewish identity), but primarily allows for the connection and involvement between various kinds of marginality. This connection reinforces and focuses the element of persecution and impermanence in Jewish identity and, at the same time, eliminates it as a characteristic unique to Jews.
Indians as the mirror
The choice of Indians as the mirror in which the Jews are reflected is not random.
Mordecai Manuel Noah himself, like many others, believed that Indians are the descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. To this is added the fact that the land of Grand Island was bought from Indians. The interplay of the identities, names, biographies and symbols in the book create a symbiosis between these two ethnic groups - one that undermines the belief in pure, distinct identities and creates in their stead more fluid, hybrid identities.
The central role of Indians in the book (with their history, culture and religion, to all of which extensive, sometimes overly extensive, place is given), and the parallel and cultural symbiosis between them and the Jews, are emphasized in the third part of the book. It is also set in September, 2001, but it is based on the assumption that Noah's vision has been realized and that the Jewish state (IsraIsland) is part of America.
Simon Lennoxor is a paparazzo photographer who is hired to follow the election campaign for the American presidency of the governor of IsraIsland, Emanuela Winona Noah.
As in the first part, Simon's outsider view of Emanuela, IsraIsland and above all Jake, his former partner in IsraIsland, is what enables the more profound observation and understanding of the complex nature of Jewish identity. The combination of the Indian identity and the Jewish identity is manifested in a practical way here: for example, in the shape of the state seal, which is a Star of David interwined with elm leaves; in the bar-mitzvah held as an initiation ceremony in the Native American
spirit, during which the youngsters set out on a canoe trip to Niagara Falls; in the IsraIslander cuisine combining Indian and Jewish cuisines (chopped wild goose liver with various additions) and so on.
The cultural mixture between Indians and Jews as a real, existing and entrancing option - especially one in which there is a dialogue that is respectful and not pride that is threatening and threatened is also a means for "distancing testimony" that stems from the implied aim of speaking about concrete, extra-literary Israel. The recreation of the
Zionist story as an enriching and non-bullying encounter with its cultural environment is indeed the utopian possibility that is at the basis of the book.
As a specific and metonymic expression of this conceptual line, in the first and third parts of the book, there is also the explicit treatment of questions of love and connection and trust, and of the emotional and existential need to depend on the (ethnic/cultural) "other," who is also the beloved. The decision to set the stories during this particular, fateful period September 2001 together with the fact that they take place in the state of New York, hints in advance at the backdrop of their
dramatic denouement. Although the latter does prevent a happy end to the romantic relations, it does reinforce the recognition of the power that lies in the breaking down of barriers and the personal-collective redemption that is inherent in this process.
The middle part of the book, in which there is also a cultural and emotional merging in an attempt to "crack" the Jewish identity, takes place in September 1825, which as noted is the date when Mordecai Manuel Noah declared Ararat a city of refuge. In this part, the observer is an Indian girl called Little Dove, the sole heiress to Grand Island, who
leads Noah to the island. The sensitivity to marginality here is well expressed in the way the heroine thinks about herself, about her white rulers, about Simon the black slave boy all this with awareness and through a clear gender prism.
The book is not free of flaws, such as the often burdensome and exhausting use of symbols that repeat themselves, or the seemingly New Age spirit that emanates from the thoughts and speeches of the Little Dove.
Nevertheless, these do not detract from Semel's success in stimulating new thinking about questions of memory, the connections
between past and future, the place of cultural heritage in all of these, and of course the place and the future of Israel. In this context, calling the American Jewish state IsraIsland is brilliant. Beyond the pun (which works better in Hebrew), the element of "island" shows something about the Zionist utopia. "Utopia" means "the good place," but also "nowhere" that is, it presupposes its own impossibility.
In her book, Semel hints at a number of the necessary conditions for the realization of the utopia.
Tali Goldschmid is writing a doctoral dissertation at Bar-Ilan University.