Interview with Israeli Author Nava Semel
Why American Jews should not feel superior, a Jewish homeland in the U.S. was not a crazy idea, and birthdays matter
by Adam L. Rovner, May 1, 2008
Journalist and playwright Mordecai Manuel Noah's proto-Zionist scheme to settle a Jewish colony on Grand Island in New York met with resistance from both Jewish and Christian leaders when it was proposed in 1825. Though it sounds preposterous today, historians of the era suggest that Noah in fact had every reason to suspect that a territorial solution to Jewish economic misery and religious persecution would succeed in America. But though Noah willed it, it remained a dream. No one filed on to his ark.
Today, the one remaining reminder of Noah's dream is a carved cornerstone for the unrealized Jewish micronation of "Ararat." The stone still exists today behind protective glass in the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. Semel recently discussed with me her fascination with Noah and his impact on her alternate history novel, IsraIsland, excerpted in this issue .
This month, as we celebrate Israel's sixtieth anniversary, Semel's novel can serve as a provocative reflection on the hopes that have been met, and the promises that remain unfulfilled, by a country whose modern prophet was another journalist and playwright, Theodor Herzl. -- Adam Rovner, Zeek translations editor
Q: As an Israeli, how did you become interested in Noah's project?
What caught my attention from the beginning was the date of the founding of Ararat, September 15, 1825. That's my birthday.
I was sitting in the New York Public Library in 1989, when we lived there during my husband's appointment as Israel's consul for cultural affairs, and while reading an article I found the Ararat episode in a footnote at the bottom of the page. The fanciful thought that went through my mind like a flash at the time was that my birthday was Independence Day for an alternative Israel.
Also hovering in my memory was a book I received for my bat mitzvah containing [Israel] Zangwill's story about Noah and Ararat. At that time I was convinced that it was all a total fabrication. But the discovery of the Ararat episode wasn't just a curiosity [for me], but in truth landed on a deep emotional foundation and inspired the writing of my book.
[I'm referring to] the story of my American grandfather who immigrated to New York in 1920, leaving behind his family in Europe and seeing in America the promised land. When he returned to our lives, when I was five, I conducted my first ideological arguments with him. As a girl I was a passionate Zionist, fruit of the Zionist ethos and education, and daughter of a father who devoted his entire public life to the Zionist project, and my grandfather, who only spoke English and Yiddish, saw Israel as a dangerous and dead-end option until his dying day.
The question "what would have happened if?" fascinates me as an author, and the desire to position these two reflections -- that of Israel and that of IsraIsland -- was for me a fascinating opportunity to examine the question of whether the Zionist utopia stands the test of reality. Because in my previous [untranslated] book, The Rat Laughs, I already sailed into the future and created a kind of science fiction, this book allowed me to create a "science fiction of the past." I wanted to pull the rug out from under the readers and make them ask anew the fundamental questions about homeland, and about nation and identity.
Q: Why do you think Noah and his efforts have been forgotten or held up for ridicule?
The Zionist narrative pushed Noah to the margins, because, my sense is, a Jewish-American option, as opposed to remote Uganda in Africa, was a seductive option and could have presented a threat to the Zionist narrative. In the competition between Zion and America, America could easily have won--and certainly could today. Several of my readers have responded to the novel by saying, "Too bad the American option wasn't fulfilled." And even if such things are said jokingly, there is a grain of truth in them that testifies to a deep sense of a missed opportunity. At every lecture I give there is always someone who laments the collapse of the Zionist dream but waxes poetic about Ararat, which remains an unfulfilled utopia.
I don't think that Noah is forgotten in America. Two extensive biographies have been published--one by [Isaac] Goldberg and one by Jonathan Sarna--and there are scores of mentions of Ararat in Jewish American histories. Still, it is difficult to describe the sad state of the Manhattan cemetery where Noah is buried. I wasn't even able to find his grave because the headstone had collapsed and crumbled, and it seems as if no one has visited his last resting place for years. A year and a half ago I found myself standing there and saying kaddish to the memory of the visionary of the first [Jewish] state.
My sense is that Noah was ahead of his time. The Jewish world wasn't ready to accept the idea of a Jewish state, because America at the beginning of the eighteenth century seemed "beyond the Sambatyon," in those days a place remote and unreachable, and certainly America was not the attractive, longed-for land of the end of the nineteenth century. It's possible too that the memory of the false messiahs Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank was still fresh in Europe, and this roused the rabbinic authorities against Noah. There was another reason for the European Jewish opposition. Massive immigration to America would have left them bereft of their assets and weakened the communities in which they held power. And I don't know any political leader who is ready to volunteer to be stripped of his power...
Q: Do you think there's a connection between Noah's Jewishness and the compassion he felt towards Native Americans and women, at least as they appear in his plays?
The Romantic tendency in Noah's time to see the Indians as one of the ten lost tribes was not only his purview. This view was widespread and present in not a few thinkers. But sadly, the description of Noah as an enlightened man is an exaggeration. His support of slavery is a stain on his accomplishments as a man and as a guiding figure. As far as women, it seems that as a playwright he had an openness to his characters, and his remaining a bachelor until a late age was a fact I exploited in my book in order to arrange a passionate romance for him with [the fictional] Little Dove, the last Indian woman on Grand Island before it became Ararat.
Q: In IsraIsland, Ararat is a success story. But in reality, Ararat was a failure. Is the novel a kind of wish-fulfillment? Do you somehow wish Noah had succeeded?
To argue with history after the fact seems unreasonable. I am an Israeli and a Zionist with every bone in my body, but at the same time, and precisely because of my clear Zionist stance, I allow myself to undermine my foundations and defy them. As an author, I aspire to subvert my sense of self. The idea behind the book is to examine real Israeli identity against a funhouse image of the identity that could have been.
Q: What can Americans learn from Noah's efforts?
Americans, like Israelis, should be inspired by Noah and shouldn't be afraid to be groundbreakers in thought or perception, even in opposition or contradiction to others of their generation. I would tell Americans that they should feel solidarity with their brothers around the world, especially with those who have not been fortunate--not just out of pity or in times of war--but out of honor and respect for the legacy of the Other.
I object to the feelings of superiority of American Jews who believe that the experience in America is the ultimate expression of life for the Jewish people, and I am especially pained by American Jews' estrangement and even condescension toward the most tremendous accomplishment of the Jewish experience since the foundation of the state of Israel--living a full Jewish life in the Hebrew language and the lively, rich creative work in Hebrew that has forged our modern identity.
Q: And what can Israelis learn from this episode of Jewish American history?
As for Israelis, I hope that they will learn to feel compassion for their neighbors, and understand that we were not the only victims in history! This is the reason that the story of genocide of the Indian nations and the injustice done to them by the appropriation of the land of their forefathers is told in the voice of Little Dove. Without a doubt, I tried to present in her voice an echo of the feelings of the injustice done to the Palestinians, because Zionism tried to ignore them when it arrived in the land of Israel and in its naiveté and in its enthusiasm [we] believed that they would be swept up into our grand project. Little Dove asks Noah to recognize that he did not arrive in an empty land, and directs him to see the ghosts of the island, and their ancient heritage.
Paradoxically, or perhaps it is poetic justice, it is we Israelis who have been influenced by our Arab neighbors and by our blood-brotherhood with the Palestinians. The Israeli identity was forged in the Mediterranean crucible, both in our temperament and in the fabric of daily life, as in our food and music. In the Israeli experience there is a great measure of "Arabization" that clashes with the tendency of the last two decades toward Americanization. But on that topic I can write a new book...
Adam Rovner is Zeek's translations editor. He currently serves as an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and Languages at Hofstra University. Adam is at work on a book describing proposals to create Jewish homelands prior to Israel's establishment.