on Isra Isle by nava semel

1.

The ghost of Noah

 

What if we Jews would have lived on "green pasture", an idyllic, peaceful island, far away from the crazy, blood stricken Middle-East? Just picture our life. Not only it would affect our history, but what about identity? Perhaps we would have been the most docile of peoples, known around the globe for our tranquil nature, good manners, OR LGOYIM, like the biblical phrase – "Light to Gentiles".

Alas, we are not. Yet, it was but a by a hairsbreadth from what could have happened. A close shot.

In the novel Isra Isle I recreated a Jewish state, inspired by the precedent one established by Mordechai Emanuel Noah, not Theodor Herzl. Noah was his forgotten predecessor and the first visionary who had bought "Grand Island" near Niagara Falls, financing the deal of his own pocket. On September 1825 he declared it a safe haven for the Jewish people and since he was Noah, the name "Ararat" would perfectly fit. But his call was not answered and the Jews never came. The name of my novel in Hebrew "Ee-srael", is a pun, using the Hebrew word "ee", which means both "Island" and "not". The non-existing, imaginary Israel is my focus, a parallel universe where I can explore our alternative identity and ask a question that only authors are allowed to, never historians: "what if".

In order to do that I had to obliterate the three components that are in the core of the Israeli identity, including mine. The Holocaust never happened to the Jews, because a fleet of rescue ships came from America to save them. The Palestinian conflict doesn't exist, because there was no Zionist movement to encourage the Jews to go to their ancient biblical homeland in the Middle-East and get into trouble with the Arabs. And the third and most important identity factor, in my eyes, is the Hebrew language. In the novel It was never revived. The Jews on Isra Isle speak English, Yiddish and Ladino – the Jewish language of oriental Jews. Hebrew is only taught in the Distinct Languages Department at the Ararat Niagara University.

So if these components are gone, what's left? What kind of Isra Islanders would we have been? That's the question the book raises, with no guarantee to provide a definite answer.

The destiny of people is a direct outcome not only of their history but the place where they reside. Living for over 190 years under cloudy sky, cold weather, surplus of water, engulfed by green, eventually would have created a different kind of people, wrapped in racoon furs, chasing turkeys and merging with the Native-American heritage of the island. It was their home before the Jews came, after all.

Instead of a Humus-Falafel cuisine which we've adopted from the Arabs, I created a special Isra Isle cuisine – made of local ingredients such as pumpkin, black fish and berries. I mixed our Jewish customs with Native-American ones, putting in some extra flavor. My version of a Bar Mitzvah is a boy sailing in a canoe towards the Great Falls, covered with a prayer shawl, decorated by feathers. "Someday all of you become Indi-Jews", prophesizes Little Dove, my fictional Native-American woman, when she takes Mordechai Emanuel Noah on a canoe trip to the island. In reality, he never set foot on the new homeland he chose for his people. How dare he decide upon our destiny without checking first what's in store for us there? Herzl at least, visited Palestine. His novel "Altneuland" is an unrealistic prophecy no less than mine. The characters speak German.

How wonderful it is to play around with history, like a deck of cards, placed not necessarily in the right order. Is there a right order? I wonder. Can we fix history and take responsibility of our fate, regardless of where we are? Could Isra Isle be a better option than Israel? For me, the question has but one answer - a definite one indeed. I'm a byproduct of Israel, its child for better or for worse. My identity was carved by the place chosen by my ardent Zionist parents who followed Herzl to a dangerous yellow desert, far away from Europe where they were born.  Hebrew is my true homeland, my cradle, my comfort, the language in which I dream and make love. How strange, even bizarre, to wipe it out from a book written in it, what a paradox. Perhaps paradoxes are the only way for an artist to put his fingers on things that often escape him and point to some hidden truth.

"I hope it won’t be an anti-Zionist book", my late father said before he passed away. Rest assure, dad, I wrote a hymn to the Israel I love.

 

2.

The ghost of my grandpa

 

For my Bat Mitzvah I received a gift. It was a collection of "Incredible Stories in Jewish History". I recall reading about a Jew who created a homeland, not the one I knew so well, but another one – in America.

I was sure it was a fairy tale, pure fiction. How wrong I was.

In the 1990s I lived with my family in America. My husband Noam was Israel's consul for cultural affairs. One stormy day, I went to seek refuge at the New York Public Library, where I came across a footnote in an article. It mentioned Mordechai Emanuel Noah and his visionary Ararat. The old fairy tale surfaced and came back to life. I immediately knew I hit the jackpot. A lost treasure. I had to write a book about it.  I felt so connected. September 15th, the Jewish state inauguration date, is my birthday too. I was born in Jaffa-Tel Aviv, yet I could have easily been an American kid. My grandfather was an American, living most of his life in New York.

What if he would not leave my grandmother and my father, who was then a small baby? What if he would not emmigrate to America? My fate would be completely different.

Grandpa left in 1921, when the small Jewish shtetls all over Europe were rife with rumors that the sidewalks of New York were paved with gold and America was called the Goldene Medina in Yiddish. He promised to send tickets as soon as he was settled. He indeed got settled but the tickets were never sent.

Grandma remained an abandoned wife. According to Jewish religious law a woman who has not been granted a divorce by her husband cannot remarry. This did not prevent grandpa from maintaining a relationship, progressive for its time, with another woman. They lived in separate apartments on the Lower East Side for more than thirty years. Every morning he came to his mistress for coffee and a bagel and then went to the New York Stock Exchange. Although he did not pluck gold from the sidewalks, he became an expert in stocks and shares, which for him epitomized the essence of his exciting new world.

In 1946, after the Holocaust, my father, as a young Zionist activist, was interviewed at a conference in Paris by a journalist from an American-Jewish newspaper. One New York morning, over his cup of coffee, Grandfather suddenly recognized Father in the article. That’s how he discovered that his only son was alive. Perhaps it was because he was assailed by pangs of conscience for not doing enough to rescue them from the horrors of the Nazi occupation that Grandpa contacted the newspaper and asked for information.

Three years later the family was reunited at the circumcision of my older brother in a kibbutz. Grandpa came to Israel to meet his first grandson and his son – two for the price of one.

No happy ending waited for them. Grandpa and his abandoned family did not get along and he did not harbor any love for the State of Israel either. He saw it as a godforsaken place that didn’t stand a chance in the Middle-East, surrounded by hostile neighbors. He loathed the kibbutz, regarding it as the “Stronghold of Communism”, whereas he viewed Zionism as an absurdly misguided and dangerous adventure. He gave my father an ultimatum: “Either you come with me to America, or I’m leaving for good.”

Father, of course, refused. Although the sidewalks in Israel were not paved with gold, nor was the land flowing with milk and honey, it was the only place for him and my mother, an Auschwitz survivor. I was born after Grandpa left, but when I was five he came again. Blind, being abandoned himself, my father took him in. My small task was to take Grandpa on daily tours. I cunningly used his blindness to describe an imaginary Tel Aviv, one that could compete with his beloved New York. Now it was my turn to tell fairy tales. He taught me English, told me about Lady Liberty and the Empire State Building. He showed me how to draw the Star-Spangled Banner and sing "The land of the free and the home of the brave". He was an American patriot until his last breath and I was his head strong opponent – an Israeli to the very core of my being.

Isra Isle echoes the old arguments with Grandfather. What if he would send those tickets back then in 1921? I would no doubt write a novel in English, not Hebrew. In Isra Isle I'm still trying to prove to his ghost that Israel is the one and only place for us. After all, that's where he found his final resting place, not in America. Listen to me, Grandpa, wherever you are, your offsprings make love in Hebrew and they will die in Hebrew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

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