An Interview Nava Semel – MAGGID USA, 2005
In 1825, Mordecai Manuel Noah—eccentric and controversial Jewish American diplomIat, journalist, playwright, and Tammany Hall politician—completed the purchase of Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo, New York. On September 15 of that year, a day after Rosh Hashanah 5586 (he made sure to note the Hebrew date) the flamboyant Noah declared the island “A City of Refuge for the Jews” and called it Ararat, nominating himself as “Judge in Israel.”
The theatrical ceremony that accompanied the declaration caused quite a stir in Buffalo. But Noah's call to oppressed Jews around the world to settle on the island was ignored. No Jews arrived, and the enterprise was abandoned. Noah returned home to New York City.
Israeli writer Nava Semel’s new novel revisits this obscure footnote in American history. One Sunday afternoon in June, I sat with the author in a café on Yehuda Hamaccabi Street in Tel-Aviv. We discussed the novel, her unusual interest in Mordecai Noah, and her thoughts on Israel and America.
SR: Why don’t you begin by summarizing the novel for the readers of MAGGID .
NS: The novel, which I call in Hebrew Ee-srael, a combination of the words ee (which means both “island” and “not”) and Israel, is divided into three parts. The first part opens in September 2001, when an Israeli named Liam Emanuel, a descendant of Mordecai Noah, inherits the deed to Grand Island and goes to America to claim his patrimony. He vanishes without a trace, and Simon T. Lenox, a police investigator of Native American descent, is assigned the task of finding him. Part Two goes back in time to 1825, to the week during which Ararat is dedicated by Mordecai Noah and in which, in the novel at least, Noah visits the island. Part Three is also set in 2001, only this time, in a world in which Noah’s plan has succeeded—and Ee-srael has been a reality for almost two hundred years. The excerpt that you have here is the beginning of Part Two. It is the earliest chronological moment in the novel. The narrative here is told from the point of view of Little Dove, a young Indian woman who is a native of the island that has just been purchased for the Jews.
SR: Mordecai Manuel Noah was an amazing person—a secular yet traditional Jew of mixed Ashkenazi and Sephardi origins, a journalist, playwright, consul to Tunis, sheriff of New York, newspaper editor, orator, dreamer. How much did he have to do with this book?
NS: For me, Mordecai Manuel Noah is a prototype for Herzl. He was Herzl sixty years before Herzl. The resemblance is really striking. They’re both journalists, they’re both playwrights, which for me is very important. They are both people involved in international relations, and they both came up with the idea that the Jews need a safe haven. Because like prophets, they sensed a catastrophe somewhere.
SR: And even though they were both cosmopolitan people and accepted in their own right in the world, they were the ones to come up with the idea of a safe haven for the Jews.
NS: Right. And that’s really interesting. For me, the striking resemblance is theatre, and I even say this in the novel. Why is the vision of nation-building the enterprise of theatre people? The whole notion of creating a land is the real drama. And maybe only theatre people can envision or invent the whole concept of a Jewish land.
SR: Have you read any of Herzl’s or Noah’s plays?
NS: Herzl wrote one good play—The New Ghetto. Noah wrote a series of plays that are very American, very patriotic and sentimental. I can’t imagine them being produced today.
SR: How did you find out about Mordecai Noah in the first place?
NS: That was very strange. When I was a child in the 60s I received the gift of a book— I think I got it for my bat mitzvah. It was a collection of incredible events in history. And I remembered reading something about a Jew who created a Jewish homeland—or something like that. It was planted in my head a long time ago and I forgot all about it. When I was living in America, I was at the New York Public Library, researching something I was working on at the time. And I came across a reference—a footnote in something that mentioned Noah and Ararat—and it clicked from my childhood. And I immediately knew that I had found a lost treasure. I remember how it hit me in the New York Public Library, and I knew it was something I would research. And I researched it for about ten years. In the meantime, I wrote seven other books. Because I knew that I wanted to deal with the issue of Ararat, but I didn’t want to write an historical novel. There was an historical novel written about Mordecai Noah in the year that I was born—in 1954—by Yochanan Twersky. I have a copy, probably the only copy that exists. And it’s a very Zionist novel, saying, no—Ararat didn’t succeed, only Zion.
For me it was incredible to discover that the concept of the Jewish state predates Herzl. Here I was, an Israeli kid who knew the Zionist narrative, or who believed she knew it, and all of a sudden I discovered something had been censored. I think it was the preference of the Zionist narrative not to acknowledge the fact that there had been an option in America. It’s not so comfortable. Better to start the Zionist narrative with Herzl and make Uganda the failed option. But to think that there might have been something before Herzl, and that we could have gotten there easily . . . I think that, subconsciously, the story of Ararat was swept under the rug. So the discovery that it exists was a real revelation for me and a great opportunity to re-examine the Zionist enterprise.
SR: Obviously, Part One and especially Part Three are flights of the imagination. But even in Part Two, you don’t feel bound by historical fact.
NS: For me, history is a trampoline. I don’t want to go back into the past just to recreate the past. What’s interesting to me is to recreate the present, not the past. And what really excites me is to speak about the future. But it’s wrapped in the disguise of the past.
According to all my research, Noah never stepped foot on Grand Island. So I decided to take him there secretly. I forced him to set foot there. I was really offended by my research. I was angry at him. I threw my papers at him and said—what is this? You bought a piece of land for the Jews and never went to see it?
The narrator, Little Dove, is the last Indian person on the island. It is the night before the inauguration ceremony for Ararat. According to tradition, the island is hers. Legally, it already belongs to the Jews. But she wants to take Mordecai Noah to the island to show him that he hasn’t bought an empty island. That there’s no such thing as an empty place. Because the air is full of spirits and full of ghosts and full of special plants, etc. The Jews—they are going to come to a place that will force them to change their way of viewing the world. And this is something that I say not just about Indians and Jews. I say it about the Palestinians and the Israelis, too. Zionism was blinded by its own concept that this was a vacant land.
Part Three is a flight of the imagination. It imagines the world with an Ee-srael that has succeeded. Rather than becoming a laughing stock with the project collapsing, the Jews come. And this is the most interesting investigation for me as an Israeli, because here I neutralize the three most significant components of the Israeli psyche and identity. One, there’s no Holocaust; two, there’s no Arab -Israeli conflict; and three, no Hebrew language.
But even though Part Three is most unbound by history, I actually change as little as possible in terms of history. Hitler does come to power in 1932. The change is that, since Ee-srael already exists, a convoy comes to Europe to collect all the Jews. There is a holocaust of homosexuals, cripples. But the Jews have been plucked out. And September 11th still happens. In fact, all of the chapters take place between September 9th and 15th Part Two in 1825, and Parts One and Three in 2001.
SR: The Holocaust, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Hebrew?
NS: Oh yes. The revival of Hebrew is one of the great success stories of the twentieth century. And I realize that most American Jews haven’t experienced that. That’s why I want them to come here—at least once. There is something in Israel that you have to experience if you are a Jew. You are forced to confront your Jewish identity with Israeliness. Hebrew is a big piece of this.
When I lived in New York I felt the confrontation between Bavel and Jerusalem. I sensed that New York Jews felt that they were at the center of the Jewish world. The truth is that the most exciting Jewish cultural things are done in Hebrew. In 1990, I had a terrible argument with Joseph Papp. My husband and I went to an evening that he did in New York– an homage to Yiddish. It was narrated by Meryl Streep, a WASP, Willaim Hurt, a WASP. I didn’t mind that they were doing a tribute to Yiddish to raise money for YIVO. But Hebrew wasn’t even mentioned as a phenomenon. It was presented as if the Jews of Western Europe moved to America and Yiddish came with them and in between—nothing happened. Neither was the State of Israel established, nor was the Hebrew language revived. And I was freaking out. I wrote Papp a letter... I wrote him, “We fuck in Hebrew and we die in Hebrew.” He never invited us to anything after that.
I think now that this experience of a Jewish world that could imagine itself without Israel and without Hebrew had a big impact on my imagination. Perhaps that was the moment when this book was born. In the novel there’s a couple that says, “Let’s make love in Hebrew—from right to left. And let’s die in Hebrew.“ That’s a clear trace of the Papp incident.
SR: The real Mordecai Noah believed that the American Indians were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. This was a way to lay claim to ancient Jewish origins in America. Did this come into play for you?
NS: It’s a very nineteenth-century romantic notion. But first of all it gave me the opportunity to have Noah have a love affair with an Indian woman. She also becomes pregnant. I give him two lines of descendants: one line of children in Israel, and one line—an Indian line—in America. His great grandchildren will no doubt kill me!
SR: So he’s like a Jewish Thomas Jefferson.
NS: Yes! I loved the idea that he believed in the lost tribe theory because even though it’s romantic and even though it’s considered today to be ridiculous, the notion of a multiracial world is very modern. When you say that the Indians are the descendants of the lost tribes, you have to take into account that they will bring with them what they have acquired along the way. It’s not just that we will convert them. That’s not it. It’s that we will accept the gift of who they were. That’s a modern notion, and this I really liked and wanted to use. In the novel, the Indians are the first refugees in Ee-srael. Instead of being deported south—on the “trail of tears”—many of them come to the island. The Jews open their state to them.
SR: So the Native American characters in the book function as a way for you to open up questions of racial and ethnic identity.
NS: All of my characters ask, What’s the difference between Jews and Israelis? In order to ask these questions, my novel deals with encounters of Israelis, and Jews, through the eyes of non-Jews, non-Israelis. Simon T. Lenox and Little Dove are Native Americans who watch Jews, who track Jews. She is touched by the fact that they chose an Indian island as their final destination.
SR: Is she touched or threatened?
NS: Both. It’s her choice to give the island with no bloodshed. But she has to fight with her own ancestors who come as spirits in her head and tell her, Kill the Jew. Blow up the island, so that no one will have it. It takes a lot of energy for her to overcome the instinct to destroy him and the island and give away the island in a peaceful way.
I realize, of course, that this be controversial because I seem to be implying that the conquered must accept their situation peacefully. Is peaceful behavior the only justifiable solution?
A few generations later, Simon T. Lenox is very much taken with the idea of “what if.” If we could change history and could have created a Jewish state within the United States, could it have created a different racial reality that would have educated the American public differently, not just for Jews—but for Indians, and for all other races? So even my Indian is taken with the question of “what if?” The whole book is caught up, in essence, with the question of ”what if.“
In Part Three, I have other non-Jewish perspectives as well. The narrator is a black paparazzo whose lover is a native born Ee-sraeli.
SR: America means a lot of different things to different people. What is America to you?
NS: I need to answer this on two personal bases. Part of my yearning for America is that it is partly home for me. I had an American grandfather. I might easily have been an American Jew. Had history been changed—had my father agreed to go with my grandfather in 1946—I would have been born in New York. Secondly, my twin children were born in America. And I always feel a debt to America. America enabled me to have two more children. In Israel the technology wasn’t that advanced at that time. I grew up with a grandfather who always told me that America is the promised land of the Jews. That the Jews have no future in Israel. He thought that this experiment in the Middle East would end in disaster. And I was a Zionist girl who opposed what he said very strongly. It was very hard for me to accept as a child. But it could be that, as I grew up, there’s been something in me that has been checking out that other alternative. It’s clear that I have deep sentiments for America. It’s not a strange place for me. I have “heimish” feelings because of my grandfather and my "American" children, I feel the bond. Something very intimate happened to me via the American voyage. Nevertheless, I am an Israeli. I would never choose another place. It’s not even a matter of choice. I am the byproduct of Israel and Zionism. For better and for worse. I acknowledge it. The only place where I allow myself to have doubts, to exile myself, to imagine myself without Israel or Hebrew is through my writing. It has been a rollercoaster. And there have been no definite answers.
SR: How do you understand the kind of crisscrossing of desires—of Americans for Israel and Israelis for America—that is so prevalent and powerful today?
NS: There is a metaphor in the book called Damascus vs. New York. The one who lives in New York wants to live in Damascus, for him Damascus is a remote place where he can find tranquility, a break from the ambition and viciousness of the urban center. That’s his shammakom—his elsewhere. But the one who lives in Damascus hates Damascus. It’s a boring, provincial corner of the universe and he wants to be in New York—a metaphor for everything exciting, the place where everything happens. In the book, Simon T. Lenox stops on the road between New York and Grand Island at the Damascus Diner. The road takes him from Goshen to Liberty. It takes 45 minutes to get from Goshen to Liberty. In the Bible it took a lot longer. And he sits in the Damascus Diner realizing that everyone always wants to be somewhere else.
The Jews are champions in wanting something that doesn’t exist. That’s true. They are fascinated by “the promise.” Abraham got a promise. And on the basis of that promise, they moved and moved and moved for thousands of years. And the question is whether they want the promise to be realized. It could be that the best thing for the Jews is to chase after the promise and never realize it. Because then the disappointment is so great. I only know that I like the journey. Ultimately, I am an Israeli. So there’s no shammakom for me. I may criticize Israel. I may complain and whine about it all day long. But there’s no other place for me. In the novel, after his encounter with Liam Emanuel and the Grand Island affair, Simon T. Lenox decides to resign from his job and change his life. His dialogue with the Israeli has convinced him not to give up on the idea of a home.