We Fuck in Hebrew - We Die in Hebrew

Photo by Iris Nesher

By Nava Semel

What the hell are we doing here in the boiling Middle East, when we could have been living peacefully for the last 180 years in our own cool state, IsraIsland, near Niagara Falls in America? No wars, no bloodshed, no Arab-Israeli conflict... We could have "Dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree", as the Bible says.

Such a state was indeed once a reality at hand. On September 15th 1825, seventy years before Herzl envisioned a Jewish State in Palestine, Mordechai Manuel Noah, a famous Jewish diplomat, journalist and playwright, inaugurated his American-Jewish safe

haven on an Indian island in the Niagara River.. Its "Independence Day" is also my birthday. The date is what drew my attention to this forgotten historical episode to begin with. 

In the novel IsraIsland (Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel, 2005) I recreated an alternative State for the Jewish people, envisioning a "What If" fantasy. What if the Jewish leaders in Europe had not rejected Noah's breakthrough plan? Would there have been a Zionist movement at all? Could the Holocaust have been prevented? Would Israel have come into existence? And the Hebrew language - this ancient tongue that I'm so crazy about and in which I write - would it have been revived at all?

IsraIsland isn't a mere fantasy for me and the "What If" question is at the core of my biography, for I could have easily been an American. My family was split in 1920 when my grandfather Gabriel Hertzig emigrated from Europe to The Promised Land across the Atlantic, abandoning his wife and small baby. In New York Gabriel became a successful broker, led an alternate life with another woman and our family was torn apart. 

Back in Europe, the abandoned baby - my father Itzhak Artzi - rescued my grandmother from the death transports and then devoted his entire life to the Zionist cause, in total contrast to his estranged father, for whom the Land of Israel had never been an option and the Jewish prayer for "Next year in Jerusalem", was but a hollow utterance.

When I was five years old Grandpa suddenly arrived in Israel, an American stranger in an elegant suit and silk tie, the likes of which were rarely seen in our locale. In Becoming Gershona (Viking Penguin, 1990) I wrote, "And I didn't even know I had a grandfather."

The reason he was seeking refuge in the bosom of the family he had deserted years ago was that his mistress in New York left him when he became blind. Some might call it "Poetic Justice". 

This family reunion was far from being a Hollywood style happy ending. On the contrary. The old scars were bleeding again, creating a clash of identities in our fragile Israeli household. As I walked the streets of Tel Aviv with my blind grandfather, describing in detail every new building and every new tree planted in the sand, he couldn't stop talking about ‘Lady Liberty' and the Empire State Building that reach the sky.

Picture us: a patriotic young girl, a "built in" Zionist, arguing feverishly with an old blind man in Yinglish mixed with Hebrew, trying to prove to the foreigner from the Diaspora that Israel is the one and only place for us. During our daily strolls I used his blindness to create a totally different version of Tel Aviv - made just for him. I owe my grandfather the first tutorials in inventing an alternative reality and becoming an author. My imaginary Tel Aviv was so much more glamorous than the real one. I went out of my way to compete with his much admired New York. 

When I myself came to live in New York in the late 1980s, accompanying my husband Noam, who had become the Israeli Consul for Cultural Affairs in the US, I went straight to the Lower East Side to look for my grandfather's house on Norfolk Street. His synagogue was still there but the old Jewish neighborhood was totally changed. Strangely enough, I felt at home in New York. Grandpa's vivid stories made it so familiar as if I had lived there all my life. Later, in New York Hospital on the East River, my twins were born - two American citizens - Gabriel's dream come true. I even named my newborn baby after him "Neemdor-Gabriel."

As much as I love New York, the sun scorched island in the Middle East is forever engraved on the map of my soul in Hebrew letters. In IsraIsland I obliterated the Hebrew, making it a forgotten tongue, tucked somewhere in the linguistic department for extinct languages. What a paradox! For me Hebrew is and always was my true homeland. It molded my identity and made me who I am. Only in this ancient language can my true self fully bloom, either in its beauty or its ugliness. 

One evening Noam and I were invited to an event on Broadway in honor of Yiddish. Some of America's most distinguished actors, mostly non-Jews, were praising the old language which for them symbolized the peak of Jewish culture. Unlike the applauding audience, I was sitting in the dark sad and miserable. I spent the entire night writing a letter to Joe Papp, the legendary producer-director who had organized the event. I told him that if he lived in Israel he would have been producing Shakespeare in the Park on the banks of the Yarkon river in Tel Aviv...

Hebrew, not Yiddish, is the language of the Jewish people, I declared, and its awakening after a long coma is the most exciting event in contemporary Jewish culture. It was as if I was continuing the old debate with my grandfather's ghost.

The final words of my letter ignited IsraIsland. To the man who was born with the name Yoseph Papirofsky and whose parents, like my own grandfather, chose America as their promised land, I had written: We Fuck in Hebrew - We Die in Hebrew! 

Nava Semel is an Israeli and internationally acclaimed author. Her books have also been published in the US and her YA book Becoming Gershona was awarded the National Book Award in 1990. In 2008 the English translation of her novel And the Rat Laughed has been published in Australia.

Nava's late father Itzhak Artzi was a member of the Knesset and Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv for 20 years.

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