A Different Vision of a Jewish Homeland
Isra Isle: A Novel By Nava Semel. Translated by Jessica Cohen (Mandel Vilar Press, 244 pp. $16.95 paperback)
In the course of modern Jewish history, there were several visions for a Jewish national home other than Theodor Herzl’s dream of Israel in historic biblical land. In the early 1900s, for example, in response to pogroms in Russia, the British proposed annexing a slice of Uganda for the Jews—a nonstarter. Even more absurd was Mordechai Manuel Noah’s concept of a Jewish homeland as “Ararat City,” to be located in the gray mist of Niagara Falls, where he had purchased Grand Island, poised between the United States and Canadian borders. Noah (1785 to 1851) was an influential American diplomat and journalist, but, ultimately, he couldn’t rally much enthusiasm for an “Isra Isle” while world Jewry dreamed of a return to Jerusalem. (Michael Chabon envisioned another alternate home for Jews in Sitka, Alaska, in his book The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.)
Nava Semel’s three-part Isra Isle wraps itself around a “what-if” story at least partly set in the future. In exploring what a contemporary North American Jewish refuge might look like, she ponders questions of identity and loyalty, destiny and the connectedness of all beings, particularly the similarity between the plights of Native Americans and Jews.
Part one has Simon T. Lenox, a New York City policeman of Native American heritage, searching for a missing Israeli whose history goes back to Grand Island at the turn of the 21st century. This leads the unlucky-at-love cop into a dalliance with a Jewish co-worker whom he presses for information on Jewish history to help solve the case. Part two travels back in time to the days of Noah’s purchase of the island and looks at life through a servant’s eyes. Part three is a look at Ararat City more than a century after it became a Jewish haven, seen through the eyes of a visiting journalist, with its high-tech towers and a woman seeking the United States presidency.
The author never explains why Jews would move to this alternate reality, where historically there had never been a Jewish community.
Since this settlement would pre-empt the fervent Zionist thrust into Palestine, it is not an insignificant question. Also unclear is the impact of the Holocaust. But perhaps that is probing too deep into a fantasy world.
The translation from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen includes some beautiful lyrical writing and sharp wit. Isra Isle is very high-concept, but it will not suit those who enjoy a fast-paced, suspenseful page-turner.
Adam Dickter, a former journalist, now works in public relations.