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Fiction: An Excerpt from Nava Semel’s IsraIsland

Nava Semel's IsraIsland imagines in one of its three sections what would have happened had the historical figure of Major Mordecai Manuel Noah, the most important American Jew in the first half of the nineteenth century, succeeded in creating his planned "city of refuge for the Jews"– Ararat–on Grand Island, today a suburb of Buffalo. Her ingenious vision of Jewish autonomy on American soil offers an Israeli perspective on the alternate history genre employed most recently by Michael Chabon in his best-selling The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Semel's novel takes as its point of departure the success, rather than the failure, of Noah's Ararat. In this excerpt, Simon, a paparazzi, is assigned to dig up dirt on the Jewish female presidential candidate, a descendant of Major Noah. At the same time, Simon tries to uncover the secret to his lover's ambivalence about the Jewish island state. To learn more about Nava Semel and her work, please read the interview which serves as a companion piece to this excerpt. — Adam Rovner, Zeek translations editor


"The Future Is Already Here": an excerpt from IsraIsland

By Nava Semel. Translated by Anthony Berris


Everyone says it's an unusual place. The only state in the U.S. I've never visited.

So that's it, partner, I'm taking the first flight to IsraIsland.

Don't change the apartment locks yet. I haven't left a note or a message on the answering machine because I was sure you'd try and dissuade me from going. Not because you see this kind of assignment as despicable, and not even because you could care less if I screw up the presidential candidate's meteoric career, but simply because I'm going to set foot on that there place which for you symbolizes everything you've turned your back on. Don't worry, Jake, I don't intend to be tempted. I'm immune to the spell the island of the Jews casts on its inhabitants. There's absolutely no chance of me wearing a Star of David with elm leaves like the candidate.

I just about manage to type a couple of words when the flight attendant rushes over and asks me to switch off the laptop because it interferes with the navigation equipment.

I'm dying to take a leak but the seatbelt sign is on and the captain is rambling on about altitude and the outside temperature. We have a headwind so we'll be slightly late landing, but there'll be nobody waiting for me down there except for your troubling scraps of memories. How can anybody despise his birthplace so much? Most people sink under waves of nostalgia about what they call "their homeland."

I know I promised you I'd stop raising ghosts and nosing around in your past. As far as you're concerned the IsraIsland chapter is closed. God, how much energy you expend on vanquishing that hackneyed term "homeland". Why don't you treat it with indifference like the rest of us? Something that doesn't really matter. And tell yourself once and for all: Okay, it's the place where I came into the world — so fucking what?

Take me. What have I got to do with Africa? Am I beset by yearning for a place I've never known, despite its being etched on the consciousness of my ancestors ever since they were kidnapped in chains and sold into slavery in America? I don't even ask myself what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln had been born before his time and abolished slavery a century earlier.

Think about it, Jake. A guy gets stuck in a certain position along the axis of time and it's in his power to reverse the entire course of events. But I don't argue with history because what's the point in playing make-believe? Would a different shuffle of the deck of history have saved the suffering of millions? Not necessarily, because one way or another, sorrow will surely come.

The cloud cover breaks and I bring the lens to the plane's dirty window. The captain announces: We'll be landing at Ararat Airport in three minutes.

I can already make out "The Trio" piercing the clouds and I photograph them for you: Mordecai, Manuel and Noah. Each tower a hundred stories high. It's amazing to think that they were built so many years ago, shortly after the Empire State Building, but people haven't jumped to their death from their windows like they did in the Wall Street crash in the last century. Jumping from Niagara Falls was always a more tempting alternative.

From my angle the square Noah hides the cylindrical Manuel, and Mordecai, the triangular tower, commands them both. A gleaming cluster sending out innumerable flashes, which an eye observing from on high might interpret as distress signals.


So what isn't IsraIsland?

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