The ProsenPeople

My Grandfather's Ghost

Wednesday, November 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nava Semel wrote about creating an alternative Jewish history for her novel Isra-Isle. Nava is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

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 my family and I lived 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 vision for a Jewish homeland named Ararat situated near Niagara Falls. The old fairy tale resurfaced and came back to life. I immediately knew I hit the jackpot, discovered lost treasure.

I had to write a book about this place. I felt so connected. September 15th, Ararat’s 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 had not left my grandmother and my father, who was then a small baby? What if he had not emigrated 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—the Goldene Medina, as America as called in Yiddish. He promised to send tickets for his wife and child 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. But 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 over 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, my grandfather suddenly recognized his son in the article: that’s how he discovered my father was even still alive. Perhaps Grandpa was assailed by pangs of conscience for not doing enough to rescue his wife and son from the horrors of the Nazi occupation. He contacted the newspaper and asked for information to contact them.

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 awaited them. Grandpa and his abandoned family did not get along, nor did he 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,” and 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.”

My 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 and abandoned, 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 about “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.” He was an American patriot until his last breath—and I was his headstrong opponent, an Israeli to the very core of my being.

Isra-Isle echoes my old arguments with my grandfather. What if he had sent for my grandmother and their son back then in 1921? For starters, I would write in English, not Hebrew. In Isra-Isle I'm still trying to prove to Grandpa’s ghost that Israel is the one and only place for us. After all, that's where he found his final resting place—not in his beloved America. Listen to me, Grandpa, wherever you are: Your offspring live in Hebrew, love in Hebrew, and they will die in Hebrew.

Nava Semel holds an MA in Art History from Tel Aviv University and teaches creative writing at the Tel Aviv Public Library. Her previous books have been translated into 12 languages and received literary distinctions including a National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature in 1991.

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Playing with History Like a Deck of Cards

Monday, November 14, 2016 | Permalink

Nava Semel is an Israeli writer, translator, and creative writing instructor. With the release of her new book, Isra-Isle, earlier this month from Mandel Vilar Press, Nava will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

What if Jews had lived in greener pastures, on an idyllic, peaceful island, far away from the Middle-East? Perhaps we would have been the most docile of peoples, known around the globe for our tranquil nature, good manners, like the Biblical phrase—A Light Among the Nations.

In my novel Isra-Isle I recreated a Jewish state, inspired by the preceding Zion established by Mordechai Emanuel Noah, not Theodor Herzl. Noah was an earlier visionary who had bought "Grand Island" near Niagara Falls, financing the deal of his own pocket. In September 1825 he declared it a safe haven for the Jewish people and, since he was Noah, the name "Ararat" would be perfectly suitable. But his call was not answered; the Jews never came. This 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: “What if?”

In order to do that I had to obliterate the three components that are at the core of the Israeli identity, including mine. In this story, 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—in my opinion—most important identity factor is the Hebrew language. In Isra-Isle it was never revived. The Jews on Isra-Isle speak English, Yiddish and Ladino—the Jewish language of the Diaspora. 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?

The destiny of any 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 furs and chasing turkeys, eating a cuisine concocted out of local ingredients such as pumpkin, fish, and berries. In my imagination, a bar mitzvah in Isra-Isle is sending each youth inducted into the Jewish nation sailing in a canoe towards the Great Falls, covered with a prayer shawl, decorated by feathers.

In reality, Mordechai Emanuel Noah never set foot on the new homeland he chose for his people. How, then, dare he think he could determine Jewish destiny without scouting the location first? Herzl at least, visited Palestine. But his novel Altneuland is as much an unrealistic prophecy as my novel.

How wonderful it is to play around with history, like a deck of cards, not necessarily placed in the right order. Is there a right order? Can we fix history and take responsibility of our fate, regardless of where we are?

I'm a product of Israel, for better or for worse. My identity was carved by a place chosen by my ardently 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, it is to wipe it out from a book written in it. But perhaps such paradoxes are the only way for an artist to put their fingers on the things that often escape them 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.

Nava Semel holds an MA in Art History from Tel Aviv University and teaches creative writing at the Tel Aviv Public Library. Her previous books have been translated into 12 languages and received literary distinctions including a National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature in 1991.

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More Jewish Literary Links from the Forward

Wednesday, November 11, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Keith Meatto reviews Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals

Jake Marmer provides tips and insight to reading Jennifer Kronovet’s debut poetry collection Awayward.

Alan L. Berger reviews Nava Semel’s And the Rat Laughed.

And, in case you missed it, read the review of And the Rat Laughed by Sydelle Shamah from the summer 2009 Jewish Book World:

A symphony in five parts: each illuminates and reinterprets the preceding section. A five-year-old girl is given by her parents to a farm family in the belief that she will be shielded from the Nazis. She is kept in an underground pit. Their grown son brutally and relentlessly abuses her. She befriends a rat, sharing her meager scraps of food. (The Story)

More than sixty years later, she speaks of her captivity, for the first time, to her granddaughter, who needs the text for a school project. But her testimony rambles and, just as she had misunderstood her parents abandonment of her, the granddaughter jumps to the wrong conclusion, casting the farmers as ‘righteous gentiles’. The woman finally tells the girl a fable about a rat: Rat asked God to be able to laugh, like people. God relented, telling the rat that when he heard laughter, he would laugh. (The Legend)

Ten years later, poetry that may or may not have been written by the old woman is discovered on the internet. These poems are the highlight of the book; the imagery is simple, stark, and compelling. (The Poems)

In the next section, ninety years into the future, the material has morphed into major entertainment—theme parks and video games. This digression seems not to belong, but it provides distance, perspective, a kind of wistfulness,and ultimately, redemption. (The Dream)

Finally, there are notes from the incredibly compassionate priest who rescues, nurtures, and gently guides the little girl back to humanity. (The Diary)

And the Rat Laughed is an amazing short novel that takes one woman’s story, ‘a Little Holocaust,’ and universalizes it.