• Review
By – September 8, 2016

Though not well known in the Unit­ed States, Nava Semel is among Israel’s most esteemed writ­ers, per­haps best known for And the Rat Laughed, an extra­or­di­nary hybrid nov­el con­tain­ing poet­ry, dream, diary, and sci­ence fic­tion which was lat­er trans­formed into an extra­or­di­nary opera, one of the most unfor­get­table Sec­ond Gen­er­a­tion” Holo­caust nar­ra­tives you have prob­a­bly nev­er read. Semel is a recip­i­ent of the Women Writ­ers of the Mediter­ranean Award and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize, among oth­ers. Isra-Isle, Semel’s lat­est nov­el to be trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, is anoth­er genre-bend­ing tri­umph, and a par­tic­u­lar­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed con­tri­bu­tion to the vibrant lit­er­ary tra­di­tion of Jew­ish alter­na­tive his­to­ries like Michael Chabon’s The Yid­dish Policeman’s Union, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against Amer­i­ca, and Simone Zelitch’s recent Juden­staat, spec­u­lat­ing on what might have hap­pened had Jews set­tled in alter­na­tive Jew­ish home­lands out­side of the Mid­dle East. Revis­it­ing Mordechai Manuel Noah’s auda­cious 1825 scheme to cre­ate a refuge for his core­li­gion­ists on Grand Island, just down­riv­er from the Nia­gara Falls, Semel’s Isra-Isle pos­es urgent ques­tions about the mean­ing of col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, peo­ple­hood, and her­itage in the author’s own inim­itable way.

Isra-Isle—the very name seems to express a frac­ture, an impos­si­ble attempt to suture a void, or per­haps an unhealed wound. Struc­tured in three dis­crete tem­po­ral­i­ties, each is writ­ten in a strik­ing­ly dif­fer­ent style rang­ing from detec­tive noir to lyri­cism. In Part One, which reads like a clas­sic detec­tive sto­ry, we trace the steps of Liam, a descen­dant of Noah who trav­els from Israel to reclaim his grandfather’s lega­cy only to van­ish with­out a trace. Simon Lenox, a police detec­tive of Native Amer­i­can ances­try, is pres­sured by his supe­ri­ors to find Liam and beset with his own unset­tling ori­gin dreams — as well as an erot­ic entan­gle­ment that seems to car­ry mys­te­ri­ous under­tones of a deep­er attach­ment. The fur­ther he pro­ceeds with his inves­ti­ga­tion, the more meta­phys­i­cal his search becomes. Most good lit­er­ary fic­tion requires a strong degree of empa­thy, but Semel places that chal­lenge front and cen­ter as the read­er fol­lows the resent­ful detec­tive, who in turn tracks down the strange Jew, and comes to root for this belea­guered char­ac­ter, end­less­ly frus­trat­ed by the pecu­liar ways of Jew­ish Israelis and forced to make the fate­ful choice to step into the shoes of the Other.

Reach­ing the shores of Isra-Isle in the novel’s final sec­tion at last, the nov­el con­fronts the intrigu­ing cul­tur­al com­plex­i­ties that ensue when the true home­land of the Jews is a water-sat­u­rat­ed realm instead of a desert land. It is here that Semel rais­es fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tions about the nature of iden­ti­ty, a people’s psy­chol­o­gy, and the envi­ron­ment that shapes it. One of the more cap­ti­vat­ing aspects of Semel’s tour de force is her sen­si­tive and imag­i­na­tive por­tray­al of inter­min­gled Native Amer­i­can and Jew­ish tra­di­tions in both rit­u­al (bar mitz­vahs emu­late trib­al vision quests, prayer shawls dec­o­rat­ed by feath­ers) and the trap­pings of state­hood (Isra-Isle’s offi­cial flag dis­plays a Magen David above sacred elm leaves, and so on). Anoth­er fas­ci­nat­ing choice is Semel’s sub­tle por­tray­al of the trau­ma of 9/11 in two dif­fer­ent ver­sions, reflec­tive of how cer­tain mys­te­ri­ous traces of each of the novel’s three real­i­ties are present in the oth­ers, always in intri­cate and sur­pris­ing ways that can be both poignant and fun­ny all at once.

Jour­ney­ing through this fever dream of this nov­el, read­ers will like­ly find them­selves chal­lenged and pro­voked in unex­pect­ed ways, though sure­ly not more than the author her­self, who wrote to the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil that 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.” In that respect, Semel has sure­ly suc­ceed­ed, for Isra-Isle—with Jes­si­ca Cohen’s sparkling trans­la­tion, which deliv­ers all the wit, lyri­cal pow­er, and ten­der warmth of the Hebrew orig­i­nal — offers as haunt­ing and thor­ough­ly enter­tain­ing a sto­ry about the ancient and mod­ern quest for home and belong­ing as one could hope for.

Vis­it­ing Scribe: Nava Semel

Play­ing with His­to­ry Like a Deck of Cards

My Grand­fa­ther’s Ghost

Relat­ed Content:

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and edi­tor of the forth­com­ing book Amos Oz: The Lega­cy of a Writer in Israel and Beyond.

Discussion Questions