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.
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.