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.
Nava Semel is a writer and translator whose books have been published in 12 languages and received numerous literary honors, including a 1991 National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature. After working as a journalist, art critic, and producer for television, radio, and music, she now teaches creative writing at the Tel Aviv Public Library and serves on the Board of Directors for Massuah: The Institute for Holocaust Studies.