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.

Relat­ed Content:

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.