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.

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.