A review of Isra Isle: A Novel, by Nava Semel, translated by Jessica Cohen (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone
This is a novel in three parts: part detective story, part speculation about a peculiar footnote in American and Jewish history, part alternate history based on that speculation. As the story progresses it constructs a fictional alternate homeland for the Jews in upstate New York.
Part 1, ‘Grand Island’, is the story of a manhunt set in New York state in early September 2001. Simon Teibele Lenox (aka White Raven), an experienced New York cop, is assigned to a Secret Service unit based in the Twin Towers. His task is to find an Israeli, Liam Emanuel, who has come to USA in search of an alternative promised land. The finality of his abandonment of Israel is symbolized by the fact that he left his shoes behind at Ben Gurion Airport (metaphorically shaking the dust of Israel off his feet). But the Israeli authorities want him found and quietly returned. Of course they do, ‘Emanuel’ means ‘God-with-us’, and the Zionist vision of Israel is meaningless if God has abandoned it.
In the course of his investigation, Lenox begins a relationship with a Jewish colleague, Jackie Winona Brendel, which forms an obsessive subtheme in his thoughts as his search for Emanuel takes him to Grand Island, NY. The author’s play with NY place names as Emanuel and Lenox head for Grand Island makes this a something of a second exodus.
This is where the historical footnote comes in. Grand Island was bought in 1825 by Mordecai Manuel Noah who intended to found a Jewish refuge there, to be called Ararat. In Semel’s version, Emanuel is Noah’s descendant and he has the title deeds to prove his ownership.
Having tracked down Emanuel on Grand Island and failed to persuade him to return, Lenox returns to New York on the morning of 11th September and goes to his office to write his report and resign . . . And the story ends with Jackie pinning up missing person fliers.
Part 2 takes us back to 1825. Noah has come to Buffalo to claim the island he has purchased. This is a first-person narrative written from the perspective of an Indian serving woman, Little Dove, in the household of Noah’s host, Lenox. She persuades Noah to visit the island, which in reality he never set foot on. While they are together on the island, they make love. Noah leaves; Little Dove remains, carrying his child – a fusion of Jew and Indian. And so the scene is set for the alternate history of Part 3.
Semel returns us to September 2001. Ararat rather than Israel has become the Jewish homeland. But the religion of Ararat is a strange fusion of Judaism and Native American traditions. A colour-blind gay black Indian (!) photographer, Simon, is in a relationship with Jake Brendel (aka DJ Teibele), a Jew who has exiled himself from Ararat. Simon is commissioned by newspaper magnate, Lenox, to follow the story of Ararat’s governor, Emanuella Winona Noah, as she makes her bid for the White House. Initially on the lookout for a scandal, Simon eventually meets the governor and is won over by her. Again there is a subtheme of Simon obsessing about his relationship with Jake. Part 3, and the novel as a whole, concludes with Simon returning by plane to New York. He is looking at the Twin Towers and for the first time in his life he sees a flash of red when the plane crashes (?). Then we segue to Greater Damascus (which is Israel in our universe) where Jake has gone to scatter Simon’s ashes.
That summary seems to be full of spoilers, but I don’t think that really matters. The storylines seem less important than the symbolism and the careful weaving together of names and ideas across the three parts of the novel. There is the recurring fusion of Jewish elements with elements representing other victim groups (specifically native Americans, blacks, and gays). And this is achieved by presenting us with characters of mixed heritage, describing sexual relationships that bring together the different victim groups, and by mixing and matching Jewish and American Indian names.
A recurring theme throughout the novel is the quest of oppressed people/exiles for a place they can call home. But they do not find what they are looking for. In the real world, the Zions they try to create fail to live up to their promise.
Did I enjoy the novel? No. Does that matter? Perhaps not in this case. I am left with a sense that I have only scratched the surface of the novel’s meaning(s). If you are looking for a gripping yarn to while away a few hours, this is definitely not the book for you. But if you want an intellectual challenge that will make you want to read and re-read until you have begun to make sense of its complexities, you could do far worse than tackle Isra Isle.