Title Pick: Isra Isle by Nava Semel

This novel is inspired by a true historical event. Before Theodore Herzl there was Mordecai Manuel Noah, an American journalist, diplomat, playwright, and visionary. In September 1825 he bought Grand Island, downriver from Niagara Falls, from the local Native Americans as a place of refuge for the Jewish people and called it “Ararat.” But no Jews came. What if they had followed Noah’s call? In Nava Semel’s alternate history Jews from throughout the world flee persecution and come to Ararat. Isra Isle becomes the smallest state in the US. Israel does not exist, and there was no Holocaust. In exploring this what-if scenario, Semel stimulates new thinking about memory, Jewish/Israeli identity, attitudes toward minorities, women in top political positions, and the place of cultural heritage.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part 1, a detective story, opens in September 2001 when Liam Emanuel, an Israeli descendant of Noah, learns about and inherits this island. He leaves Israel intending to reclaim this “Promised Land” in America. Shortly after he arrives in America Liam disappears. Simon T. Lenox, a Native American police investigator, tries to recover Israel’s “missing son.” Part 2 flashes back to the time and events surrounding Mordecai Noah’s purchase of the island from the local Native Americans. Part 3 poses an alternate history: the rise of a successful modern Jewish city-state, Isra Isle, on the northern New York and Canadian border—a metropolis that looks remarkably like New York City both before and after 9/11—in which the Jewish female governor campaigns to become president of the United States.

Nava Semel has published novels, short stories, poetry, plays, children’s books, and a number of TV scripts. Her stories have been adapted for radio, film, TV, and stage in Israel, Europe, and the United States. Her books have been translated and published in many countries. Her novel And the Rat Laughed was adapted into a successful opera, and it is also being made into a feature film, directed by David Fisher. Semel is on the board of governors of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Her book Becoming Gershona received the 1990 National Jewish Book Award in the U.S. She has received many other literary prizes including the Women Writers of the Mediterranean Award (1994) and the Prime Minister’s Prize (1996). She is married to Noam Semel, Director General of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv, and a mother of three children. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Jessica Cohen, translator, has worked with some of Israel’s finest writers, including David Grossman, Etgar Keret, Assaf Gavron, Rutu Modan, Amir Gutfreund, Yael Hedaya, Ronit Matalon, and Tom Segev, as well as such prominent screenwriters as Ari Folman and Ron Leshem. She has served as a board member of the American Literary Translators Association, and is also a member of the American Translators Association, the Israel Translators Association, the Colorado Translators Association, and PEN American Center. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

Isra Isle
Nava Semel
Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
2016, Mandel Vilar Press
ISBN: 9781942134190

“Semel’s novel explores an intriguing what-if scenario based on historical fact. In 1825, Jewish-American Mordecai Manuel Noah purchased Grand Island, near Niagara Falls, from Native Americans, planning to create a place of refuge for Jews. Semel’s novel asks the question, What if this plan had worked?… In this changed world, Israel never existed, Native American and Jewish customs have been merged, and the American Jewish state affects many issues in the world. Each of the main characters struggles with issues of religion, spirituality, and identity in streaming thoughts and discussions. Through those voices, Semel explores issues of global importance—such as terrorism, prejudice, and politics—in this singular, thought-provoking novel.” — Publishers Weekly

“[A] spellbinding alternate-history….Semel’s true achievement with this book is her seemingly effortless ability to demolish the walls we instinctively put up in our minds between the “past,” the “present,” and the “future.” Each section is on the surface self-contained, but names, narrators’ styles, and traumatic events bleed through and into one another, suggesting recent theories in quantum mechanics about how time doesn’t necessarily flow in just one direction. Rather, Isra Isle suggests that, in two different universes (one in which Israel doesn’t exist, and one in which it does), the same problems persist: what does “home” mean? What about “exile”? Can we ever really escape tragedy and catastrophe, even if the conditions are vastly different? And then there’s the narrative style itself… that dazzles the reader. Jessica Cohen masterfully brings this through in her translation, and we’re lucky to have the opportunity to read this beautiful novel in English.” — Rachel Cordasco, Speculative Fiction in Translation, October 16, 2016

“Semel begins by borrowing elements from the mystery genre and offers interesting speculations about relations between Jewish immigrants and Native Americans…. She partitions her novel into three parts, with the alternate history scenario (clearly labeled ‘‘An Alternate Story’’) only showing up in the final part. The idea of the possible malleability of history haunts the whole novel, though, which forges ingenious character-based links between its three narratives. Refuge may well be the central theme of Isra Isle, which ambitiously touches upon not only Zionism, but feminism, African-American and Native American issues, and contemporary real-life politics in ways that are both sophisticated and surprisingly witty.” Locus Magazine, December 2016



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