I’m skipping out on you again, Jake, but I swear this is the last time. This job—let’s call it a mission—is going to take care of our future. I was in such a hurry that I didn’t have time to pack a suitcase. Didn’t even take a toothbrush. I’ll buy one on the way, and you can add it to the junk piled up in the darkroom, which you call a boydem. I hope you won’t take advantage of my absence to chuck it all out.
Believe me, Jake, it was a spontaneous decision. An irresistible impulse, to use the legal jargon. I didn’t call a travel agent, didn’t even book a room. If I’m lucky I’ll get a discounted ticket; tourist season is over, thank God, and all the kids being dragged around the sites by their parents have finally gone back to school.
So listen to me, Jake, before you change the locks and count me out for good. There comes a moment when you have to take a gamble. The slightest hesitation or delay could mean that the tracks are erased, and then it’s a lost cause. I’m not going to come home with my tail between my legs like I did last time.
That son of a bitch Lenox woke me up when he called.
We’ll pay any price, Simon, he said.
His voice pecked at me through the cloud of Jack Daniels. I was in the middle of a nice dream about swimming in a puddle of money. And then Lenox starts kissing my ass, like he always does, as if he’s offering to show my photos in some upscale gallery.
Turn on the TV, now! he yelled.
Every channel was showing the primary results, and her face was all over the screen. She had that grin her consultants told her to use, very aware of the importance of the occasion, and she wore a designer outfit that Lenox helpfully informed me was red, to match her trademark red hair. While Lenox nattered on and I started shoving my camera into the bag and strapping on my lens case, I noticed something shining right at the presidential candidate’s neckline. At first I thought it was a technical glitch in the broadcast, but then I picked up a lighthouse signal in the rhythm of her breaths, a tiny light flashing on and off. And that’s what convinced me that I had a real chance this time—because I could smell her fear, too.
The smell of fear, Jake. There is no sharper perfume.
Job, did I say? Mission? Let’s settle on ‘professional challenge.’ To disrobe the lady of all her theatrical costumes and expose her for what she is. A fair deal for the voters.
Lenox kept up his dizzying stream of flattery: You’re the only one who can shadow her, Simon. Stake out the house and the campaign headquarters, get past the security detail, bribe whoever needs to be bribed. We’ll cover all your expenses. Just get us the picture.
He spoke in the first-person plural, like he and I were partners in some grandiose plan that would alter the course of history. I was completely awake at this point, and my dream about the puddle of money began to seem real. I saw us bathing in a cascade of dollar bills. It would be like getting a windfall inheritance from a relative we didn’t even know existed.
How much are your promises worth, Lenox? I asked. Because last time you strung me along and ended up not buying a single shot, after I worked my ass off for you chasing that porn star whose silicone implants burst.
Lenox said: I give you my word, Simon. You’ve got two days. A rare window of opportunity, as politicians like to say. Then he laughed out loud, brimming with self-satisfaction. This is your lucky chip, Simon!
I didn’t tell the son of a bitch: It’s a good thing I’m the pursuer and not the pursued. Because who wants his picture spread all over the front page with his hand down his pants? Although, let’s be real: a photo of me, no matter how embarrassing, is not going to topple a presidential candidate, and whatever we do or do not do within the narrow confines of our options is not going to reverse history.
I was still zapping through channels, trying to catch a rerun of the primary results. I had to make sure I wasn’t wrong, that the shiny spot at the candidate’s neckline was more than just a digital illusion or some new eyesight problem. While the pundits splattered their clichés about the crossroads of American democracy and the premature—or belated—maturity of the voter, the only thing I could think was that her image consultants had made a big mistake. If I were them I would have vetoed the glimmering pendant—the candidate’s Achilles heel. And that’s when the penny dropped: This time, Jake, I really have a chance to make it.
Lenox yelled: Get off your ass, Simon, before it’s too late!
It’s the only U.S. state I’ve never been to, and everyone says it’s a special place. You’re in the picture, too, Jake – it’s your chance to take a journey to your roots and go back home, all through my camera lens.
So this is it, partner. I’m taking the first flight I can get to Isra Isle.
Translated by Jessica Cohen
Text published with the permission of Nava Semel
ISRA-ISLE by Nava Semel: synopsis from Mandel Vilar Press
What are Jews doing in the chaotic Middle East when they could have been living peacefully in the state of "Isra-Isle," near Niagara Falls?
In 1825 Mordecai Noah, a diplomat, bought Grand Island as a refuge for Jews. The novel opens in September 2001 when Liam Emanuel, an Israeli descendant of Noah, learns about and inherits the island. He leaves Israel with a burning desire to reclaim this historic Promised Land in America. Shortly after he arrives in America, Liam vanishes with no trace. Simon T. Lenox, a police investigator of Native American origin, tries to recover Israel's "missing son." While following in Liam Emanuel's footsteps, Lenox learns about Jews and Israelis, and why this strange tribe of wanderers has been troubling the world for so long.
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.
Reviews For Isra Isle
“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
“In a daring and brilliant book, Nava Semel turns the Zionist narrative upside-down and contemplates whether it would have been possible to change the history of the Jewish people. She creates a world in which a prosperous Jewish state under American patronage arises at Grand Island, near the Niagara Falls, in the wake of the vision of Mordecai Manuel Noah. This is a fascinating book that connects Jews, Indians and Afro-Americans, all with a persecuted past and searching for a homeland, and asks the question, “What would have happened if . . . ?” -- Abraham B. Yehoshua, author, Mr. Mani, Five Seasons, and The Liberated Bride
“Semel once again proves herself one of the most original voices in Israeli literature. Equal parts detective novel, historical fantasia, and alternate history, Isra Isle offers a compelling exploration of modern Jewish identity for a postmodern world. Semel tackles serious topics with swift pacing and a sly wit: Zionism, multicultural politics, the attacks of 9/11, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American Judaism. This what-if novel is Semel’s Israeli-feminist Yiddish Policemen’s Union—a real triumph of the imagination.” -- Adam Rovner, author, In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel, University of Denver
November 2016 | 256 pages
Buy Isra-Isle: Mandel Vilar Press
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Nava Semel: ISRA-ISLE
A new English translation of my acclaimed novel ISRA-ISLE was recently published in America by “Mandel Vilar Press” and is getting wonderful feedback. It's a political novel exploring current issues of racism, minorities, refugees and the high cost of a territorial dispute. It places Jews, Native-Americans, African-Americans, and all persecuted people in a mutual search for a safe haven.
What if Israel did not exist? What if instead there was a Jewish state on an American island, founded centuries ago? ISRA-ISLE is the state that could have been.
The novel is inspired by a true historical event. In 1825 Mordechai Manuel Noah, an American journalist, diplomat, playwright and visionary, founded a Jewish sanctuary on a Native-American island at the foot of Niagara Falls, and named it "Ararat". The novel depicts an alternative reality in which the Jewish people answered Noah’s call, Isra-Isle is the smallest federal state in America, Israel does not exist, and there was no Holocaust. Imagine that.
For me, the question of "what if" is a personal one. I could have easily been an American. My grandfather emigrated to New York in 1921, abandoning his wife and son – my father. When I was five years old he reunited with the family and reluctantly moved to Tel Aviv. He strongly believed that America is the only promised land for the Jewish people, and that "the experiment in the Middle East”, as he called Israel, would end in disaster. As a stubborn little Zionist girl I would constantly confront him. In writing ISRA-ISLE I continued our heated argument. It was like arguing with a ghost. Imagine that.