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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 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 received many other literary prizes including the Women Writers of the Mediterranean Award (1994) and the Prime Minister’s Prize (1996).


Jessica Cohen 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.


Jessica Cohen shared the 2017 Man Booker International Prize with author David Grossman for her translation of A Horse Walks into a Bar. She has translated works by Amos Oz, Etgar Keret, Dorit Rabinyan, Ronit Matalon and Nir Baram.



Publishers Weekly Fall 2016 Announcements for SF, Fantasy and Horror
names Isra Isle to its top 10 list of recommended books

“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

“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...asks the question, “What would have happened if . . . ?”
Abraham B. Yehoshua, author of Mr. Mani, Five Seasons, The Liberated Bride, and A Woman in Jerusalem, and recipient of the Bialik Prize, the Israel Prize for Literature, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.

"Equal parts detective novel, historical fantasia, and alternate history, Isra Isle offers a compelling exploration of modern Jewish identity for a postmodern world. With swift pacing and a sly wit Semel tackles serious topics: 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 of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel, University of Denver



240 pages

Isra-Isle: A Novel

SKU: 9781942134190
  • Nava Semel

  • Jessica Cohen

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