Judenstaat—in the Jewish Book Council


By Martin Green
Jewish Book Council
May 3, 2016

Simone Zelitch’s fic­tion—Juden­staat is her fifth nov­el — ranges over wide swaths of his­to­ry, from Moses and the Exo­dus (Moses in Sinai), medieval rebel­lion (The Con­fes­sion of Jack Straw), post-Holo­caust sur­vivors in Israel (Louisa), and the Amer­i­can civ­il rights move­ment (Wave­land). Most of her work, she notes on her web­site, is root­ed in Midrash and thus does not adhere lit­er­al­ly to ver­i­fi­able his­tor­i­cal fact (where we know it); rather, her char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions build on the known or the tra­di­tion­al view to strive for new mean­ings and inter­pre­ta­tion. In Juden­staat, she presents a Midrash on the mean­ing of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and nation­al­is­tic aspi­ra­tion in the wake of the Holo­caust by putting forth an alter­na­tive his­to­ry of the Jew­ish State called for in Herzl’s late-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry pam­phlet of the same title. The twist here is that the Jew­ish state found­ed in the wake of the Holo­caust — or the Chur­ban, as the char­ac­ters in the nov­el refer to it — is not in Eretz Yis­rael but in the East Ger­man state of Sax­ony, which the sur­vivors of the camps have seized with the help of Sovi­et troops.

Zelitch’s pro­tag­o­nist is Judit Gins­berg Klem­mer, an archivist-film­mak­er work­ing at the Nation­al Library in Judenstaat’s cap­i­tal of Dres­den. Forty years after the ​“lib­er­a­tion” and the found­ing of the state, Judit is tasked with mak­ing a com­mem­o­ra­tive film, just as the world out­side Juden­staat is chang­ing and its role in it is like­wise under­go­ing a meta­mor­pho­sis. Judit’s work is also shad­owed by a per­son­al tragedy and the two strands of the nation­al and per­son­al come togeth­er in what becomes her quest for under­stand­ing of the deep­er roots of Judenstaat’s founding.

Alter­nate his­to­ry has long roots in sci­ence fic­tion and has recent­ly attract­ed more main­stream authors. Zelitch claims affil­i­a­tion with Philip K. Dick’s clas­sic sci-fi alter­nate post-World-War-II his­tor­i­cal nov­el The Man in the High Cas­tle (the basis of Amazon’s recent stream­ing series), in which Japan and Ger­many con­quer and divide the Unit­ed States, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against Amer­i­ca, in which a fas­cist-lean­ing Charles Lind­bergh becomes pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States in 1940 and makes life dif­fi­cult for Amer­i­can Jews. Also rel­e­vant is Michael Chabon’s 2007 nov­el The Yid­dish Policeman’s Union, which rests on a sim­i­lar premise to Zelitch’s nov­el (the Jew­ish post-Holo­caust home­land is not Israel but the region around Sit­ka, Alas­ka!) and also involves a genre plot (two Jew­ish police­men inves­ti­gate a series of murders).

The suc­cess or fail­ure of such ven­tures into ​“what-if” fic­tions is based on the cred­i­bil­i­ty of the details and the fris­son of recog­ni­tion the read­er feels when con­front­ed with the dis­tort­ing mir­ror of these alter­nate worlds. Zelitch pro­vides many moments of such respons­es. One detail that can be dis­closed with­out undu­ly spoil­ing the plot for prospec­tive read­ers is the pres­ence in Juden­staat of a large minor­i­ty pop­u­la­tion of ​“black hats,” ultra-Ortho­dox Hasidim, who have their own neigh­bor­hood and oper­ate out­side the laws of the social­ist-dom­i­nat­ed Juden­staat. Zelitch sketch­es in details of the state’s found­ing and devel­op­ment and alludes to its past polit­i­cal dis­putes and dis­rup­tions with­out bog­ging the plot down in copi­ous expo­si­tion (an appen­dix pro­vides a time­line). This allu­sive­ness makes Judit’s quest for under­stand­ing more dra­mat­i­cal­ly real as the read­er tries to piece togeth­er what hap­pened in the found­ing years along with her. On the neg­a­tive side, aspects of the cen­tral mys­tery Judit tries to unrav­el remain some­what unre­solved by the novel’s end.

The novel’s allu­sions to ​“real-world” events out­side of Juden­staat raise inter­est­ing ques­tions about the con­tin­gent nature of his­to­ry. In the nov­el, set in the 1980s, the Sovi­et Union, Judenstaat’s erst­while pro­tec­tor, is on the verge of Per­e­stroi­ka and Mikhail Gor­bachev puts in a cameo appear­ance. Would his­to­ry devel­op along lines that lead direct­ly to today’s world if such a pro­found change as the found­ing of Israel were erased, or if, indeed, a Jew­ish state had replaced the East Ger­man Demo­c­ra­t­ic Republic?

Zelitch does not sac­ri­fice her char­ac­ters in favor of the ideas of the nov­el. While Judit her­self is a some­what pas­sive char­ac­ter (questers gen­er­al­ly tend to be blank spaces in nov­els of this type), she is sur­round­ed by a num­ber of col­or­ful fig­ures that Zelitch brings to life with skill. High­ly mem­o­rable are Judit’s moth­er, Leono­ra, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, and Judit’s for­mer his­to­ry pro­fes­sor, a Han­nah Arendt-like chain-smok­ing poly­math. The dom­i­nant fig­ure in the nov­el, Judenstaat’s founder, Leopold Stein, is not present for much of the nov­el, hav­ing dis­ap­peared years ago; but his words and ideas and his blur­ry images in old films that Judit dis­cov­ers bring him to the forefront.

Like Ari Shavit’s recent book about the found­ing of Israel, My Promised Land, Zelitch’s Juden­staat rais­es some pro­found ques­tions about the cost of the Zion­ist enter­prise. Shav­it strug­gles to under­stand the impli­ca­tion for mod­ern Israel of the lay­ers of denial and vio­lence involved in its found­ing, such as the mas­sacre of Pales­tini­ans in what became Lod, the neigh­bor­hood of Ben Guri­on Air­port. In Juden­staat, Judit finds sim­i­lar ques­tions haunt­ing her work, but the read­er is left to won­der what the future impli­ca­tions will be of her dis­cov­er­ies, as Juden­staat stands on the brink of a new era. Zelitch suc­ceeds admirably in rais­ing, if not ful­ly answer­ing, such ques­tions in this provoca­tive novel. Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

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