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.