By Simone Zelitch
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the aftermath of World War II, the state of Israel was carved out of the British Mandate of Palestine. However other locations for a Jewish state had been considered over the years since Theodor Herzl suggested a Jewish state in his 1898 book Der Judenstaat. The British had suggested a Jewish state in British East Africa in 1903 and the Nazis looked into the possibility of relocating Jews to Madagascar. Over the years, various authors have tackled alternative Jewish states, with Janet Berliner and George Guthridge published their Madagascar trilogy and Michael Chabon looking at an Alaskan Jewish state in The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Simone Zelitch has created her version of a Jewish state in the novel Judenstaat, named for Herzl's treatise.
Founded in 1948, the German state of Saxony has been given to the Jews as reparation for the Churban, that world's name for the Holocaust. Zelitch has set her novel forty years after the states founding when the Jews have established a secular state that lives in tension with the non-Jewish Saxons and looks to the Soviet bloc for support. Judit Klemmer moves through that world, but in many ways Judit lives in the past. A documentarian filmmaker, she focuses on bringing the truth of the Churban to life through interviews and old footage. Her husband, a non-Jewish conductor, was shot and killed, a trauma she can't put behind her, especially when she receives a cryptic note indicating that the official account of his killing was not the truth. A secular Jew, she regards the more religious Chabad with a mixture of caution, fear, and hatred. Despite having co-workers, a living mother, and people who would be her friends, Judit lives a life of isolation and alienation in her search for meaning.
Although that alienation is central to Judit's character, it works against the novel as a coherent work. Judit's separation from Judenstaat means that the reader is never given a view of how the country functions. Although based in part on the modern state of Israel, Judenstaat is also strongly influenced by the apparatus of the Soviet bloc and owes much to the faceless state of George Orwell's 1984. While Israel has a vibrant society, a similar cultural scene and involvement in the political life of the country is only hinted at in Judenstaat. Judit's husband was involved in their art scene, the electoral history of the country is shown through footage Judit is assembling for a documentary, and the Chabad she interacts with clearly have a stronger tie to the state than Judit will allow herself.
Zelitch includes a mystery regarding the death of Judit’s husband, but it isn’t the focus of the novel, which instead looks at the way Judit moves through an anonymous society, although her anonymity is more a product of her own desire than the state wanted to destroy any semblance of individuality. Because of her detachment, Judenstaat has the feel of a dystopia, and there are elements of dystopia in its depiction, but it isn’t clear how much of the reader’s perception is caused by Judit as an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, the alienation and unreliability that define Judit also make her an unsympathetic character. The reader has a difficult time caring about what is happening to her and, by extension, the novel itself. With a leisurely pace, the novel sets up many mysteries, not only about Hans Klemmer's death, but about the society in which Judit lives, but by the time resolution to those questions is offered, it scarcely seems to matter.
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