Three new novels feature alternate history of reimagined 20th-century Jewish history

One surprising consequence of Donald Trump’s presidential run has been renewed attention to Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, “The Plot Against America.” Many recent articles have compared the present scenario to Roth’s portrait of a 1940 election in which aviator Charles Lindbergh, having unexpectedly won the Republican nomination on the virtue of his populist appeal and xenophobia, defeats incumbent Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roth’s novel is among the finest examples of “alternate history,” sometimes referred to as “what if” literature. This year’s crop of Jewish fiction has featured a number of noteworthy entries in this genre, imagining worlds that never were.

Khazaria, the setting of Emily Barton’s “The Book of Esther,” was a medieval kingdom extending from the Black Sea to central Asia, whose ruling class was said to have converted to Judaism (an occasion cemented in Jewish lore by the Spanish sage Yehuda HaLevi, whose 12th-century work “The Kuzari” imagines a rabbi making the case for Judaism to the Khazar king).

The conceit of Barton’s novel, set during World War II, is that, rather than having fallen in the Middle Ages, the Khazar kingdom has endured for more than a millennium under Jewish rule. Now Jewish refugees from European countries are pouring in with tales of persecution, and the German army is poised to invade the kingdom in its push eastward.

Esther, the daughter of a government adviser, is frustrated by the Khazar leadership’s inadequate response to the German threat. She journeys to a remote village of kabbalists in hopes of being transformed into a man, killing a werewolf and dealing with intimidating Uyghur bands along the way. Although her quest to switch genders fails, this does not impede her from returning to lead an army of people and golems against the invaders.

Barton’s memorably formed Khazaria is characterized by the permeation of Jewish observance (I suspect that the extensive religious terminology, presented without a glossary, will constitute a barrier to some readers) and by peculiar technological development — the German war machine will be met by a military that employs carrier pigeons, mechanical horses and pedal-driven flying machines.

In Simone Zelitch’s “Judenstaat,” the year 1948 saw the establishment not of the State of Israel, but of Judenstaat, a Jewish nation in the eastern German territory of Saxony, with a cozy relationship with the Soviet Union. Set in the 1980s, the novel follows Judit, a journalist whose husband, a non-Jewish Saxon, was murdered — allegedly by Saxon extremists who viewed him as a collaborator with the state they despised. As she is creating a documentary film on the occasion of the nation’s 40th anniversary, Judit receives a note indicating there is more to the story of her husband’s assassination than she knows.  Her pursuit of answers leads to a new understanding of her country’s story.

The book offers interesting musing on the messiness of history and nationalism.  It is interesting to consider those features of Zelitch’s imagined country that echo realities in Israel — such as the uneasy coexistence of a secular elite and an oppositional ultra-Orthodox community — as well as those features particular to Judenstaat’s European setting.

In Lavie Tidhar’s “A Man Lies Dreaming,” the 1933 German elections brought the Communists, rather than the Nazis, to power. Persecuted by the new government, many Nazis have fled to England. Their former leader, now going by the name Wolf, is working as an unsuccessful London private eye (and, indeed, much of the narrative is in the style of a hard-boiled detective novel). Despite his contempt for Jews, he takes the case of a young Jewish woman searching for her missing sister. What ensues, much of it set in London’s underworld, is not for the faint of heart, being full of graphic violence, perverse sex and a plethora of bodily fluids.

There are compelling historical touches, such as when an American intelligence officer attempts to recruit Wolf, promising to help the Nazis return to prominence in Germany in exchange for partnership in fighting Communism. Or as, fueled by anti-immigrant hysteria, the British prepare to elect Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, as prime minister.

A second, much less developed plot follows Shomer, a former writer of low-grade Yiddish pulp fiction now imprisoned in Auschwitz. We come to understand that the primary plot, with its humiliated Nazis, is being generated by Shomer’s mind, enabling him to achieve a degree of freedom through the exercise of imagination.

I might ordinarily dismiss the book’s excessive sex and violence as the product of a puerile imagination, but Tidhar (a grandson of Holocaust survivors, who grew up on a kibbutz but now resides in London) gives a clue about his motivations in an unlikely scene in Auschwitz in which Primo Levi and Ka-Tzetnik (who would become the first major writers to chronicle the camp) debate how their experience should be represented. Ka-Tzetnik asserts, “To write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund (trash) … of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet.”

In an afterword, Tidhar mentions the little-known Stalag pulp novels that flourished in Israel in the early 1960s before being suppressed by the government. Featuring the aforementioned “torrid covers,” these books involved sexualized violence visited upon prisoners by Nazi guards, and similar treatment in reverse, once the tables turned. In resuscitating the spirit of the genre, Tidhar may be reflecting on what deeper needs they helped answer.


“The Book of Esther”
by Emily Barton (432 pages, Tim Duggan Books)

“Judenstaat” by Simone Zelitch (320 pages, Tor Books)

“A Man Lies Dreaming” by Lavie Tidhar (307 pages, Melville House)

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.