Tuesday, July 5, 2016


Simone Zelitch's novels include Louisa, which won the Goldberg Prize for Emerging Jewish Fiction. Her work has been featured on NPR and recent honors include a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Zelitch applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, Judenstaat, and reported the following:
My page 69 opens in the middle of a paragraph:
Nobody else’s father talked like that. She hadn’t been afraid, though. If Rudolph had let go of her hand, she would have followed those angry-looking men in their long black coats and high black hats across Stein Square to see where they were going.
A reader would wonder: What men? Why would she follow them?

The first full paragraph:
Now the bus pulled away from the center of Dresden. It filled with black-hats like a net fills with fish: jewelers carrying heavy cases, caftan-wearing men with low-crowned hat and broad, aggressive shoulders. There must have been one of their girls’ schools not far from Parliament because the middle doors swung open and the girls poured on—at least a dozen of them—bundled up in sweaters with their legs encased in thick brown stockings, all carrying identical cheap knapsacks, and angling seats next to their friends. They whispered girl-secrets in Yiddish. So they had taken over that neighborhood too.
The people on the bus are “black-hats,” Judenstaat’s ultra-Orthodox population. As they’re described, a reader may wonder why the tone is so aggressively hostile. Isn’t this supposed to be a book about a Jewish state?

Judenstaat is carved out of German Saxony in 1948 as an an answer to the Holocaust. The country is fiercely secular, but the rapidly growing black-hat minority has its own schools, its own laws, and essentially its own economy. Black-hats speak Yiddish rather than Judenstaat’s national language, German, and they consider the country an abomination. They’re supported by the state. If this seems improbable, ask an Israeli for an explanation.

Yet Judit—the archivist heroine—is drawn to the world of the black-hats. That’s why she’s on that bus. She’s haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, and as she’s investigating the mystery behind his murder, she’s compiling a documentary about her country’s founding. It’s in the black-hat neighborhoods that she finds reels of film or photographs that others have discarded, or that the state itself has confiscated from her archive long ago. Black-hats know things.

It could be that Judit’s fascination with the Orthodox community comes from a spiritual need: she’s still in mourning for her husband, and the social-democratic country of her childhood has become unrecognizable. In fact, Chabad, a Lubavich outreach organization—a real one— hopes to draw secular Jews into the religious life. Chabad exists in my imaginary country and on page 69.
They made it their mission to get all Jews to perform mitzvot and speed the coming of the Messiah. Judit herself had been accosted by a woman in a wig who tried to get her into a Mitzvah Tank. The woman spoke good German and promised her an audience with Rabbi Scheerson, who would receive her like his own child and give her a dollar—a real American dollar from the United States. Frankly, Judit was allergic to Chabad. The people who fell in with them always looked like they’d been hit on the head too many times and started to like it.
In many ways, the descriptions and references on page 69 are Jewish private jokes, potentially obscure to the uninitiated. Yet Judit’s contradictory responses to religious Jews are a key to her character, and raise issues at the heart of the book. She wants to cross a border between the rational and irrational world. That doesn’t mean she will be welcome there.

The page ends with this assessment:

“The men and women on the bus were not Chabad. They looked through her as confidently as Sammy Gluck had looked through the ghost of Hans Klemmer. They believed in ghosts, the spirit world: demons, angels, the raising of the dead. They did not believe in Judit.”
Visit Simone Zelitch's website.

--Marshal Zeringue