Skip to main content

Jacob Paul - The second in Paul’s thematic trilogy exploring the relationship between spirituality, religion and terrorism, 'A Song of Ilan' explores how the desire for a clear answer to an ever louder question of faith might eventually resolve in self-immolation and mass violence

Jacob Paul, A Song of Ilan, Jaded Ibis Press, 2015.
song of ilan
The second in Jacob Paul’s thematic trilogy exploring the relationship between spirituality, religion and terrorism, A Song of Ilan explores how the desire for a clear answer to an ever louder question of faith might eventually resolve in self-immolation and mass violence. The book’s title borrows the structure of the opening line of so many of the Psalms – A Song of David, A Song of Solomon, A Song of the sons of Korach, etc. – This is a song of Ilan, Ilan’s psalm, his prayer, his desperate plea.
A Song of Ilan tells the story of Ilan Frank and the woman he loves, Yedit, tells it over the course of a single transformative day, a day fractured over three versions of reality. It’s a day on which the specters of Ilan’s military service during the first Intifada, his increasingly uncertain old on Yedit, and his resurgent crisis of faith finally crescendo to undo his comfortable life as a financial advisor in New York City.
THE PAST: Ilan, an Israeli Jew raised moderately Orthodox in the US, had returned to Israel for his mandatory three years of service in the Israeli army early during first Intifada. While off-duty, waiting for his fiancé to join him at a sidewalk café in Tel Aviv, Ilan realized that the unseasonably baggy coat worn by the woman approaching concealed a suicide bomb. He shot her, preventing the bombing. And yet, though it’s the most justifiable shooting imaginable, a life-saving killing, Ilan can’t accept having killed. Unable to reconcile his status as a minor hero with his guilt, he returns to the US, where he exchanges faith, heritage and identity for as much risk as he can: in a job on Wall Street, in the mountains with his best friend, Louis, an Indian veteran of Himalayan fighting in Kashmir, and in the city’s bars’ booze and singles.
YEDIT: An Israeli orphan adopted by American parents, Yedit writes academic translations of the Psalms, translations that reveal their wonder and their sarcasm. She composes, and her act of composition woos and wins Ilan. And when she finishes composing and publishes, her book removes her from him, offering its scintillating heresy in exchange.

FAITH: Yedit’s translations, and the original Hebrew of the Pslams viewed through those translations, hound Ilan, torment him and prove to him that a crisis of faith suppressed is not a crisis of faith erased. As Ilan loses control of his thoughts’ directions, he increasingly realizes, to his horror, that his relationship to God and to Ilan’s own peace, lies in the blood pooling beneath the Palestinian woman he shot so long ago in Tel Aviv.
“Standing on a small stone, Ilan flattens his palm against the cliff rising above the carriage road. Horizontal striations create roofs and ledges. From the smaller ledges, gnarled, bonsai cypresses sprout. Full trees rise out of the largest. Behind him, sitting on a low stone wall that separates the carriage road from a steep wooded hillside stretching down to the Hudson River’s plains, his wife rifles through her pack, a rustling that harmonizes with that of fallen leaves caught in the wind. Once there was a before, he thinks. A before in which this cliff was made of gray rock that hewn to blocks could build the Wailing Wall. Once there was a before; and the words are abstract. He tilts his head as if to examine the eighty-foot climb above. The words are sad in the abstract. The concrete events — a shooting in Tel Aviv; an escape to New York City; leaving the derech, the path of righteousness — are, well, concrete. Wailing Wall, he thinks. As at that famous relic, tufts of vegetation fracture the cliff’s conglomerate rock. I have a nostalgia for a period in which I had a nostalgia, he mouths. The pain he feels is not for the passion with which he once prayed at the last standing wall of the old temple in Jerusalem, but for the young man walking whole Manhattan neighborhoods in a summer evening, awkward in his new secularism. It’s for his wonder at junk stores on Mulberry spiked with memories of the Old City’s Shuk, as if lower Manhattan’s streets were equal exchange for stone alleyways two millennium old, a few stores selling knockoff watches and cheap baseball hats as colorful as a place where bins of fish heads divided crates of fresh eggs from street cobblers.”

“Paul’s prose is skillful, almost ornate, and obsessed with the truth of the modern experience of religion. A Song of Ilan is a remarkable exploration of issues and experiences that are often discounted or outright ignored in American writing today.”— The Public
“Jacob Paul’s A Song of Ilan is tour de force of structural experiment that leaves not a thread untied and moves from beginning to end with a mesmerizing if not horrifying fatality. Ilan, once an Israeli soldier, shot a suicide bomber to death in a cafe; ten years later, alcoholic, spiritually paralyzed, he turns himself into a suicide bomber, haunting the New York subway system with explosives under his coat, the only truth he knows, the only way to God. A spectacular book, beautiful in its rhymes, daunting in its ethical interrogation.”Douglas Glover
“A philosophic meditation on the interplay between religion, violence, and personal faith, A Song of Ilan is about what it means to live in a world after 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as seen through its protagonist, Ilan’s, desire for God. Through Ilan we see how a direct relationship with God (or the hope for God), divorced from the structure of religious institutions, might take the form of romantic love, and in that relationship’s crisis, take on the perils, obsessions, and violence of that love. A Song of Ilan is necessary reading, especially against the backdrop of recent conflict in Gaza, for anyone who wishes to understand the personal, spiritual, and political impact of religious terrorism, and of the violence that seeks to suppress it.” Mark Levine
A Song of Ilan is a dizzying, rhapsodic, and thrilling book that challenges readers to think about how we live, love, and die. A breathless read that plunges us into a brilliant and tortured mind, A Song of Ilan will haunt your days and nights, your kitchen, your bedroom, as well as and your commute, making you wonder who your neighbor, your colleague, your lover really is. Equally elegant and compelling as Paul plumbs rock climbing and scripture, terror and survival, A Song of Ilan strives heroically toward, in Donald Barthelme’s words, ‘the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.’”Matthew Batt

Jacob Paul, Sarah/SaraIg Publishing, 2010.

“This solo kayak adventure along the coast of Alaska becomes the perfect cauldron for this ardent, introspective young woman with two names. Everywhere there is danger and grace.  In the trials of her past, the rigors of her faith; and in the icy world as it unfolds before her, there are promises of redemption.  Jacob Paul offers us in this powerful novel Sarah’s many layered season of discovery.” - Ron Carlson 

“In this elegantly rendered, soul-testing tale, Jacob Paul explores the limits of faith at the edge of the world.  The beauty and passion of  Sarah/Sara  arises from the hope this shattered woman finds in the most desperate circumstances, her remarkable belief that every life is sacred and every breath eternal.  Stripped of all comfort and consolation, Sarah Frankel embraces the miracle of her own existence.” - Melanie Rae Thon 

“Showing how the best fiction mirrors real life, Jacob Paul’s Sarah/Sara is an unflinchingly honest portrait of how every adventurer’s kit—even in the faroff and dodgy Arctic Ocean—is freighted with spiritual turmoil from home.” - Jon Waterman 

Jacob Paul's debut, Sarah/Sara, is not a joyful read, but it is a deeply moving one. The novel unfolds as the journal of Sarah Frankel, an American-born Jew who, shortly after finishing college, moved to Israel, where she took the Hebrew version of her name ("Sara," pronounced Sah-rah) and became far more ritually observant than she was raised to be. After her visiting parents are killed in a suicide bombing in the café below her Jerusalem apartment, Sara embarks on a six-week, solo kayaking trip through the Arctic. Throughout the beautiful yet dangerous trek, Sarah's thoughts turn not only to her past—memories—but also to an imagined future, one that challenges her faith.

As luck would have it, I’d just begun reading Jacob Paul’s debut novel, Sarah/Sara (Ig Publishing, 2010), when, on a routine visit to the Fiction Writers Review blog, I was greeted by Celeste Ng’s post on “This Book Made Me Want to Die,” an essay by author Aryn Kyle on certain readers’ expressed preferences for “happier” literary fare than what Kyle’s fiction offered them. If happiness is what those readers want, I thought as I returned to Sarah/Sara, they should keep their distance from this novel.
But they’d be missing out on something very special.
Sarah/Sara unfolds as the journal of Sarah Frankel, an American-born Jew who, shortly after finishing her undergraduate studies at Columbia, moved to Israel (in proper parlance, this is called “making aliyah”). There, where she took the Hebrew version of her name (“Sara,” pronounced Sah-rah), she continued to become far more ritually observant and schooled in Jewish texts than she was raised to be.
Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem after suicide bombing (9/9/2003)
Cafe Hillel in Jerusalem after suicide bombing (9/9/2003)
When her visiting parents were killed in a suicide bombing in the café below her Jerusalem apartment, she became a twenty-three-year-old, sibling-less orphan. The explosion also left Sarah disfigured, although it’s not until more than halfway through the book that we learn some details: “Scars cover most of my face. I don’t have eyebrows. I’m missing half of an ear.” This tragedy was far from the first Frankel family trauma: Sarah’s father, an investment banker who was on the twenty-ninth floor of Tower One on September 11, 2001, survived that day physically, but remained haunted by his experience. The suicide bombing in Israel and the 9/11 attacks are relentless touchstones in this book. The reader can escape their impact no more easily than the characters can. (Oh, and did I mention that Sarah’s mother was the daughter of a Holocaust survivor/orphan?)
As if all of that background weren’t bleak enough, Sarah writes her journal entries throughout what some might consider at best a desolate journey: a six-week, solo kayaking trip through the Arctic. This was the retirement trip her father was planning before he was killed. There’s no denying the scenic beauty (“The tundra amazes me,” Sarah writes in one early entry. “It’s a forest, willow and pine.”).
But there’s also no question that this is a dangerous adventure, with everything from polar bears to freezing temperatures threatening Sarah’s survival. These perils are no mere theoretical dangers; they are very real hazards. Further, the trip is shadowed by Sarah’s post-traumatic stress, grief, and guilt. Near the book’s end, when Sarah seems close to succumbing to almost certain death, she is prone to streams of thoughts like this set of “if only”s:
If I’d never become orthodox and moved to Jerusalem, if terrorists had never flown planes into my father’s office building, if my parents had never come to visit me, if that young woman hadn’t decided to kill herself by exploding in the middle of a crowded café, if I hadn’t survived the attack, if I hadn’t decided to finish my father’s boat and complete his retirement dream, if I’d found a more knowledgeable outfitter, if I’d started two weeks earlier or packed an emergency transponder, if I stopped whining so much and instead began searching for that stream. If I didn’t keep worrying that like Job, I was being punished rather than tested.
Jacob Paul
Jacob Paul
Throughout the trek, Sarah’s thoughts turn not only to her past—memories—but also to an imagined future. Grimness appears even in these fantasies of her post-kayak trip life back in Jerusalem. For instance, she imagines that she will meet a man, Udi, himself grieving a terrible loss (the death of his son), and that the couple will frequent a particular café:
They won’t discuss it, but part of Yechil’s Café’s appeal is the outdoor seating. In a large open area, they will have a much better chance of seeing a bomber before he detonates. Walls amplify blasts, echoing shockwaves with devastating effect. Yechil’s will be a kind of transitory therapy for Sara, a halfway house on the road to full café-recovery. Even the closest bus stop is on the other side of Rechov Ben Gurion and a full half block away. And their meetings will give Udi some structure, a sense of routine, a mandatory, daily perch which will be so important while he wanders Jerusalem’s streets, waiting for the expiration of his mourner’s leave from the army.
As a fiction writer—and as one who has spent considerable time and ink on Jewish characters and families—I was particularly drawn to multiple aspects of this novel. First, there’s the issue of language. The author does a good job explaining most of the less-familiar phrases (one example: “And I’m shomrei n’giah, which means I have no physical contact with men I’m not immediately related to if I can at all help it….”), and I suspect that words such as “Hashem” would be easy enough to comprehend from the context even if one didn’t already know that it serves as a referent for “God.” But at times, I struggled to make sense of sentences such as “Hashem made the yetzer harah to inflict us with taivah.” A prayer called Shemonah Esrai similarly sent me directly to that glossary we know as Google.
Incorporating what an MFA instructor once memorably derided in workshop as “foreign words” in one’s fiction is, I’ve realized, something that some of us simply can’t avoid. It’s something that makes perfect sense in this novel, where the very title suggests the inherent tensions between the protagonist’s secular Jewish-American and orthodox Jewish-Israeli selves. It indicates on small but identifiable levels—such as the Frankels’ expressed discomfort with being called “Eema” and “Abba” instead of “Mom” and “Dad”—a much greater conflict between Sarah and her parents, what Sarah calls “our ideological split.”
at the Western Wall / photo credit: Ram Viswanathan
at the Western Wall / photo credit: Ram Viswanathan
Here, I move into delicate territory. For the divisions that can arise within what might be called “the Jewish community” or even within individual Jewish families over religious observances and Israel are not easy to talk about. But talk about them (in her journal, at least) Sarah does. She describes herself as having been born into a comfortable Diaspora Jewish identity. Her parents—her mother, especially—do not approve of her embrace of Orthodox Judaism and her move to Israel. It’s not just rituals and language they have difficulty accepting. In one post-9/11 telephone conversation, Sarah listens as her mother rails:
‘That’s why your Sharon’s policies in the occupied territories will never stop terrorism. The more fear he creates; the more fear will seek outlet. People who do not fear, who are not oppressed, hunted, haunted by occupiers, they strive to avoid a situation of fear, strive to preserve a status-quo; those kind of people would never blow up buses or fly planes into buildings.’ I asked her if she wanted me to start with her insistence on calling the land Hashem promised us in the Torah occupied, or would she rather I addressed the massive success of Jewish passivity during the Shoah, or would she simply rather I dropped the subject?
Sarah’s father’s feelings in this respect are somewhat milder. As Sarah recalls, “his primary complaints were that I lived too far away and that I fought with my mother, not that I’d adopted the faith of my forefathers.” Still, even within this small family of three, one manages to obtain a glimpse into some of the varieties of Jewish experience and attitudes. This alone is a significant accomplishment.
Then, since we often find much made of women authors who attempt to write in the first-person point-of-view of male characters, it seems appropriate to address Paul’s work as a male author writing in the voice of a female protagonist. Two observations seem worth making here. First, Paul consistently takes into account the prescribed gender roles of traditional Orthodox Judaism. (He also takes on some of the stereotypes, as when Sarah recalls that her longtime—and non-Jewish—best friend, Marie, had tried to dissuade her “‘from having a shitty life living with some stuck-up pretentious Jew who kept you cloaked like a sheik’s wife.’”) And then, Sarah’s awareness of her body while she is on the kayaking trip is not limited to muscle strength or soreness. Her menstrual cycle receives attention, too. I’m not sure I’ve seen many male authors tackle lines like this:
My trainer suggested going on the pill to suppress everything altogether. She said it would be more convenient…I wish I had gone on the pill; I don’t want this here, now. Even if I wasn’t susceptible to the fearful suggestion that my body has secretly sought to contact predatory bears, I would not want to deal with double-bagged used pads, cleanup, hygiene.
Finally, I return to the book’s darker qualities. It’s not altogether inconceivable that after reading Sarah/Sara, someone might be inspired to follow the example of Aryn Kyle’s readers and claim that “this book made me want to die.” But for the more discerning reader, one who identifies with and marvels over what Laura van den Berg has lauded as “stories that make my heart hurt,” Sarah/Sara will be an important—and impressive—read. - Erika Dreifus

At a cozy brewpub in Salt Lake City, Utah, I share a pitcher of beer with author Jacob Paul. He has just handed me an advance copy of his new book, Sarah/Sara, and the discussion turns to a subject familiar to both of us: the adherence to and departure from organized religion. I approach the topic somewhat wearily—this conversation has become a ritual in itself for apostolic types here in Utah—but our talk is no chorus of agreement, no recitation of wrongs. Paul offers no easy outs for the nonbeliever; he refuses to dismiss the desires of the faithful offhand. His questions are probing; his thoughtful take on faith upsets my default position.
Sarah/Sara is likewise unwilling to let the skeptic off the hook. The language of faith and the language of skepticism, seemingly untranslatable one to the other, rub up against one another, melt at the edges, blur in their respective intents. By the end of the novel, even the most hardened doubter, even the most fervent believer must look hard to see the line in the sand, must examine her own feet to rediscover where she stands.
Sara, the protagonist and narrator of the novel, was born Sarah, the child of secular Jewish parents who live in New York. Unsatisfied with their worldview, which seems to promise a life of shallow, pointless pursuits, she seeks deeper meaning among the faithful in Israel—to her parents’ dismay. Her mother dislikes being called Eema, Hebrew for mother; bristles at the doctrines she espouses (for example, that the victims of the Holocaust, or ‘Shoah,’ somehow deserved their fate). Sara, who has always had a difficult relationship with her mother, addresses the majority of her searching monologues to her father, who (unlike his wife) tried always to accept her choices, though he questioned her for embracing a culture which relegated her to “second-class status” and worried daily about her safety in a country full of suicide bombers.
The novel opens with a language we immediately recognize: the vocabulary of September 11th. It begins with her father’s survival of one attack by the fanatical faithful—and his death soon after in a similar attack, this time in a restaurant in Israel. These powerful images, once invoked, do not stand idly by, but join the central pull of the questions that Sara, as survivor, must ask of herself, of God, of the world.
Sarah/Sara is a story of consecration—Sara’s attempt to find her father by undertaking the dangerous journey that he always dreamed and spoke of taking, a kayak trip across the Arctic Ocean. It is about survival—the physical, mental, and spiritual struggle to stay in this world and to make something of the stay. It is a story about solitude and community—the things Sara must face about herself, the desire for the Other, be it Hashem, parents, a lover, or a woman on a bus hiding a bomb underneath baggy clothes.
Though Paul’s novel places us in foreign, harsh environments, from the physical (the Arctic, Israel) to the linguistic and ideological (Orthodox Judaism, with its da’avens and tznios), it never abandons us there—the reader must never feel like an outsider because the boundaries are fluid, they shift, they complicate. It is a rare novel that creates new space within its pages; that moves towards a new language and thus, a new understanding of the world. Paul’s debut novel creates just such a space—a space as beautiful, as subtle, as dangerous as the Arctic landscape through which it moves. - Rachel Adams

- While touring for Sarah/Sara (on bicycle), Jacob Paul wrote a series of blog posts for Mountain Gazette. You’ll find them, in chronological order, here, here, here, here, and here.
- KRCL (Salt Lake City) conducted this interview with Jacob Paul in May 2010 
- At Write the Book, listen to a podcast interview with the author (July 2010) 

web banner

Articles & Essays:

In conversation with Dr. Hayden Carron about Adolfo Garcia Ortega’s Holocaust novel, The Birthday Buyer, on Fiction Writers Review.
Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy, on Fiction Writers Review: my review of Joshua Corey’s excellent debut novel.
“Slouching Past Totality; Or, What a Post-Postmodern Holocaust Novel Might Be.” This is the third of my essays dealing with questions of representation and of what might come after Postmodernism. It’s about ethics and agency and representation and how we might say what we say if we say anything at all.
“Columbus Day: Mimesis Is Thievery.” This is the second of my essays dealing with questions of representation. It’s a personal essay about my sixth birthday, which fell on Columbus Day. It’s also where I suggest a theory of mimesis based around replacement

Jacob Paul’s novel, Sarah/Sara, was named by Poets & Writers as one of 2010’s five best debut fictions. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Western Humanities Review, Green Mountains Review, Massachusetts Review, Seneca Review, Mountain Gazette, The Rumpus, Fiction Writers Review, Numero Cinc Magazine, and USA Today’s Weekend Magazine. A former OppenheimerFunds product manager, he now teaches creative writing at High Point University in North Carolina


Popular posts from this blog

Steven Seidenberg - a dramatic intensification of Seidenberg’s career-long blurring of fiction, poetry, and philosophy—an accomplishment recalling the literary contributions of Blanchot, Bernhard, and pre-impasse Beckett

Leon Forrest - Fabulous, wildly comic, and Ulysses-like. a huge oratorio of the sacred and the profane, set in bars, churches, and barbershops .

Futures and Fictions - In what ways could we imagine a world different from the one in which we currently live?