Virtual Homeland

Reimagining the Jewish state that never was, in Grand Island, New York

Reimagining the Jewish state that never was, in Grand Island, New York

Grand Island, New York, lies in the middle of the Niagara River, crossed by a short, flat, boring swatch of Interstate 190. Most Canadians drive over it as fast as they can on their way to Buffalo, or to various points east and west. There are few major sites of interest here—except perhaps the swimming pool at the Holiday Inn, where it is said that the ghost of a nineteenth-century sawmill owner’s daughter regularly appears. Altogether, it’s an unlikely place for a Jewish homeland.

Yet here I am behind said Holiday Inn, looking at a smart phone, calling up an “augment” on the screen—the view of just this place, doctored to include a port of entry, decorated with two doves and the word “Ararat” between them. This is the brick gate through which persecuted European Jews might have passed on their way to Ararat, a homeland for Jews first proposed in 1820 by Mordecai Manuel Noah.

A diplomat, playwright, newspaperman, and land promoter, Noah was arguably the most famous Jew in America. Well acquainted with the terrible plight of his co-religionists abroad, he thought Grand Island would be the perfect place for American Jewish “refuging.” At the time, the Erie Canal connecting Lake Erie to Albany was nearing completion, and industrious immigrants were suddenly needed to help exploit the new, potentially lucrative waterway.

Head Games

Coping with reality—virtually

Illustration by Jenn Kitagawa
Jenn Kitagawa

When Oculus VR unveiled its state-of-the-art virtual reality headset, gamers couldn’t wait to fully immerse themselves in their game worlds, but psychologists were more intrigued by the device’s potential for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers demonstrated the benefits of simulation at the University of Central Florida, where they employed the Virtual Iraq simulation system to repeatedly expose affected soldiers to combat situations and other anxiety-inducing events, in a controlled manner. Albert Rizzo, who specializes in medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California, believes Oculus Rift’s unprecedented realism could serve as an even more effective tool for trauma therapy—not so different, perhaps, from what gamers seek: virtual reality as a tool for coping with actual reality, in and out of the consultation room.

Jonathan Wu

On September 15, 1825, Noah laid the cornerstone for the refuge in Buffalo’s St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Buffalo was the largest town near Grand Island, and Noah was a friend of the church minister. He called the new homeland Ararat, after the mountain where Noah’s ark is said to have landed. The ceremony was fittingly grand: he dressed in robes of crimson silk trimmed with ermine for purity, and was accompanied by military, state, and municipal officers, tradespeople, bands, clergymen, and Seneca chief Red Jacket. (Noah believed Native Americans were descended from the lost tribes of Israel.)

An agent bought a few plots on Grand Island for Noah’s scheme, but was less successful in garnering support from politicians, individual Jews, and European Jewish leaders. In particular, French and English rabbis bridled at the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland outside of historical Israel. Ararat anticipated the many proposals for alternative Jewish homelands that followed over the next century or so—in places as geographically and culturally disparate as Uganda, Argentina, Madagascar, Australia, Albania, Cyprus, and Alaska.

In 2011, Melissa Shiff and Louis Kaplan, two academics at the University of Toronto, began to contemplate how the Internet might address the potent what-ifs of such Jewish homelands. They wanted “to recover and reanimate these alternative histories,” explains Kaplan, who specializes in the theory and history of photography and new media. Together with Shiff (who also happens to be his wife) and John Craig Freeman, a professor of new media at Emerson College in Boston, the three created Mapping Ararat. The project allows tourists visiting the Whitehaven area of Grand Island, where Ararat would have been located, to call up artifacts of a Jewish homeland that might have been but never was.

What they see on the screen is not a virtual reality, but rather an augmented one: a downloaded app adds an element to the existing architecture or landscape featured in the viewfinder of a smart phone camera. As well as the dove-topped brick gate, visitors can view a historically accurate synagogue set in the rough of the eighteenth hole at the River Oaks Golf Club; the graves of Noah and his wife and son in the existing Whitehaven Cemetery; and Noah’s Ark Amusement Park.

Of course, no one is going to mistake this augmented reality project for reality itself, which may be appropriate, given that Ararat is not the only homeland that has been, or could be, imagined on Grand Island. Noah’s family may not lie in the actual Whitehaven Cemetery, but plenty of real coffins are buried there. Even Canada might have a stake: after the American Revolution, the Niagara River was supposed to separate Canada and the US, but some early writers believed that the international boundary cut through the centre of Grand Island.

There are other competing claims as well—most notably from the Seneca Nation that once made its home here. As late as 2002, the Senecas were suing for the return of their lost homeland, which they said had been illegally annexed by the United States. In 1964, the Grand Island Historical Society co-sponsored a monument to commemorate Noah’s dream of a homeland for the Jews, but visitors who look at the original marker with their smart phones can now see another, augmented monument beside it. It commemorates another would-have-been, says Shiff: that the Senecas won their 2002 repatriation court case, and that Grand Island has been returned to them.

This appeared in the July/August 2013 issue.

Stephen Strauss
Stephen Strauss is president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.