Blessing or curse? A matriarch grapples with immortality in new Dara Horn novel
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Interview'How much of us is due to circumstance?'

Blessing or curse? A matriarch grapples with immortality in new Dara Horn novel

Spanning from the fall of the Second Temple until today, ‘Eternal Life’ traces the exceptionally long life of Rachel, the archetypical Jewish mother

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Dara Horn's new novel, 'Eternal Life' is about a woman who can't die.  (Michael B. Priest)
Dara Horn's new novel, 'Eternal Life' is about a woman who can't die. (Michael B. Priest)

Dara Horn was in the shower when the idea for her new novel, “Eternal Life,” came to her. In a burst of inspiration, she jotted in a waterproof notebook a biblical phrase in Hebrew: “Eileh toldot Rachel” (these are Rachel’s offspring).

The notebook was a Mother’s Day gift from Horn’s husband; something to use in the one place and few moments of the day when she isn’t interrupted by any of her four young children. Ironically, what entered her mind were words about one of the Jewish matriarchs, which led her to write a book about motherhood.

More precisely, “Eternal Life,” Horn’s fifth novel, is about motherhood that never ends. To be sure, most mothers feel as though parenting obligations are interminable, but for the novel’s main character named Rachel, motherhood literally goes on forever because she simply cannot die.

‘Eternal Life’ by Dara Horn (W. W. Norton & Company)

To an extent, it’s the humor (and horror) of infinite diaper changes that drives this masterful page-turner. However, “Eternal Life” is at its core a serious meditation on the meaning of life and purpose of death.

Main character Rachel is a Jewish widow in her early 80s who resides in contemporary America. Her current disappointment is with her 55-year-old ne’er-do-well son Rocky, who has moved back into her basement. But Rocky’s dramas are only the latest to be delivered by some of the hundreds of children she has birthed since her days in Roman-controlled Jerusalem during the Second Temple era two millennia ago.

At the start of her exceptionally long life, Rachel was the daughter of a Jewish scribe in the Holy City during the Tannaitic period, in the years just prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. The shift from sacrifice-based Judaism toward today’s study of sacred texts was already in progress and reflected in rifts within Rachel’s own family. Her husband supported the Zealots in their rebellion against the Romans, while her brilliant son, Yohanan ben Zakkai (a historical figure from the Mishna), was among the pacifists.

Horn, 40, incorporates the legend of ben Zakkai faking his own death in order to be taken for “burial” out of besieged Jerusalem by his disciples and go on to establish Yavne as Judaism’s center of learning and the seat of the Sanhedrin for centuries after the Holy Temple burns to the ground in 70 CE.

Holy Temple as it appears in model of Jerusalem in Second Temple period at the Israel Museum (Freud via Wikimedia Commons)

Through a series of events, Rachel becomes destined to live over and over as a Jewish woman and mother throughout the course of Jewish history until this day.

Horn, who has a PhD in comparative literature focused on Yiddish and Hebrew from Harvard, exploded onto the American literary scene at just 25 with her National Jewish Book Award-winning first novel, “In the Image,” a stunning wedding of secular and religious literature about how the past can renew the future. Horn continued to garner accolades for her subsequent novels, among them “The World to Come” and “All Other Nights,” both of which were singled out by The New York Times for major honors. In all her works, Horn draws upon Jewish history, folklore and texts to grapple with perennial questions of philosophy, spirituality and morality.

The Times of Israel recently interviewed Horn on writing a book about Jerusalem, trying to stop time, and what sets her novel apart from others about eternal life.

All your novels have elements of Jewish historical fiction. Was it different to write about the ancient era for the first time?

I’ve been a regular Torah reader in synagogue since my bat mitzvah, so it felt like coming home, because anything involving the time when the Temples was standing is so central to Jewish liturgical life. Every public prayer service corresponds to a Temple service. For my other books, I wrote about periods I knew well from my academic work of through my research. With [ancient Jerusalem], I ended up doing research, but it was familiar in a way that say 12th century Cairo isn’t. As a Torah reader, there were many years that I did the Yom Kippur Shacharit [morning service] Torah reading that goes through all the rituals of the High Priest. It makes you feel like you were there.

Dara Horn examines inscription dating to Kind Hezekiah’s time referenced in her new novel, ‘Eternal Life.’ Jerusalem, August 2017 (Brendan Schulman)

Your other novels have multiple layers, voices and characters, but “Eternal Life” primarily follows a single character through time. Was this more challenging?

It was not only challenging from a technical standpoint. It opened up the larger question of what makes up who we are. Part of us is innate, like our temperament or biology. But how much of us is due to circumstance? There’s so much of Rachel that is affected by circumstances. What amazed me while writing  this character was how little it differed from writing about a normal life. That surprised me. This is still a person who retains her integrity and personality over the millennia, but who is shaped by a lot of forces beyond her control, like all of us are.

Each of your books has its own theme, but there is a common thread to all of them.

My subject has always been time. It’s a subject that has always motivated me ever since I was a child. The idea of days disappearing, the idea that we are trapped in time and are forced to move in only one direction through time. This deeply, profoundly disturbed me as a child. I think it disturbs everyone, whether or not they are conscious of it or express it. One of my motivations for writing was to stop time, to capture moments that would disappear — not necessarily special moments, just everyday things. I kept journals about things that happened, things I observed. It felt so urgent.

How has Judaism helped you deal with this problem of time disappearing?

I grew up in a passionately Jewish family, and as an artist I am drawn to Jewish culture because I feel this is a tradition designed to solve this kind of problem.

In Genesis there’s the Tree of Life, a physical tree that if you eat its fruit you will live forever. By Exodus, you get to this idea of the Tree of Life being the Torah. This eternal life that has been planted in our midst is through a book. In Judaism there is such a thing as immortality, but it’s not necessarily a personal immortality. It’s a national immortality. It’s our [Jewish] story that lives on forever.

Author Dara Horn with her husband Brendan Schulman and their four children in 2013. (photo credit: Matthew Horn)

Stories about people living forever or questing for eternal life dates back to the Epic of Gilgamesh. What is your new and different spin on the genre?

None — or almost none — of those other novels and stories are about fertile women. Traditionally, and still to a large extent today, women’s lives are defined by obligation rather than ambition. Many women would never make the mistake of thinking that their life was just theirs. Everyone’s life is shaped and reflected in the lives of others, and as a woman in a traditional setting, you don’t have to be told that. Motherhood sometimes feels interminable. There’s a kind of bottomlessness to the obligations to others when it comes to large families, especially for women.

This novel about ancient Jerusalem thousands of years ago is coming out at a time when Jewish and Israeli connections to the city are disputed and discredited by international bodies. Do you have any thoughts on this?

It occurred to me as I was writing the novel that someone could read it and say this is a political book because it is about the Jewish people’s ties to Jerusalem. But how is that political? It’s just a historical reality. The idea that the Jewish people’s historical reality is somehow political is really absurd if you think about it. There is something so tiring about the idea that historical facts are up for debate. I’m not a political person or writer.

An aerial view of the Dome of the Rock, left, in the compound known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s old city, and the Western Wall, center, the holiest site for Jews, October 02, 2007. (AFP/JACK GUEZ)

When we interviewed you about your last book, you spoke about a parenting message you took away from it. Is there one in this novel?

You get to know Rachel’s current and ancient families very well, and there are glimmers of the other families she’s had over thousands of years. She doesn’t control her children in any way… I think there is something in the [contemporary] parenting culture — a delusion, or illusion of control, that what we do matters. To some extent you have to buy that in order to raise children, because otherwise its just too frustrating to believe that nothing you do matters. I don’t think you can really do a lot beyond loving them.

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