Facebook meets medieval Genizah in intriguing new novel
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'Technology is turning personal memory into public history'

Facebook meets medieval Genizah in intriguing new novel

Superstar Jewish author Dara Horn writes a guide to perplexing contemporary problems, with a little help from the sages

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

'A Guide for the Perplexed' author Dara Horn (photo credit: Brendan Schulman)
'A Guide for the Perplexed' author Dara Horn (photo credit: Brendan Schulman)

When author Dara Horn was growing up, she fantasized about being able to record everything that ever happened to her. She always kept journals and diaries, and she wrote everything down.

She still keeps journals — mainly ideas and observations to fuel her fiction — but now the idea of trying to remember and record absolutely everything is far less appealing. This no doubt has something to do with her busy days as a 36-year-old working mother of four children under the age of nine. But Horn believes it has even more to do with the era in which we are living.

“Technology has turned my childhood dream into a nightmare!” Horn exclaims in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel from her home in Short Hills, New Jersey. She’s paid close attention to how social media, which was originally about sharing, has become much more about recording the minutia of our lives.

“Technology has changed the capacity of how we remember, it’s turning personal memory into public history.”

This was the observation that launched Horn into her new and fourth novel, “A Guide for the Perplexed.” Published earlier this month, it is intriguing readers with its four different narrative strands spanning millennia of Jewish time and space, which Horn deftly weaves together while asking two key questions: “How does memory differ from history?” and “How can we have free will, if all is predetermined?”

'A Guide for the Perplexed' by Dara Horn. (photo credit: courtesy)
‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ by Dara Horn. (photo credit: courtesy)

The contemporary strand places the novel in the near future, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where brilliant software developer and Internet entrepreneur Josie Ashkenazi has invented a social media platform called Genizah that not only allows users to upload any and all information (photos, videos, text, medical records — you name it) into a virtual storage space, but also automatically records everything users do and catalogs the uploaded information according to users’ instincts and routines.

Josie is married to Itamar Mizrachi, an Israeli man who helps run her company, and together they have a young daughter named Tali. Also in the family picture is Josie’s older sister Judith, who works at Josie’s company and has always been envious of her brilliant and beautiful sibling. When, at Judith’s urging, Josie takes a short-term consulting gig in post-Arab Spring Egypt (she is brought in to help with the digitizing of the archive at the Library of Alexandria) and disappears after being kidnapped, Judith insinuates herself into Itamar and Tali’s lives.

In “A Guide for the Perplexed,” Horn also tells the story of Dr. Solomon Schechter, the Cambridge professor originally from Eastern Europe who sought out the famous Cairo Genizah in 1896. Hearing about the trove of medieval manuscripts from colleagues, he heads to Egypt and does whatever it takes (quite humorously, in Horn’s telling) to be allowed to access it and take as much of the disintegrating material back to England for study and cataloging.

“Everyone thinks that a Genizah is an archive, when in fact, it is the very opposite of an archive,” says Horn. “Sure, there are priceless documents among the 150,000 in it, but the fast majority are the detritus of daily life. It’s basically a medieval Facebook.”

‘Everyone thinks that a Genizah is an archive, when in fact, it is the very opposite of an archive’

Another narrative strand takes us even further back in time to 12th century Egypt, where we find Maimonides, the great rabbi and physician and author of the original “A Guide for the Perplexed” (the philosophical-theological tract known in Hebrew as “Moreh Nevuchim”). Maimonides is mourning his younger brother David, a merchant who dies in a shipwreck after Maimonides sends him off to India in search of a specific medicinal herb that might cure the Sultan’s asthma.

A fourth layer of the story references the biblical episode of Joseph and his brothers. Horn chooses to retell this archetypal narrative through the backstory of Josie and Judith’s upbringing and sibling rivalry dating back to their earliest memories. This motif is front and center when early in the novel, Judith and a bunch of friends lower a pre-teen Josie into a deep, dark pit in the woods near their summer camp, remove the rope and walk away.

The contemporary level of the story, with Josie realizing for the first time, during her captivity, the true potential and perils of her Genizah invention, is engaging in and of itself. But it’s Horn’s making countless creative and thought-provoking connections not only between this plot line and the others, but also among all the strands, that demonstrates yet again why she is one of the most accomplished Jewish authors of her generation.

‘So many Jewish books are set in the past. I wanted to embrace the now’

As she set about writing this book, Horn had very consciously decided on writing a contemporary novel, especially after her third novel, “All Other Nights,” (2010) which was set during the American Civil War. “So many Jewish books are set in the past. I wanted to embrace the now. But I’m incapable of writing an exclusively contemporary novel,” she half-laments.

Horn may downplay her natural inclination, but she knows what she does well, as do her readers. It is abundantly clear as she speaks quickly and enthusiastically about her writing process and the ideas behind “A Guide to the Perplexed,” that she is moved by the themes that have played themselves out over and over again throughout the centuries of Jewish history and tradition. Her language, resonant of historical and religious Jewish texts, also betrays where her literary heart and soul lie.

“The word ‘novel’ implies something fresh, unprecedented, but it’s a core premise of traditional Judaism that after biblical times, nothing really new ever occurs,” Horn wrote in a recent essay in the New York Times.

In conversation with The Times of Israel, as in the essay, Horn references “Zachor,” the book by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi about collective Jewish memory and its staying power.

“Yerushalmi tells us that history is a collection of evidence about the past. Memory, on the other hand, is a selection from those facts in order to create a story about the past,” she says. “This is what gives us identity. And I am asking how technology will affect that on both a personal level and a national level.”

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

Undoubtedly, Horn’s fascination with questions of Jewish history and collective memory stem from her academic interests (she has a Ph.D. in comparative literature, with an emphasis on Hebrew and Yiddish, from Harvard), but she also has a very different reason for thinking deeply about how, why and what we remember. It’s a personal one, and although it likely originates with her own childhood fascination with recording events, it now has more to do with the children she and her husband, Brendan Schulman, brought into the world while she birthed her four novels.

“We don’t always have the power or choice to control how we remember the past, let alone how we ourselves are remembered,” Horn warns.

She dedicates this new novel to her daughter and three sons, riffing on a passage in the Zichronot (Remembrances) section of the High Holy Day prayer book that says that what God remembers, humans forget, and vice versa.

“For Maya, Ari, Eli and Ronen — who will forget what I remember, and who will remember what I forget,” she writes.

“Taking a million photos is not going to freeze your child in time,” she says. “There is no way to know what your kids will remember. It’s their life and their stories, not yours.”

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