Interview'The obsession is a profound affront to human dignity'

‘People Love Dead Jews,’ says Dara Horn, but the living ones don’t fare as well

The acclaimed novelist pivots to non-fiction, explaining the myriad ways Jews have been — and still are — forced to erase their particularistic identity when living among non-Jews

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

Dara Horn (Michael B. Priest)
Dara Horn (Michael B. Priest)

Author Dara Horn surprised herself by choosing “People Love Dead Jews” as the title of her new collection of essays. She was even more amazed that her publisher agreed to let her keep it.

Horn’s testing the limits of good taste is not gratuitous. It’s a justified provocation that draws readers into the incisive analysis that she weaves through the book’s 12 individual but thematically-linked pieces.

To be clear, Horn isn’t talking about dead Jews in the literal sense… at least not entirely.

“It’s not dead Jews, as in people wanting to see Jews die,” Horn explained in a recent interview with The Times of Israel from her home in New Jersey.

Rather, she said, it’s about the insidious ways in which non-Jewish societies — including contemporary America — pressure or gaslight Jews into modifying, glossing over, or erasing their own identity altogether.

Horn noticed this particularly with regard to how the general public uses dead Jews — from Anne Frank, to Hasidic Jews killed in a terror attack on a kosher market in Jersey City in December 2019, to fictional Jewish characters — to accomplish this.

“The role dead Jews play in non-Jewish civilization is not the same as the one that they play in Jewish civilization,” Horn said.

A scholar of Jewish history and literature, Horn has until now preferred to focus her work on how Jews lived in different places and eras, rather than on how they died.

But her observations made her want to “unravel, document, describe and articulate the endless unspoken ways the popular obsession with dead Jews, even in its most benign and civic-minded forms, is a profound affront to human dignity,” as she writes in the book’s introduction.

‘People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present’ by Dara Horn (W. W. Norton & Company)

After writing five well-received novels grounded in different eras in Jewish history, Horn, 44, turned her attention to “People Love Dead Jews” (and her parallel podcast, “Adventures With Dead Jews,”) after being asked to write opinion pieces and articles responding to events such as the fatal shooting attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October 2018.

“I started noticing in the past several years that every time my editors from mainstream publications would ask me to write something, it was about dead Jews or antisemitism,” Horn said.

“I became the go-to person for this emerging literary genre — synagogue shooting op-eds. I did not apply for this job,” she said with the kind of dark humor that she laces throughout the essays in the book, some of them previously published.

Viewing herself as a storyteller, Horn decided to tackle the subject that way, rather than as a polemicist.

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh, on October 29, 2018 in which eleven Jews were killed while at Shabbat services. (AP/Matt Rourke)

Horn’s research into how, why and when Jews have been “expected to erase themselves in interactions with the non-Jewish world,” took her back in time to a campaign by the Soviet regime to brainwash Jewish artists and intellectuals into destroying Jewish culture in the 1930s and 1940s, before killing them off.

Horn’s reporting trips took her to far-flung places, but she also managed to conduct her research in locations as close to home as her family’s minivan, where she spoke with her 10-year-old son on their daily 40-minute commute. As they listened to an audio recording of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Horn’s precocious son was flabbergasted that she had been led to misunderstand the intention of Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech, which far from humanizing Jews was intended to demonize.

“And then I saw just how deep the gaslighting went: I felt obligated to make it work, to contort this revolting material into something that excused it… Why did I need to participate in this perverse historical mind trick of justifying my own people’s humiliation — a humiliation that was never just a cartoon but that cost so many of my ancestors their dignity and even their lives?” Horn angrily writes.

Al Pacino as Shylock in the Michael Radford-directed 2004 production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

The author reached distant, ice-bound Harbin, China, where she discovered a very cynical take on the preservation of local Jewish heritage. Harbin, a city along the Trans-Siberian Railroad in Manchuria, was built by Jews. It was a great place for 20,000 Jews to live in the early 20th century, but they only lasted there for three decades. Now there is but one Jew left in Harbin, an elderly Israeli journalist who is the self-appointed Jewish historian of the city.

One would be hard-pressed to find Jewish tourists in Harbin. But that hasn’t stopped the Chinese from pulling out all the stops in their efforts to attract investors for Jewish heritage projects, including a museum that makes no mention of why the Jewish community no longer exists, and an ice cream chain that has appropriated the name and countenance of a murdered local Jewish leader and businessman.

“They were doing it in a really openly cynical way. They were saying the quiet part out loud — ‘We’ve heard that Jews have a lot of money, and we want some of it, so we are going to restore these Jewish heritage sites and Jews will come, not just as tourists but as investors.’ They said these things out loud at conferences. It isn’t subtle,” Horn said.

“There are other places that maybe mean this, but they don’t say it this way,” she said.

This Hebrew gravestone is one of the few that remain in the Jewish cemetery of Aleppo, Syria. (Larry Luxner/ Times of Israel)

Horn told The Times of Israel that as a scholar and lover of Jewish history, she is obviously not against preserving Jewish heritage sites. But in the Harbin essay, as well as another on Diarna, a project to digitally preserve the remnants of Jewish civilization in North Africa and the Middle East, the author is critical of the politically motivated omission of reasons for the decline and destruction of these communities. (It has to do with people not loving live Jews.)

“There is a tourist industry concept, popular in places largely devoid of Jews, called ‘Jewish Heritage Sites.’ The term is a truly ingenious piece of marketing… It is a much better name than ‘Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews,'” Horn morbidly quips.

Unavoidably, the Holocaust is central to several of the book’s essays, including ones on the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and a recent blockbuster Auschwitz exhibition at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. At both, the Holocaust’s focus on eradicating global Jewry can get lost in the effort to highlight universal human suffering.

Another essay focuses on Varian Fry, an American who rescued thousands of artists and intellectuals from Nazi-occupied France, including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Hannah Arendt. Horn questions the celebration of Fry’s mission to rescue European civilization rather than Jewish civilization.

In each, Horn challenges the overwhelming drive to remove the particulars of Jewish life and tradition from the Holocaust experience to make it relatable for non-Jews. As a result, Jews are made into “a metaphor for the limits of Western civilization,” rather than individuals who have kept a unique 2,000-year-old tradition alive.

The problem is that for us, dead Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people that we do not want our children to become

“The problem is that for us, dead Jews aren’t a metaphor, but rather actual people that we do not want our children to become,” Horn writes.

A finalist for the prestigious Kirkus Prize for 2021,”People Love Dead Jews” is one of a number of books recently published in response to the resurgence of antisemitism in the United States and worldwide. Horn is not surprised by the uptick.

“I think that the fact that there are a lot of books like this reflects that a lot of people are thinking about this. There is a lot of anxiety in the Jewish community about this. Anyone who is Jewish who has spent five minutes on Twitter can tell you it isn’t all in our head,” she said.

The role that Israel plays in the growth of antisemitism and how this affects Jews in America, Europe and elsewhere is also a hot-button issue, but Horn chose not to touch upon it in her book.

“It’s really the opposite of this problem. This is a book about the way the non-Jewish world looks at Jews in a non-Jewish society,” she said in explaining why she did not include Israel.

Illustrative: Pro-Israel demonstrators attend a rally denouncing antisemitism and antisemitic attacks, in lower Manhattan, New York on May 23, 2021. (Ed JONES / AFP)

“I couldn’t do [Israel] justice in just one chapter. It would also not be adequate in addressing its place in Jewish history. I didn’t want to be reductive,” she said.

Despite all the past and present examples Horn provides in “People Love Dead Jews” of how Jews have been gaslighted, manipulated, or forced outright to erase themselves in an effort to survive, she remains optimistic for her and her children’s future in America.

“It is not true that we are living any of those parallel historical situations. I don’t think it is any way comparable to those things in that we are living in a participatory democracy,” Horn said.

“I don’t want to take on a lachrymose view of Jewish history. I don’t think any of this is new in the larger picture of history. What we really have here is a tradition that is a master class in resilience. That is something we [as Jews] are good at,” she said.

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