People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present
By Dara Horn
W.W. Norton, 272 pp., $25.95
As the author of five highly regarded novels, ranging from the award-winning In the Image (2002) to the memorably time-shifting Eternal Life (2018), Dara Horn is recognized as an accomplished fiction writer and as a storyteller who draws inspiration from centuries of Jewish history. But Horn is also a scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature and a knowledgeable, prolific and gifted writer of nonfiction.
People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present gathers 12 of Horn’s nonfiction pieces—many, but not all, previously published in a range of Jewish and secular publications—adding an introductory essay to offer a baker’s dozen of treats.
“Treat” may seem too rosy a word for a book that bears so bracing a title. In the introductory essay, Horn declares that she’s not here to entertain us: “This book explores the many strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment. I hope you will find it as disturbing as I do.” From the start, Horn reminds us that outside certain bubbles, much of the world has come to know dead Jews—most often, murdered Jews—better than living ones. Moreover, as much of the book goes on to demonstrate, narratives surrounding persecution and Jewish death have been framed in discomfiting and often moralistic ways. But as disquieting as the book may be, it’s also extremely well-written and engaging, sustained throughout by Horn’s inimitably intelligent and lively voice.
The attention-grabbing title is lifted from a piece Horn published in Smithsonian magazine in 2018. “People love dead Jews,” that article began. “Living Jews, not so much.” The essay appears as this book’s first chapter, retitled “Everyone’s (Second) Favorite Dead Jew.” (The top favorite is not explicitly identified in the piece, but there’s a fairly broad hint that that honor goes to a certain first-century Galilean.)
Noting how attention to—even reverence for—past Jewish suffering can coexist with contemporary insult and intolerance, Horn begins the essay with an episode in which the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, invoking a goal of “neutrality,” told a yarmulke-wearing employee to hide his kippah beneath a baseball cap. Facing backlash, the museum “finally relented after deliberating for six months, which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.” Horn then explores the world’s collective embrace of the doomed teenaged diarist, speculating on the qualities that have made Frank and her diary more appealing than, say, the written legacy bequeathed to us by one Zalmen Gradowski, who wrote directly from the crematoria at Auschwitz.
If, like me, you’re a regular reader of Horn’s work, you may recall that this Smithsonian piece, though written earlier, appeared in the magazine’s November 2018 issue and was posted online just a few days after 11 Jews were murdered at Shabbat morning services in Pittsburgh. The essay that Horn wrote for The New York Times shortly after that massacre also shows up in this book under a new title: “Dead American Jews, Part One.” It’s followed, a few chapters later, by “Dead American Jews, Part Two,” the original version of which the Times also published, just after another synagogue shooting in April 2019 in Poway, California.
In the book’s final chapter, Horn gives us the third piece in this would-be trilogy. It’s a previously unpublished essay, prompted by yet another deadly attack. This time the violence unfurls in Jersey City, New Jersey, not far from Horn’s own home. And this time, Horn tells us, neither the Times nor any other news outlet requested an instantaneous op-ed. This was, in fact, a relief, “because the things I wanted to say about it were no longer things that I could actually say.” After Pittsburgh, Horn writes, she was “devastated.” After Poway, she was “angry.” But “after the third attack near my home and the season of horror that followed”—including a murderous assault on a Hanukkah party in the home of a Hasidic rabbi in Monsey, New York—Horn “simply gave up.”
One of the best ways to respond to the hateful words and actions directed toward us as Jews is to embrace our traditions ever more strongly and proudly.
But not completely. Here, she gives us her response, one seasoned, in part, by what time allowed her to observe, including the way the media covered the attacks and the types of “context” it supplied. In reading the coverage of Jersey City, for instance, Horn finds the media to have given “surprising emphasis to the murdered Jews as ‘gentrifying’ a ‘minority’ neighborhood. This was remarkable, given that the tiny Hasidic community in question, highly visible members of the world’s most consistently persecuted minority, in fact came to Jersey City fleeing gentrification, after being priced out of long-established Hasidic communities in Brooklyn.” There were, in other words, repeated implications in the press that in some way these visibly Jewish Jersey City targets “got what was coming to them.” (“People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”)
This concluding essay, titled “Dead American Jews, Part Three,” bears a significant subtitle: “Turning the Page.” Because at some point in this piece—after analyzing the Jersey City episode and what happened in Monsey—Horn’s focus shifts to something else that happened that winter of 2019-20: the gathering, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey’s Meadowlands, of 90,000 people in the Siyum HaShas, or celebration of the completion of another seven-and-a-half-year cycle of communal reading of the Babylonian Talmud.
In ending the book with her own embarkation on Daf Yomi, the ritual study of a single Talmud page per day that culminates in the Siyum HaShas, Horn reminded me of a message I’ve encountered elsewhere: One of the best ways to respond to the hateful words and actions directed toward us as Jews is to embrace our traditions ever more strongly and proudly.
The dead Jews Horn writes about—and the ways they are remembered, particularly in the media and popular culture—aren’t limited to Holocaust victims or those targeted in Pittsburgh or Poway or Jersey City. The book interweaves its chapters on those subjects with others. One of my favorites is Horn’s dispatch from Harbin, China, which once boasted a thriving Jewish community and now sustains a Jewish population of one—alongside an unsettlingly artificial “Jewish Heritage Site.” Ultimately, wherever Horn trains her ultra-keen eye, I’m willing to follow. You may be, too.
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