Organizations including the Pew Research Center, Anti-Defamation League, and American Jewish Committee all report an increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the last several years. These incidents have ranged from Holocaust denial and hate speech to shootings. When polled, 4 in 10 Jews have said that, as a response to such acts, they have either concealed their identity as Jews or cut back on Jewish activities.
In People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present, Dara Horn asks: Why be surprised?
No story ends well in this provocative essay collection, published in September 2021 by W.W. Norton. “You already knew this story had to end badly,” Horn writes in one essay. “Like almost every place Jews have ever lived,” there are locations “great for the Jews — until they weren’t.” Might America be another such place?
Horn plumbs history and literature in English, Yiddish, and Hebrew to explore the ways these stories of disappointment and destruction have played out. Time and again, she notes, non-Jews take inspiration from dramatic stories of dead Jews rather than living ones. These stories make them feel morally superior and virtuous but don’t lead to respect for contemporary Jews, often Eastern European in origin, who adhere to ritual practice. How to counter such narratives? Horn’s solution, personal as well as prescriptive, is both inspiring and frustrating.
A prize-winning author of six books and teacher of comparative literature, Horn describes herself as “a writer and scholar of Jewish history” as well as “a religious person” and, with some amount of sarcasm, “a living Jew.”
The animus for her collection of 12 essays is a struggle to make sense of the killings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and a kosher grocery in New Jersey. As the mother of four, she wonders how to tell her children about these acts of violence. As a scholar, she wonders how to situate these killings in the history of the United States. Her anger boils in the essay “Dead American Jews,” whose three parts frame the book.
In working to answer these questions, Horn concludes that, rather than being welcomed, Jews in the United States have consistently feared and experienced anti-Semitism. Whereas Americans have believed in a “dream” of an unspooling future, Jews, Horn writes, have experienced time “more like a spiral of spiral, a tangled old telephone cord in which the future was the present, which was essentially the past.”
Horn applies her scholarly curiosity and mordant humor to a range of topics. In one essay, she studies the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where management refused to let an employee wear his yarmulke unless he hid it under a baseball cap. The museum relented after four months, which, Horn opines, “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.” Visitors to the museum and readers of Frank’s diary, Horn writes, are all too eager to embrace Frank as a dead optimist. Horn imagines a different fate for Frank as a survivor, one who believes humans are barbaric and cruel, capable of genocide.
Other standout essays include one about Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia who settled in the northern Chinese city of Harbin at the turn of the last century. In another essay, Horn’s curiosity leads her to Stalinist Russia, where “Soviet Jewish artists — extraordinarily intelligent, creative, talented, and empathetic adults — were played for fools, falling into a slow-motion psychological horror story brimming with suspense and twisted self-blame.” She wrestles with The Merchant of Venice, trying to explain to her 10-year-old son why Shakespeare created the deeply anti-Semitic character of Shylock. In one of my favorite essays, Horn thinks about the ways Jewish writers, especially those writing fiction in Yiddish and Hebrew, avoid endings with resolutions, purpose, or Christian grace. Instead, they unflinchingly contemplate the horrors of Jewish history.
As she brings the collection to a close, Horn writes that, for her family, the way to deal with their rage at American anti-Semitism is to intensify their commitment to practicing Judaism. At bedtime, they say an ancient, foundational prayer: the Shema. Additionally, Horn commits to a daily, seven-year-long study of Talmud, a book of rabbinical commentary. She finds that these choices provide her with “an undeniable sense of welcome and relief.” She concludes that the destruction and humiliation of Jews no longer mattered: “Only memory and integrity did.”
Though the book consistently dazzles, it has limitations. Horn describes Palestinian acts of violence towards Jews as evidence of anti-Semitism, but she provides no context and assumes readers agree. She conflates coordinated efforts to boycott Israeli goods, especially on American college campuses, with the Nazi campaign against buying from Jewish shops in Germany.
Horn indulges in a similarly selective view of Jewish tradition. She draws only on an expression of Judaism tied to the study of scripture. Nowhere does she acknowledge traditions of American Jewish political activism and advocacy. Neither does she consider the origins of Zionism, with roots in socialist utopianism rather than liturgical practice.
For a scholar and writer capable of extraordinary insight, Horn’s focus in these areas seems myopic. It is at odds with her capacious exploration of the stupidity, cupidity, and cruelty of anti-Semitism. Her collection would have been no less powerful or cogent had she celebrated a wider diversity of Jewish practice and thought.