Dara Horn writes beautiful prose. It shows up in her beautiful novels (like The World to Come). It also graces her deeply-thought non-fiction, which in the case of People Love Dead Jews is not only deeply-thought but deeply personal. And although not everyone* loves the phrase “the personal is political,” this instance of the personal is also deeply political, in the sense that what Horn has observed personally reflects and points back to larger, far more widespread, patterns of thought and action that inform the decisions of groups and nations.
What she has noticed personally, and documented more generally, is the way “people love dead Jews.” That is: memorials to absence are popular. Living, breathing, thinking, acting, present Jewish people are a lot less popular. People Love Dead Jews is an illuminating, and convincing, exploration of why that might be.
Memorials can console – they make the problems seem to reside comfortably in the past. Memorials can flatter – they permit their consumers to think thoughts like “never again” and “never would we ever …” They can console and flatter even when people are actively participating in erasing or suppressing real life Jewish people and manifestations of Jewish life. For instance, she notes the irony of a guide at the Anne Frank house being instructed not to wear his yarmulke openly, but to hide it under a baseball cap. To keep the space “neutral.”
I confess I was drawn in to the chapter on “Frozen Jews,” the Jewish builders of the city of Harbin, China, and their ultimate fate, for my own personal reasons. Harbin was also home to a large community of German-speaking Russian refugees in the early years of the 20th century. Among whom were my Mennonite grandparents. They lived there for about two years after leaving Russia and before gaining entry to the US. We have a photograph of my grandfather in a padded jacket and cap, standing next to the cart he used to deliver milk, one of the things he did to put bread on the table in those days. Our family has good reason to be grateful to the Jews who built the city of Harbin. As Horn points out, however, none of those Jews live there now.
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.’ By calling these places ‘Jewish Heritage Sites,’ all those pesky moral concerns – about, say, why these ‘sites’ exist to begin with – evaporate in a mist of goodwill.Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews, 22
Harbin, with its Jewish cemetery that no longer contains Jewish graves, because the original cemetery was paved over and turned into an amusement park, and its reconstructed synagogue, because the real original was destroyed, and its artificial “artifacts” that attest – upon reflection – to the reality of what might be called non-“preservation,” is one such “Jewish Heritage Site.” In the light of Horn’s thoughtful gaze, it appears less like a celebration of Jews and of Judaism, more like a different kind of erasure. An erasure of the act of erasing itself. Horn allows her readers to see something more clearly: that act of erasing also needs to be remembered, for what it was, along with its consequences, so as not to be chosen over and over again. Unnoticed, unremarked, it remains a recurrent reflex.
Horn’s careful consideration of a few of that erasure’s modern manifestations brings the reader around to a conclusion, of sorts. She arranges her chapters pedagogically, beginning where most American school children begin, innocently, with “everyone’s [second] favorite dead Jew,” Anne Frank and her diary.
Then she considers exotica, other people’s uses of dead Jews, the Chinese, the Soviets. [We’re not them.]
Then the American past; immigrants and why they would have changed their names; the unrewarded and underappreciated courage of the madly prophetic Varian Fry, rescuer of European Jews.
She interrupts the flow of these chapters, the way the events themselves disturb our sense of normalcy, with looks at recent murderous attacks on American synagogues.
She looks closely at modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and its departure from the canons of [western, i.e., Christian] literary meaning. She observes, and reflects on the observation, that major works in Yiddish and Hebrew
… almost never involved characters getting saved, or having epiphanies, or experiencing moments of grace. … I saw that many of the canonical stories and novels in modern Yiddish and Hebew literature actually didn’t have endings at all.(76)
This, she notes, imbues these works with
… a kind of realism that comes from humility, from the knowledge that one cannot be true to the human experience while pretending to make sense of the world.(79)
Ultimately, she leads readers back to themselves, even as her conversation with her son over The Merchant of Venice leads her back to herself, and her own ability to deny the evidence, always in plain sight, of its integral anti-semitism. Nevertheless, it takes the persistent, honest, inconvenient, disruptive questioning of another, different point of view to make it visible.
And then beyond. The book does not so much “have an ending,” as it ends, by walking into the ocean of the Talmud, and Horn’s ongoing participation in the communal practice of Daf Yomi, daily communal Talmud study. Back to the source.
Taking that journey along with her, her readers come to share her core insight along the way:
The existence of Jews in any society is a reminder that freedom is possible, but only with responsibility – and that freedom without responsibility is no freedom at all. People who hate Jews know this. … The freedoms that we cherish are meaningless without our commitments to one another: to civil discourse, to actively educating the next generation, to welcoming strangers, to loving our neighbors. The beginning of freedom is the beginning of responsibility. …(106-107)
Assuming that responsibility is costly. Living with it, acting on it, entails endless practice. The practice itself embodies the freedom it affirms. To search for meaning beyond the closed context, the world of the same. To be open to the endless mystery of the Other, yet to be encountered. Even to endure the consequences of that eternal difference.
In case I have not been completely clear, I think this is a wonderful book. I hope many people read it. And learn its lessons. And keep learning them. Without end. And in the process, come to love the living even more than they love the dead.
Here is an additional, personal, no doubt political postscript. As a Gentile reader, and a Christian one at that, I feel a special responsibility when it comes to “the Jews.” At the very least, I feel I ought not to do further harm; ideally, I feel, I ought to undo some of the harm that has already been done. This responsibility weighs particularly heavily on my reading of the Tanakh, which appears in my Christian Bible always as the Old Testament, and which I know we Christian readers cannot live without. It weighs even heavier on whatever I say about “the Jews,” who come up a lot in the New Testament, especially in church.
And I cannot help thinking of this: I think I know who Dara Horn thinks is everyone’s favorite dead Jew. But hopefully at least some of us know everyone’s favorite dead Jew differently, as someone who, beyond the closed context of a life with a neatly and satisfactorily redemptive ending, keeps asking us, persistently, honestly, inconveniently, disruptively, ever new, here, now: Do you love me? How, then, will you live?
* Noam Chomsky, for instance, does not like the phrase “the personal is political. I learned this reading How the World Works. In his view, “the personal is political” too easily makes people think that personal, private changes in one’s life constitute political action. That is, that personal, private decency is an adequate, effective substitute for collective action. I can see why someone who thinks that’s what the phrase means would think it’s a bad idea.
Horn, Dara. People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. W.W. Norton & Company, 2021. (Kindle)
__________. The World to Come. W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.
An installment of the Read Me Project.
Images: “Harbin Jewish Cemetery 1,” public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Fragment of book tower sculpture, in Prague Municipal Library, By August Dominus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons