book shelf

Dara Horn on a world that only teaches about ‘dead Jews’

Horn’s new essay collection ‘People Love Dead Jews’ looks at pervasive, modern-day antisemitism

Brendan Schulman

Dara Horn

If you keep walking past the Jewish cheder, the Jewish-owned hotel and the Jewish-owned ice cream shop, you’ll reach the Old Synagogue, with a bimah and images of the Twin Tablets and stands to hold prayer books. 

You’re not in New York, or Jerusalem. This is Harbin, China, a city south of Siberia that is known for its annual ice festival. The small Russian Jewish community that once occupied the area is long gone; its inhabitants were plundered and then expelled, or killed. Writer Dara Horn was in Harbin to see its attempt at reconstructing Jewish buildings that had been destroyed by any of the Chinese, Russian or Japanese governments that had once controlled the area. The synagogue was now a concert hall. 

Horn sat down in one of the pews in this synagogue that felt “no different from every single urban early-20th-century synagogue I’ve ever entered” and reached “for a prayer book that wasn’t there.” That night’s show was a string quartet.

“I felt that creeping ‘Jewish heritage’ unease, the unarticulated sense that despite all the supposed goodwill, something was clearly off,” Horn writes. 

She describes this scene in People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present, her new essay collection that comes out on September 7. It’s her first nonfiction book, following five works of fiction that very much feature living Jews with interesting lives and story lines. The cheeky title is meant to be provocative, but it gets at Horn’s concern with how non-Jews around the world usually learn about Jews — not by interacting with them or learning about Jewish life, but by learning about “dead Jews,” through topics like the Holocaust or the Spanish Inquisition or Harbin’s story.

“I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews,” Horn writes. “I was very wrong.”

Horn’s essays, several of which were previously published in other publications, address the dissonance between people’s fascination with dead Jews and rising levels of antisemitism in the U.S. (The FBI released figures yesterday showing that 58% of reported religiously motivated hate crimes in 2020 targeted Jews.) “Think about your social studies textbook when you’re in sixth grade or something. There’s something about the Israelites in the ancient history section. And then there’s a chapter about the Holocaust. That’s the only thing they say about Jews,” Horn told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. 

One essay grapples with the near-universal reverence of Anne Frank while an employee at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam was told not to wear a yarmulke to work. Another makes sense of “Jewish heritage” sites worldwide and the perhaps slightly antisemitic reasons non-Jews maintain them. All try to get at uncomfortable truths about modern antisemitism.

After the Holocaust, Horn argued, the recent memory of the murder of six million Jews kept antisemitism in check. “The last few generations of non-Jews were sort of chagrined by the Holocaust, and that made antisemitism socially unacceptable,” said Horn, who is 44. “For the people who are in my generation and my parents’ generation, the times we grew up in were not normal. Now normal is returning.”

In conversation with JI, Horn talked about what Jewish liturgy has to say about dead Jews, how universalizing Jewish stories can erase the Jewish experience and why Tevye’s story still matters.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Gabby Deutch: You write in the book that you used to ask people at your talks if they could name three concentration camps, and then you would ask if they could also name three Yiddish authors. Many people could do the first but not the second. It seems like the book is mainly about people who aren’t Jewish, but I imagine that many American Jews would also find themselves in that position of knowing the detailed history of the Holocaust while knowing very few details, in comparison, about Jewish culture and literature. How do you think the obsession, as you will, with dead Jews manifests within the Jewish community in America?

Dara Horn: In the Jewish community, for the most part — this is not true in Haredi circles — we’re not using a Jewish language. [Steven] Spielberg’s making “Schindler’s List” for everybody who wants to see a movie. The loss of the Jewish language does mean that those conversations are all happening in public. If you think about something like the [U.S.] Holocaust [Memorial] Museum in Washington, that was built for a non-Jewish public, but obviously, a lot of Jewish people go there. I think that it means something different to a Jewish and a non-Jewish audience. Every culture has some way of memorializing the past. With the Jewish culture, it’s this very ritualized process where the destruction of these communities is folded into this longer history of a spiral of loss and recovery, and it becomes a story about resilience. That’s the story that we build out of these disasters. That practice continues. Do I think that there’s too much attention paid in the Jewish community to educate people about Holocaust? I think the reason that was done was because of our relationships with non-Jewish communities. I think that part of the reason that you have this huge museum in Washington with all this documentation and everything is because of this fear of Holocaust denial. I did tell someone at [my kids’] Hebrew school, I think we should replace this detailed course on the history of the Holocaust with a detailed course about the history of the State of Israel. That’s what they need to know as 21st-century Jews.

GD: In the book, you often use the word ‘we,’ thereby including yourself. For example, in the chapter on Anne Frank, you write about the way that ‘we’ feel when we read her diary. Who do you view as the audience of this book? And how did you make that choice to write ‘we’ and not ‘they’?

DH: I’m a Jewish writer, but I’m also an English-language writer. I am participating in this broader non-Jewish culture. When I read Anne Frank’s diary — but also if I go to the museum — as an English speaker, I am participating in that culture. I think this is a broader cultural problem in English-speaking countries. If I write a piece for a Jewish publication, I’m writing in English, but anybody can read it; not only Jews are going to read that. For example, the Anne Frank piece was a piece that I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine initially. It was difficult, because what happened was they asked me to write a piece about Anne Frank. I remember feeling a sense of dread because I was like, ‘I really don’t want to write about Anne Frank.’ Then I remembered this story, which I recounted in the book, about this news piece I had read about this young Orthodox guy who worked [at the Anne Frank House] who they wouldn’t let wear his yarmulke to work. I tend to lean toward those uncomfortable moments. So that piece for Smithsonian, a general-interest magazine, seemed to get a lot of attention. I spoke on NPR in Texas. It was a call-in show. It was very clearly non-Jewish listeners who were calling in and talking about it. Part of it is an education problem in the way people learn about Jews. Think about your social studies textbook when you’re in sixth grade or something. There’s something about the Israelites in the ancient history section. And then there’s a chapter about the Holocaust. That’s the only thing they say about Jews. This is the only thing that most people know.

GD: You argue in the book that Jewish heritage sites, like cemeteries or old synagogues in places that now have none or very few Jews, often have the goal of not just remembering and preserving that culture but also getting Jewish investment and Jewish tourists. These sites are often preserved with little or no mention of the usually violent reasons why Jews no longer live in that area. When you think about the upkeep of these places — places like Harbin — is it a bad thing to put money and effort into preserving these sites? 

DH: Benjamin de Tudela traveled around the known world in the 1100s visiting Jewish communities. Now, you travel the world and you visit people’s graves. These people were murdered or forced to flee in most cases. So what do you do with these sites? Is there a good way to do this as opposed to an exploitative way to do this? I think that there are better and worse ways to do this. In the Chinese example, there was no interest in talking about, ‘Who are Jews? What does this even mean?’ It’s also happening in a country where religion is illegal, and you’re in a country with all kinds of repressive laws, so even if you wanted to do this the right way, there are limitations. Dan Ben-Canaan, the one Jew of Harbin, is doing his best to tell this story, but at the same time, you go to that museum and there’s not a word about, ‘What is Judaism? Who are Jews? What does it even mean, culturally, to be Jewish?’ To me the most glaring thing is there’s nothing about why this community isn’t here anymore. That’s the problem. If this society is not owning what happened in this place, you can’t be honest about your history. 

It’s similar to what we’re doing in this country now with the way we think about Confederate monuments. There are ways to think about history in a way that owns the evils of the past. Restoring a historical site and then not mentioning, ‘Oh, by the way, we forced all these people to leave’ would not be a great way to do this. I am not going to write a set of laws about the good and bad ways to do this. But it was so glaring in that example. They said the quiet part out loud, when the mayor of Harbin said that this is a great opportunity to get investments from all the rich Jews of the world. 

GD: In the book, you contrast the way that Jews think about time — ‘a spiral of a spiral, a tangled old telephone cord in which the future was the present, which was essentially the past’ — with the notion of the American dream, that things are always progressing and improving. Have you thought about what the political takeaways from this book might be on broader issues related to how we remember American history?

DH: I think that people go there in their minds no matter what. When I did that NPR interview, all the call-ins were about exactly that: They asked, ‘How do we think about Confederate history, for example, or Native American history?’ This is my sixth book, my first nonfiction book. One thing I discovered is, you write one book. And then everybody is reading a different book than the book you wrote. If someone reads this book and is like, ‘Wow, this is telling me about the way I want to think about Native American history,’ I think that’s fantastic. 

That said, I do think that there is this need to universalize Jewish history, which becomes a way of erasing it. One of the examples I have in the book is this piece I wrote about [the Auschwitz exhibit at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage]. I was writing that piece for a mainstream publication, for The Atlantic. I talked about how the rabbi of my synagogue was at a meeting with other clergy in the town with the police, and how all these local churches — it was about security — were like, ‘Maybe we should put a lock on the door.’ And the rabbi of my synagogue is sitting there in stunned silence. My editor at The Atlantic was like, ‘Shouldn’t you talk here about how there are a lot of non-Jewish houses of worship that require security?’ I actually put into the piece: ‘Yes, this rabbi and I both know that there are other houses of worship from other religions that also require security. And yes, this rabbi and I are both aware that other groups have been persecuted. And the degrading need to recite these middle school obvious facts is part of the problem because what you’re saying is dead Jews only matter if they’re about something more.’ 

It’s very similar to the argument that Jews are like the canary in the coal mine. When Jews are attacked, it’s a sign of the collapse of the society. There’s that quote from that German minister: ‘First they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.’ Jews are the canary in the coal mine, this harbinger, that when Jews were attacked, it’s the beginning of the decline of your society. What you’re basically saying is, we should care when Jews are murdered or maimed because that serves as a warning that later, actual people might be attacked. It’s like you’re being asked to erase your own dignity in order to plead to be counted as part of a society. In your attempt to get respect from society, you are diminishing yourself.

GD: You write about this attempt to get respect from society in an essay about Ellis Island, and the difference in the way Jews remember it versus what really happened. Despite loads of evidence showing that, actually, immigration officers did not change Jews’ names at Ellis Island —  that Jews changed their own names later, in a bid to better fit into American society — many American Jews hold onto that Ellis Island fiction. People are shocked to learn it isn’t true.

DH: When I would give talks about that, people would mob me. They would be yelling at me. People really, really get mad when you tell them that. The moment when it gets uncomfortable is to me the signal that there’s an important story here. Why are educated American Jews — and these are people who pride themselves on their skepticism and critical thinking — why are they taking this la la land fairytale story that’s demonstrably untrue, and then trying to figure out some way to make it true, saying, ‘Well, maybe my great-great-grandfather was the exception?’ Why are people so attached to the story? It is doing something important emotionally for people. 

GD: You write that after the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, when you told your children what happened, they didn’t need an explanation of why this would happen to Jews, because they understood that such violence has happened to the Jews in the past, that it’s in our liturgy and the Torah. What does it mean for Jewish kids to grow up with this deeper understanding? Do you think it’s any different now from when you were growing up? 

DH: There’s all kinds of explanations for why there is this sudden rise in antisemitism in the United States in the past however many years. There are all these self-serving explanations you could give for this depending on what side of the political spectrum you’re on. But I say in the book, to me the most convincing answer is the most boring, which makes it also the most disturbing — which is, basically, the last few generations of non-Jews were sort of chagrined by the Holocaust, and that made antisemitism socially unacceptable. But now that visceral response is fading, because the people who really lived with those events [of] that generation are dying. I’m 44. For the people who are in my generation and my parents’ generation, the times we grew up in were not normal. Now normal is returning. And we know that because the liturgy is set up for this. Do I find it absolutely terrifying that this is my children’s normal? Yes. They find that hard to believe. Their experience is more typical of Jewish history. People say, ‘Oh, there’s this rise in antisemitic violence in the past few years.’ Haredi Jews will tell you it never went away. It’s really just about how visible you are.

GD: For people, both Jewish and not — and maybe the answer would be different for both groups — but for those who are looking to learn more about Jews and Judaism that isn’t just reading about the Holocaust and dead Jews, are there books that you teach, or books you read, that you offer as a primer for getting more into what Judaism actually looks like? 

DH: There’s a chapter where I talk about Jewish literature, and how there is not this idea that a book has to be tied up in a bow at the end. I talked in the book about the Tevye the Dairyman stories. American audiences are familiar with them because of “Fiddler on the Roof,” but “Fiddler on the Roof” doesn’t include a lot of stuff. One of the daughters commits suicide, Motel drops dead, Golda dies. It’s a very, very depressing book. What’s astonishing about it is it doesn’t have the narrative arc that we expect. I think it’s based on Christianity, the idea that there’s an arc toward redemption, and at the end the good guys are saved, or there’s an epiphany, a moment of grace. These are all Christian terms. That’s not what happens in literature in Jewish languages.

Instead, you have something different, which is this idea of resilience. In the Tevye stories, for each one of his daughters, it’s a calamity. But Tevye never changes. He’s certainly never saved. He never has an epiphany, he never realizes anything. His power as a character is that he keeps enduring. What makes him so powerful is that he remains through these calamities exactly who he always has been. At the very last line of that book, a line that would never appear on Broadway, the very last line of the Tevye stories — the whole structure of the book is monologues of Tevye talking to Sholem Aleichem, the book’s author — is Tevye saying to Sholem Aleichem, ‘Go tell all of our Jews everywhere that our old God still lives.’ This is a masterclass on resilience. 

If you just want a reading list, I would recommend different books to different people based on their interests. Mordecai Kaplan calls Judaism a civilization. It isn’t just a religion. It is a civilization, which has arts and many different aspects to it. It would depend on who I was talking to, what I would recommend in terms of a way in. This is just this amazing, thriving civilization and erasing it in this way, where what we often see — ‘Jews are just like everybody else’ — well, Jews spent thousands of years not being like everybody else. That was sort of the point of Judaism, to not be like everyone else. We believed in one God when nobody else did.

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