People Love Dead Jews.
If those words make you uncomfortable then award-winning author Dara Horn has begun to do her job. A recently released essay collection, “People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present,” is a space where Horn delves into the nuances of antisemitism with an unmatched poignancy and recounts painful exiles and pogroms (like in Harbin, China in the early 20th century) that you probably never heard of.
Horn discusses the fascination with Jewish deaths, both literally and metaphorically, the different forms of antisemitism, and the desire to for some Jews ‘fit in’ or erase outward signs of Jewishness. This could explain some of the tension between secular and religious Jews, if one group feels that it’s safer or more comfortable to erase their outward signs of Jewishness and another group refuses to do so. Taking inspiration from a Smithsonian essay on Anne Frank, Horn quotes, “uncomfortable moments are where the story is,” and as a writer, she dives right into those ‘moments.’
Horn gives an example of a literal and metaphorical Jewish death. A controversy arose a few years ago when it came out that a tour guide at the Anne Frank Museum was not allowed to wear his yarmulke while giving tours. Additionally, the Hebrew language option on the audio guide display was missing an Israeli flag despite the fact that every other language had a country’s flag attached to it. This occurrence at a museum that tells the story of a Jewish girl in hiding suggests two things according to Horn. First, “living Jews have to erase themselves to gain public respect” because in a place that commemorates a Jew in hiding the tour guide had to hide his Jewish identity. And Israel, the homeland of the Jewish nation, was too “controversial” to be included. Second, “people tell stories about dead Jews to make them feel better about themselves,” as portrayed by the hypocrisy of a museum dedicated to telling the story of a dead Jew while refusing to allow their employees to physically appear Jewish.
Horn delves into two different forms of antisemitism, which she names Purim and Chanukah. Purim antisemitism has no ambiguity. It is blatant and obvious, like Haman’s hatred towards the Jews. Chanukah antisemitism is a “soft persuasion,” where other nations explain why their culture is better and in order for Jews to be cool and fit in, they have to act and behave in a certain way. Only later does this form of antisemitism become coercive.
Purim antisemitism is more familiar to Ashkenazi Jews because the Chanukah antisemitism can easily go undetected while it is happening. During the Bolshevik revolution in the 1920’s, there was a slogan used, “we are not antisemitic, just anti-Zionist,” which is the same phrase used now by anti-Israel advocates in America. Additionally, the Soviet Union spread the message to the developing world to love Jews as long as they are not practicing Judaism nor studying Hebrew. Despite the seemingly positive message, many Jews in the Soviet Union were persecuted and imprisoned for being pro-Israel. While these beliefs may seem to be in the Jews’ favor, it is purely flowery language hidden behind evil intentions.
The practice of erasing Jewish identity in America began from the moment Jews entered the country. Horn coins the phrase “The Legend of Ellis Island,” which debunks the common belief that Jewish families immigrating to America had their last names anglicized upon entry to the country. Horn found court records of Jews changing their names voluntary after living in the country for some time. Horn says the American antisemitism present at that time is a “reality that we were burying with a happy story about Ellis Island.”
Horn dedicates a chapter in People Love Dead Jews to Shakespeare’s Shylock which paints an awful depiction of Jews. In the past, she was apologetic, claiming that it is “not Antisemitic, just a product of its time.” But after her 10 year old son heard the play during a car ride, he pointed out that the famous “prick a Jew” speech is Shylock giving the classic “evil super villain monologue” before he takes revenge. Horn calls this a “cartoon brand of hatred” and says these depictions of Jews are a “prerequisite for violent hatred and social exclusion” because a negative portrayal of one person can still affect how others will view the entire community. Horn’s arguments speak so deeply to why Jew in the City was founded and why media representation of Jews, especially visible ones, matter.
Horn witnessed violent hatred and social exclusion after a series of attacks (Jersey City shooting, Monsey stabbing, etc.) against the Haredi communities in America were reported by the media in a derogatory manner in the last few years. She believes that the media was sending a message “that these people deserve it.” She claims the attacks on the Haredi community took place because Haredi Jews are visible, not because the attackers disagree with their practices and beliefs. Horn believes that if someone needs to erase or hide him/herself to be a part of society, “it is a failure of diversity in that society.” Jews have always thought and acted differently from the surrounding society,” so if they are hated by the public, then that society has failed at attempting diversity.
Horn ends on an uplifting note. Not only is she focusing on unity between herself, a Conservative Jew, and the Orthodox community, she began learning Daf Yomi and saying shema everyday as a response to rising Jew hatred. In the past Horn found Talmud study frustrating because as a writer she creates “artistic texts that have a conclusion and Talmud is not about that.” Now, she understands that the Talmud is a “product of anxiety and grief” because it was compiled after the destruction of the Temple by Jews who were trying to rebuild their civilization. She defines the Talmud as “a project of creative resilience that requires strong vigilance.” Judaism had to fake its own death to survive the Churban, but like techiyat hametim (restoration of the dead), it is possible to overcome calamities and rebuild. Horn hopes to spread this inspiring message to Jews living in these uncertain times.
Find Dara Horn’s books and articles here.
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I, as a member of a small book club in Israel, read your book, and loved it. As did all the members of the club. I think the universal question we all had at the end was : Why are you and your family still in America? There is this. country that actually belongs to you.
Thanks for the book, though. I hope some of the Jews in America who need it, read it.