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The Hidden One of N.J.: Why Dara Horn Is the Best of the New Breed of Jewish Novelists

Her fourth novel, ‘A Guide for the Perplexed,’ reanimates the past without falling into the traps of ‘Shtetlworld’ nostalgia

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Horn’s notebooks, kept on a shelf in her bedroom, serve as records of her powers of observation. (Courtesy of Dara Horn)
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Dara Horn’s home, like her life, has two levels. On the higher level are rooms full of toy dinosaurs and Babar posters. On the lower one, shelves full of Yiddish and Hebrew books and Zambian carvings and wooden panels from China do battle with water guns and baby bottles. “I live a double life,” she said as she provided me with the abbreviated grand tour of her Essex County, N.J., home. “I think all parents have a double life.” Horn’s double life is just a bit more double than most other parents’; perhaps we can call it her quadruple life. The relevant statistics: age 36; four children; and, with the publication of her new book, A Guide for the Perplexed, four novels.

In addition to two levels, Horn also has two desks. The first, in her bedroom, is home to a haphazard pile of books and school forms and cover mockups. The second is in her living room and is completely bare except for a slim laptop. Horn prefers working at her second desk, where the everyday concerns of her other life can be temporarily left behind. Her work day lasts from 9:30 until 2:30, when her children finish school, and she heads off in her minivan, outfitted with four car seats, to pick them up. On this midsummer day, though, her kids are in camp, and the workday has been extended for an additional hour.

***

Inspired by the stranger-than-fiction story of the Cairo geniza, an archive of a millennium’s worth of letters, documents, and religious texts discovered in a Cairo synagogue in the late 19th century, A Guide for the Perplexed alternates among three interlocking stories. In the first, a contemporary software developer named Josie Ashkenazi, inventor of a program called “Genizah” that uses technology to preserve users’ memories, goes missing on a trip to Egypt. Josie is stranded in a Cairo prison, presumed dead after a grisly video of her abduction is released. In the second, 19th-century Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter stumbles upon the original geniza on a research expedition to Egypt. Both Josie and Schechter link to the third plot strand, about medieval physician and religious scholar Maimonides (some of whose letters were found in the geniza), who sends his brother on an ill-fated journey to track down an asthma medication for a royal patient. The book, which shares a title with Maimonides’ legendarily forbidding philosophical text, is a meditation on memory and a working demonstration of the interlocking strands of Jewish history, the past speaking to the present. “Nothing ever really disappears,” Josie observes, “even when you want it to.”

Horn’s novels are devoted to reanimating the past; she digs into the archive of Jewish history and makes it her own, eschewing the more familiar Central and Eastern European stories of some of her contemporaries. The World to Come centers on the tormented friendship between Marc Chagall and Yiddish novelist Der Nister, and All Other Nights is set among Jewish Confederates during the Civil War. Horn is embracing her own, livelier brand of Jewish history, embodied in the joys of discovering—and creating—the past anew. “Even now that we are old women,” two British explorers tell Schechter in Guide, “we treasure that tiny discovery of a world that was. Even if it was a world that wasn’t.”

Horn and I headed out to her garden to talk, and on our way out, she offered me free use of the impressive array of Nerf baseball bats strewn on the ground, in case our interview grew unexpectedly argumentative. “My siblings and I had this theory that my parents were spies,” Horn said of her childhood. Her parents, a dentist and a high-school teacher, regularly took her and her three siblings (her sisters are both writers, and her brother is an Emmy-winning animator) to far-flung destinations across the globe, and no trip was complete without a visit to a Jewish point of interest: a synagogue in Peru, or one in a museum in Shanghai. She was encouraged to keep a journal of their travels as a parental management technique on long plane flights. By the time she was in high school, Horn had published articles in Hadassah magazine based on her journal entries.

Heading into her freshman year at Harvard, Horn believed herself destined for a career in journalism and spent her college summers interning at magazines like The New Republic and Time. But she had also developed an interest in Hebrew as an adolescent, studying it after school at her local JCC without telling any of her friends. (“Living a double life seems to be continuous throughout my life,” said Horn.) After graduating, Horn got engaged and won a fellowship to spend a year studying Hebrew in England. Boredom unexpectedly led to her trying her hand at fiction and to her first novel: “I’m not interested in soccer or beer, so it cut me out of most of the social life in England.” Horn told her husband she would not have any children until her first novel was published. The strike did not last very long; her first book, In the Image, came out when she was 25.

Horn pursued a doctorate at Harvard and was teaching full-time at Sarah Lawrence before family commitments pushed her toward making a choice between fiction and academia. “I did realize you can have a child and have a career,” Horn said, “but you can’t have a child and have two careers.” The Schechter character in Guide can be seen as an echo of her own academic pursuits, as well as of the link between scholarship and mortality. “As he glanced at the dust that had caused his trouble,” Horn writes of Schechter, surrounded by the crumbling documents of the geniza, “it occurred to him that his body would ultimately become something just like it, that the bodies of every person alive would ultimately become something just like it, that every human being, in the end, becomes the opposite of an archive.”

Horn’s work bears a distinct resemblance to recent books with a Jewish lilt like Nicole KraussThe History of Love and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but she politely takes issue with what she views as their longing for shtetl life. “Those kinds of books, they often don’t feel right. It’s not just about some detail they have wrong,” said Horn. “What feels wrong to me about them is either they often sentimentalize the Jewish past or romanticize the Jewish past. There’s a nostalgia that’s often—not always, but often—built into such books.”

Sidestepping the familiar stories of Eastern Europe, Horn also dismisses what she sees as their artificial warmth. “Shtetlworld,” as Horn calls it in a short story, “is not a place where you’d want to live. It’s really, really, really not a place where you’d want to live. It’s like living in a small village in Afghanistan.” The disinterest in longing for a vanished Eastern Europe stems from Horn’s own studies in Yiddish, which revealed the rot eating away at Jewish life even before the Holocaust, and from her own sense of the lifeless brand of Judaism endemic to her 1980s childhood. “It reminds me of that anemic element of the way I grew up in a community where it was like, here’s Jewish history: There was a shtetl, and there was a Holocaust, and now there’s Israel.”

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The Hidden One of N.J.: Why Dara Horn Is the Best of the New Breed of Jewish Novelists

Her fourth novel, ‘A Guide for the Perplexed,’ reanimates the past without falling into the traps of ‘Shtetlworld’ nostalgia