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The French Rabbi of Brokenness

Delphine Horvilleur on death, empathy, and the new-old antisemitism of the left

Emily Barton
June 02, 2024

Damien Grenon/Photo12

Damien Grenon/Photo12

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

French publishers wrap paperbacks in simple jackets. Gallimard binds them in ecru, the title and author in iconic black and crimson, inside an elegant, pinstriped border. Books from Grasset, the other major publisher, come bound in ribbed yellow cardstock, with title and author in dark green and brown. Either you have to know who the author is, or else you have to open a book and read for a moment to know if it interests you.

In 2022, during a research trip to Paris for my next novel, I visited La Librerie du Temple, a Jewish bookstore in the center of the old Jewish neighborhood, the Marais. A Grasset volume beckoned to me: Vivre avec nos morts, or Living with Our Dead. The author, Delphine Horvilleur, is the rabbi of Synagogue Beaugrenelle in Paris. She also directs the online journal of Jewish thought Tenou’a, whose mission statement includes belief “in the permeability of universes, wisdoms and philosophies,” and understanding “the need to create bridges between people of different mindsets.” Despite the fact that France still doesn’t ordain women rabbis (although there are half a dozen at present, all trained elsewhere), she is considered the leader of liberal Judaism in the country.

Among her other roles, Horvilleur officiates at funerals, comforts the dying, and consoles the bereaved. In Living with Our Dead’s first pages, Horvilleur says that she spends so much time in the precincts of the dead, she doesn’t know “death’s influence on me, since I don’t know what kind of woman I would have been had I taken care to distance myself from it.” She also mentions the admittedly kooky things some Jews do to keep Azrael, the Angel of Death, at bay:

In many Jewish families, when someone falls ill, their first name is changed. The idea is to confuse that supernatural being who’s had the awful idea of coming for them. Imagine: the angel of death rings your doorbell in search of the life of a certain Moses. You can now easily reply, “So sorry, nobody by the name of Moses lives here. You’re at Solomon’s house.” And the sheepish angel must apologize for having troubled you, turn around, and go away.

I was hooked, and not just by the joy of reading a rabbi with a sense of humor. I also needed the book. Almost 30 years ago, my mother—who was younger then than I am now—died of a freak infection. Since then, I’ve wondered if I’ll ever outgrow the loss, sought to learn more about how people process grief, and continued to explore Jewish philosophy about death. Only in revising this essay did I recall that my mother, who worked as a psychologist on a cancer ward, signed off “AoD” when she charted. Because she was so often among the last to see patients before they died, the floor’s doctors and nurses had nicknamed her “Angel of Death.”

Living with Our Dead is finally available to English readers in the U.S., thanks to a clear and exact translation by Lisa Appignanesi. The book consists of 11 essays about Horvilleur’s varied encounters with death as a rabbi, reader and writer, and human being.

Each essay revolves around a particular loss; and a few focus on Tanakh. “Isaac’s Brother,” in telling the story of an unnamed young boy who loses his baby brother, relates this Baby Isaac to Isaac the Patriarch. “Moses: The Man Who Didn’t Want to Die” investigates what many Talmudic commentators and ordinary Jews have considered “the greatest of all injustices, and the least explicable,” asking, “How dare God abandon his hero at the gates of the Promised Land, he who led the Hebrews out of Egypt and has guided them for forty years through the desert?” Horvilleur reads Moses’ death through the lens of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ 1969 On Death and Dying (a book that was central to my mother’s work), noting that as we pass through the stages of grief, “Jews affirm that we do not know what lies after death. But this can be formulated otherwise: after death, there is what we do not know.” 

All the essays muse on Jewish texts and customs, even as individual people’s stories take center stage. Two discuss her experiences officiating at the funerals of well-known French Jews: Elsa Cayat, the psychologist killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015, and Simone Veil and Marceline Loridan-Ivens, one a prominent feminist politician, and the other a well-known artist. (Appignanesi provides biographical and contextual notes for English readers.) The two women were, as Marceline said at Simone’s funeral, “Birkenau girls” who survived the camps together. Marceline’s sprightly term for a horrific experience offers a clue into how she inspired and mentored Jewish women of later generations, including Horvilleur.

Most of the essays, though, center around the deaths of varied, ordinary people: a Holocaust survivor, who was harsh and uncommunicative with her only son. A man whose family cannot answer the rabbi’s simple question, “What were his dreams?” (“As far as we know, he really didn’t have any,”) but whose friends fill the funeral with memories of the dynamic, loving person his family of origin never knew. Baby Isaac’s older brother, who asks Horvilleur, “will he be in the earth or in the sky? I need to know where to look to search for him.” Her dying friend Ariane, who needs Horvilleur to be her rabbi and her friend at the same time, in an essay the author tellingly subtitles “Almost Me.”

The penultimate essay, “Israel,” centers around a terrible coincidence: Horvilleur and a sabra boyfriend she knew she needed to break up with attended a public appearance by Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, only to hear on the radio, as they drove home, that he’d been assassinated minutes after they left. When I read this book in French two years ago, her proximity to the assassination sent chills up my spine. It still does, though her articulation of her liberal Zionism resonates most with me now. “My Zionism is forever nourished by exile, by not belonging,” she writes, “by the knowledge of everything that this land, like this language, owes to its encounter with others, with the strangeness that shapes it and continues to speak through it.” She describes “a Zionism ... which, like a nomad’s prayer, dreams of offering a place of refuge to strangers.”

When I first read it, this book was a balm for mind and spirit. (As it happened, the morning after I purchased the book, I tripped on the stairs and broke my ankle. The only pleasant consequence was time for deep reading.) Horvilleur meditates on Jewish texts and customs, on death’s ubiquity, and on the ways people plan for, live through, and commemorate a transition few of us are eager to make or see our loved ones undergo. She does so with rigor, compassion, and clear-sightedness.

In addition to her keen comic timing, Horvilleur has an orator’s ear for tempo and the well-placed image. “I never go straight home from the cemetery,” she writes. “After a funeral, I make a detour to a café or a shop—it doesn’t matter which. I create a symbolic airlock between death and my house.” Appignanesi’s English text maintains Horvilleur’s tone so well, it feels less like a translation than like a magical device through which English speakers can listen to this rabbi’s French. Appignanesi creates an admirable English version of Horvilleur’s style: learned without sounding stuffy; conversational, but not informal.

I interviewed Horvilleur over Zoom this spring, switching between French and English, her large office window looking out on trees and the golden-hour sky. I learned that I was just one of many worldwide who’d connected with this book. She pointed to a tall armoire behind her, saying it was “full of letters that people wrote after they read Vivre avec nos morts. I received thousands. People told me about the impact the book had on them. They also simply wanted to share their stories, to tell me about their dead and their deaths.” Two separate words in English, “morts” can mean both in French.

When I asked about the book’s genesis, Horvilleur said friends had long asked her to write it. They don’t understand how she can spend so much time in the houses of the dead and dying. She found it difficult to begin, “because there was in me a kind of magical, superstitious thinking that made me unsure it was a good idea to write about death, to open the door to the question of death.” But she finally wrote it during COVID, “the time when death was all around us. We live in societies that pretend that we can keep death apart from our life. We pretend that it inhabits a totally different space, that the living are here and the dying are somewhere else. Only, during COVID, it became clear to all of us that the frontiers between life and death were porous.”

The Hebrew edition of Living with Our Dead came out just weeks before Oct. 7, 2023. She has heard from many Israeli readers, including counseling some on writing eulogies after their family members were killed in the attack on Kibbutz Be’eri. For me, Oct. 7 made the book ring differently, its themes more pressingly relevant. I asked Horvilleur if her thinking on any of the central topics has changed.

She said no; and that her latest book—Comment ça va pasHow Are You Not Doing, in Appagnanesi’s English translation, expected out this fall—is in some ways “another chapter” of Living with Our Dead. The new book’s essays center around similar themes, in a different historical time and with new knowledge. She went on, “We can well see in the entire world today, there is a lack of empathy. The capacity for empathy has become so limited as almost to be a caricature. We are surrounded by people who are not able to empathize with one and, at the same time, with the other. We choose a camp as if it were a football or baseball game, as if we had to cheer for one team and spit on the other. Today, the left—which is even now my chosen family—has begun to paint an obscene caricature of Israel (and through Israel, of the Jews), often without recognizing it.”

“The caricature of Israel,” she continued, “makes it out to be dominant, hyper-controlling, and manipulative. This goes hand in hand with conspiracy theories. We realize that this way of describing Israel as dominant, in fact opens Pandora’s box,” here she gestured as if opening an oyster to show the pearl, “the magic box of what has always, always been antisemitism.”

We live in societies that pretend that we can keep death apart from our life. We pretend that it inhabits a totally different space, that the living are here and the dying are somewhere else.

Horvilleur explained, “The left today has historical amnesia about antisemitism. Across history, people have blamed the Jew for everything and its opposite. The Jew was too strong, too weak; too capitalist, too Bolshevik; too feminine, or too masculine; too passive, or too practical. What never changes is the conviction that the Jews are dominant: that they have control and can manipulate. Antisemitic caricatures often represent the Jew with hands,” here she made monster hands and wiggled her fingers, “big hands. The Jew holds the world in his hands and manipulates it. It’s crazy that today, people on the left in particular, who are convinced they are not antisemitic at all—and maybe they aren’t, I want to believe it—manipulate all these ancestral clichés. Maybe they don’t feel antisemitic, but they speak the ancestral language of antisemitism.”

I asked how she suggests we work against the divisive, binary thinking that’s driving the left (and public discourse, and institutions, and friends) apart, leaving people who agree on many issues unable even to converse about this one. She responded, “Do not let the paradigm—strong, weak, dominant, dominated—take over the world as it has taken over many American campuses. Complexify the debate, so that we can cry with one and also with the other, suffer with one and also the other. We need to be able to reproach both one side and the other, and sometimes even point out the guilt of one side and the other. We don’t serve anyone by identifying one side as the good guys and the other as the bad guys, as if we were in a Western with John Wayne, or in the Super Bowl.”

This is peak Horvilleur—impassioned, broad-minded, persuasive, funny, and unwilling to simplify for ease of use.

Considering how Living with Our Dead might resonate at this moment, Horvilleur said, “When you think about it, ‘breaking’ moments are at the core of almost every ritual in Judaism. You get married, you break a glass. When a baby boy is born, you cut ... something.” We both grinned at her modest “something.” “When we start the Passover Seder, we break a matzo. Something about brokenness, and consciousness of brokenness, is central in Judaism.”

This rings true in these terrible times. Horvilleur gives me hope that we can reclaim an empathy born of our shared brokenness, and begin to mend this broken world.

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Emily Barton’s most recent novel, The Book of Esther, imagines a ragtag, dieselpunk Jewish resistance to Hitler in 1942.

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