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People Love Dead Jews

Dara Horn’s fierce and often hilarious new collection of essays gives hope and backbone to the living

by
David Mikics
September 03, 2021
Paulo Amorim/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Paulo Amorim/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In late 2019, antisemitic terrorists murdered three people at a kosher market in Jersey City. The killers, who had a large stock of explosives in their van (enough to destroy an area the size of five football fields, the police said), likely intended to bomb the Jewish school below the market.

Much of the news media addressed the Jersey City slaughter from a blame-the-victims angle. Dara Horn, in her new book, People Love Dead Jews: Notes from a Haunted Present, remarks that “The ‘context’ provided by local news outlets after this attack was breathtaking in its cruelty. As the Associated Press explained in a news report about the Jersey City murders that was picked up by NBC and other news outlets, ‘The slayings happened in a neighborhood where Hasidic families had recently been relocating, amid pushback from some local officials who complained about representatives of the community going door to door, offering to buy homes at Brooklyn prices.’”

Horn comments, “Like many homeowners, I too have been approached by real estate agents asking me if I wanted to sell my house. I recall saying no, although I suppose murdering these people would also have made them go away.”

The attackers were not from Jersey City, and in fact there was little ethnic tension there, according to both Black and Jewish residents. Looking back at media reports from other recent mass slayings like the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre or the 2015 mass murder at a Black church in Charleston, Horn could locate no similar efforts to contextualize the acts of other terrorists—nothing, for instance, about “how straight people in Orlando ... were understandably upset about gay couples setting up shop in the neighborhood and disrupting their ‘way of life.’”

“Presenting such analysis as a hot take after a massacre,” Horn concludes, “is not only disgusting and inhuman, but also a form of the very same hatred that caused the massacre.” Where Hasidim are concerned, the root cause of antisemitic bloodshed becomes, just like in the old days, “Jews, living in a place!”

This is Dara Horn at her acerbic best. You couldn’t ask for a cleaner and more devastating swipe at the journalistic double standard that treats Hasidic Jews as, well, not particularly human, though perhaps useful “as a warning—because when Jews get murdered or maimed, it might be an ominous sign that actual people, people who wear athleisure, might later get attacked!”

People Love Dead Jews is, of all things, a deeply entertaining book, from its whopper of a title on. Horn’s sarcasm is bracing, reminding us that the politics of Jewish memory often becomes an outrageous marketing of half-truths and outright lies. There’s not a single clunker among the book’s chapters (several of which were first published in Tablet’s pages). Horn is a masterful essayist. Even when you disagree with her, as I did at times, you still marvel at how she slices away at her targets, her anger precise and controlled. She has the instincts of a stand-up comic with something deadly serious on her mind—the way dead Jews, when their deaths are not ignored or downplayed, are turned into vehicles to teach ethical lessons that have little to do with the Jews themselves.

Horn begins People Love Dead Jews with a story from the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam. One day a museum employee wore a yarmulke to work and was told to cover it with a baseball cap, since (a spokesperson later explained to the press) the Anne Frank House aimed at “neutrality.” “The museum finally relented after deliberating for four months,” Horn writes, “which seems like a rather long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.”

The real Anne Frank was a complex and contradictory personality; in death, she became a mass-produced universal symbol of hope. The presence of a kippah at the Anne Frank House might damage Anne’s manufactured appeal by reminding non-Jewish visitors that Jews are not simply people who are just like them. Observant Jews, like Israeli Jews, bear an easily recognizable otherness, and both groups are subjected to hateful questions, whether implicit or stated point-blank: Why do you exist at all, instead of being dead? Couldn’t you at least make your Jewishness invisible? These questions, often asked with pent-up rage when it comes to Israel or the ultra-Orthodox, bear witness to the world’s insistence that Jews give up their particularity and become icons of universalism, and devote themselves to the welfare of non-Jews.

Anne Frank’s most quoted line is “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart”—written, Horn notes, just a few weeks before she met some people who weren’t good at heart.

Horn is angry that the Holocaust has become a universal human tragedy. Antisemitism is now considered not a crime against Jews but a crime against humanity, and by this means the Shoah, too, is stripped of Jewish particularity.

“Dead Jews are supposed to teach us about the beauty of the world and the wonders of redemption—otherwise, what was the point of killing them in the first place?” Horn asks. The truly dark survivors’ memoirs, like Chil Rajchman’s The Last Jew of Treblinka (one example among many) have not sold well because they have nothing reassuring to say about love and compassion. What reader would choose a pessimistic, agonizingly detailed account of mass death over the bestselling Tattooist of Auschwitz, a kitschy love story with plenty of uplift, as well as hugs and giggles (the author depicts the women’s barracks at Birkenau like a preteen slumber party). Mass market Holocaust fiction is noticeably short on descriptions of Jewish culture. Instead, the doomed Jews are made to erase their identity and lament, “We were just like our neighbors.”

One of Horn’s funniest, most riveting essays recounts her journey to Harbin, China. Deep within the frozen wastes of Heilongjiang province, formerly Manchuria, this city once housed tens of thousands of Jews, migrants from Russia who came because Harbin was a hub for the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Within a generation, though, the Jews were driven out, penniless. In the 1930s the invading Japanese army, aided by White Russian fascists, kidnapped, killed, and tortured many Jews, and seized their thriving businesses. Despite this disastrous end, surviving Harbin Jews remembered their town fondly as paradise, a little Russian Jewish “bubble” where they flourished until, suddenly, they didn’t.

China decided to construct a replica of lost Jewish Harbin, like a Disney frontier town or a Universal Studios set, complete with synagogues, hotels, and drugstores, as well as George Segal-style life-size white plaster sculptures of Jews at work and play. Harbin became yet another Jewish Heritage Site—a label that, Horn notes, is a lot more appealing than “Property Seized From Dead or Expelled Jews.” Nowhere in Harbin’s Jewtown, Horn notes, is there any explanation about why the Jews are now gone.

The Chinese government seems to have thought that a Jewish Heritage theme park would spur economic growth, attracting hordes of wealthy Jewish tourists to bustling Harbin, which is more populous than New York City, despite its near-Siberian winters. Horn notes that Chinese bookstores feature titles like Talmud: The Greatest Jewish Bible for Making Money. The Chinese fantasy was that since the Jews have the key to business success, perhaps they could jump-start a new era of prosperity for the nation’s northernmost city. But massive Jewish investment has not arrived, and Harbin’s winter ice sculpture festival, lovingly described by Horn, is still a bigger draw than its Jewish history center.

There are many gems in People Love Dead Jews. Horn gives the reader a fine psychological study of Varian Fry, the rescuer who saved Jewish artists and writers from the Nazis. She explores the online Diarna project, which investigates and reconstructs the traces of lost Jewish communities in the Middle East. She offers a moving portrait of the Soviet Yiddish actor Benjamin Zuskind, murdered by Stalin.

But Horn falters in her essay on Shylock. Here she describes listening to an audio version of The Merchant of Venice in the car with her 10-year-old son, who convinces her that Shakespeare’s Jew is not at all sympathetic, but instead resembles a Batman villain who uses his personal troubles—in Shylock’s case, being kicked, spit on, and called a dog by Christian passersby—as an easy excuse for being flat-out evil. The play, Horn concludes, is simply antisemitic, and she regrets the fact that it exists.

Horn’s son sounds a bit like my own 10-year-old, a quick-minded, slightly insolent arguer, and a charmer too. But he’s dead wrong. Shylock is no comic book villain, and certainly no antisemitic cartoon. Two of the greatest 19th-century actors, Edmund Kean and Henry Irving, played Shylock as a tragic hero tormented by the Christians. This wasn’t special pleading but a genuine insight into Shakespeare’s intent. These superb actors, and their audiences, were nauseated by the Christians’ bottomless cruelty toward Shylock.

Sure, Shakespeare’s Jew is vengeful, intent on judicial murder, but watch Patrick Stewart and David Suchet in their prime trying out Shylock’s speeches. It’s impossible not to be seduced.

That’s because Shylock is simply more large-souled and honest, a bigger character with a more interesting mind and perspective on reality, than his mean and petty rivals. Shakespeare disappoints only one time in the play, when he denies the defeated Shylock the glorious final speech he deserves, instead allowing him only three final bitter words: “I am content.” Everywhere else his fierce integrity holds sway. Shakespeare, the son of a moneylender several times dragged into court for charging too much interest, was on Shylock’s side.

When Horn attempts a sweeping theory of Jewish literature she also arrives on shaky ground. Horn suggests that non-Jewish writers generally aim for epiphanies, moments of grace, and tightly sealed endings, whereas Jewish authors prize the fragmentary, the puzzling, and the potentially incoherent. This vast generalization just doesn’t hold up—not every Jewish author is Kafka, and non-Jewish high modernists like Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett build their art on the incomplete and the interrupted.

Horn ends her book by returning to a living Jewish present that is fully imbricated with a sense of the past. She has begun the Daf Yomi cycle, and avidly discusses the day’s Daf with other students online. Horn’s defense of Talmud study is the usual one: She used to think that the Talmud was irrelevant and even silly, since a modern Jew can neither summon the credulousness demanded by its superstitions nor agree that endless discussion of trivia is somehow spiritually vital. But now that she has embarked on daily Daf study she finds that the Talmud’s distraction-prone format and its seeming absurdities are actually life-giving.

The reasons Horn is fascinated by the Talmud are often persuasive. The obsessive-compulsive thought patterns of [the rabbis] felt familiar to me,” she says, and such thinking, she now realizes, expresses “grief, fear, and resilience.” But she neglects to add that the Talmud, which contains countless lodes of ethical philosophy and spiritual vision, frustrates the student for long stretches, seeming distant rather than familiar, its Halachic points merely inert, too circuitous to be convincing, which is why early Zionism considered Talmud study an impediment to modern Jewish life. Horn glosses over this argument within Jewish tradition. Nor can she admit that the Talmud’s desperate search for coherence is defiantly anti-modern. Each Torah passage has to make sense and agree with every other passage. The quest for coherence fails, but the failure has its own reward. When the rabbis, who so badly want to square the circle, are stumped, as they frequently are, interpretive overkill gives way to the realization that understanding is limited. And so disagreement becomes purposeful since no single authority has the truth and each stray contrarian insight might help.

Horn says that the Talmud is like no other book because the Jews are like no other people. This is true enough, but not because Jews love to disagree. Rather, the rabbis, stymied in their effort to discern God’s will, were forced to settle for their own conflicting opinions.

She ends People Love Dead Jews by talking about the Talmud because, with its densely swarming Jewish content, it provides the antidote to the dead Jew as a colorless plaster saint. These rabbis—ornery, funny, and humane like Horn herself—seem so alive, like they’ve been arguing since the beginning of Jewish time.

People Love Dead Jews reminds us that Jewishness is not a museum, a graveyard, or a heritage site but a lively ongoing conversation at a long table that stretches before and behind us. Come out of hiding, Horn urges us, it’s time to take part in Jewish life.

Tablet Studios is producing a companion podcast, Adventures With Dead Jews, to Dara Horn’s book. The podcast takes listeners beyond the book to some of the strangest corners of Jewish history, exploring how the popular mania for dead Jews warps our understanding of both past and present. Listen to the show here.

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

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