When Your Body Is Someone Else's Haunted House
Dara Horn's brilliant new book. Plus: a subscriber-only event with the author.
Tomorrow marks three years since the massacre at Tree of Life, the most lethal attack on Jews in American history and a watershed event in the lives of so many I love.
I find myself pulled back to that time. To the shock I felt. To the sense I had immediately that the country I thought I lived in was changing in radical ways, even if I didn’t yet fully understand them.
One of the people who helped me make sense of it all — who helped me see that the fate of Jews and the fate of liberty are intertwined; who helped me grasp that an assault on Jews was an assault on the very notion of difference — was Dara Horn.
Dara is a novelist and an essayist whose writings on Jewish history, culture politics has shaped my own thinking. Her new book is called “People Love Dead Jews.”
Here’s my review: My wife read it in a single sitting, pausing only to read lines out loud to me.
This is a book deeply relevant to everyone who cares about the future of America, not just the future of American Jews.
So I hope you will join me and Dara Horn for a subscriber-only conversation this Wednesday evening (tomorrow) at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. As always, subscribers will get a Zoom link the morning of the event (Wednesday morning).
If this sounds great but you are not yet a paid subscriber, now’s your chance:
Until then, here is an excerpt from “People Love Dead Jews”:
Sometimes your body is someone else’s haunted house. Other people look at you and can only see the dead.
I first discovered this at the age of seventeen in the most trivial of moments, at an academic quiz bowl tournament in Nashville, Tennessee—where, as the only girl from my New Jersey high school, I shared a hotel room with two girls from Mississippi. We were strangers and competitors pretending to be friends. One night we stayed up late chatting about our favorite childhood TV shows, about how we had each believed that Mr. Rogers was personally addressing us through the screen. We laughed together until one girl said, “It’s like Jesus. Even if he didn’t know my name when he was dying on the cross, I still know he loved me, and if he knew my name, he would have loved me too.” The other girl squealed, “I know, right? It’s just like Jesus!” Then the two of them, full of messianic joy, looked at me.
I said nothing—a very loud nothing. The girls waited, uncomfortable, until one braved the silence. “It seems like people up north are much less religious,” she tried. “How often do you go to church?”
It so happened that I was very religious. My family attended synagogue services weekly, or even more often than that; my parents were volunteer lay leaders in our congregation, and I had a job chanting publicly from the Torah scroll for the children’s congregation every Saturday morning, which effectively meant that I knew large swaths of the Five Books of Moses in the original Hebrew by heart. On Sundays, I spent four hours learning ancient Jewish legal texts at a program for teenagers at a rabbinical school in New York, and from eight to ten p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday, I studied Hebrew language in a local adult-education class. My public school closed for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but my siblings and I also skipped school for holidays like Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Passover, and Shavuot. I read works of Jewish philosophy for fun, tracking medieval and modern arguments about the nature of God. I often privately began and ended my days with traditional Hebrew prayers.
All of this and more required an enormous amount of countercultural effort, education, and commitment on the part of my family that vastly exceeded merely “going to church.” But I sensed that this—“this” being the central pillar of my experience as a human being—was irrelevant to the question these girls were asking me. I mumbled something about a synagogue and tried to think of a way to steer us back to Mr. Rogers. But now the girls were staring at me, gaping in disbelief.
“You,” one of the girls stammered, “you—you have blond hair!”
The second girl inspected me, squinting at my face in a way that made me wonder if I had acne. “And what color are your eyes?”
“Blue,” I said.
The first girl said, “I thought Hitler said you all were dark.”
In retrospect I can imagine many ways I might have felt about this statement, but at the time I was only baffled. I pictured my hand on the quiz-bowl buzzer I’d been pounding all week, and provided the correct answer: “Hitler was full of shit.”
After a pause that lasted an eternity, one girl meekly offered, “I guess you’re kind of right.” Kind of. The other girl doubled down, demanding an explanation for my eye color if I were “from the Middle East.” But I was done being nice, if being nice meant defending my own face. I left the room, confused.
That night I blurted to my mother from a hotel pay phone, “I don’t get it. These girls made it to the nationals. These are the smart people! And they’re getting their information from Hitler?”
My mother sighed, a long, tired sigh. “I know,” she said, without elaborating. “I know.”
My mother was the age then that I am now. And now I know too.
Those girls were not stupid, and probably not even bigoted. But in their entirely typical and well-intentioned education, they had learned about Jews mainly because people had killed Jews. Like most people in the world, they had only encountered dead Jews: people whose sole attribute was that they had been murdered, and whose murders served a clear purpose, which was to teach us something. Jews were people who, for moral and educational purposes, were supposed to be dead.
For most of my adult life, I had no reason to recall that moment in the Nashville hotel. I had filed it deep in my brain, in the same mental sock drawer where I kept the high schoolers from the adjacent town who cheered for my school’s soccer team to “go to the gas,” or the student in the first college class I ever taught who refused to read an assigned 1933 Hebrew novel because Hebrew was “racist,” or the roommate who sobbed uncontrollably while informing me that I was going to hell. (I reassured her that at least I would know a lot of people there.) These incidents were oddities, weird and even laughable. They weren’t my normal, or the normal of anyone I knew.
More than twenty-five years later, they still aren’t my normal, though they are now the normal of more than a few people I know. But in recent years I have had the misfortune of discovering the deep vein of normalcy that runs beneath these oddities, which is shared by seemingly good-faith cultural enterprises like Holocaust museums, canonical Western literature, and the elaborate restoration of Jewish historical sites as far away as China. I began to notice a certain gaslighting about the Jewish past and present that I had never seen before, even when it was right in front of me. I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews. I was very wrong.
This fact should have been obvious to me from the beginning of my writing career, when my most acclaimed early published piece, the one nominated for a major award, wasn’t the one about Jewish historical sites in Spain but rather the one about death camps. I made a point of resisting this reality, asking people at my public talks if they could name three death camps, and then asking the same people if they could name three Yiddish authors—the language spoken by over 80 percent of death-camp victims. What, I asked, was the point of caring so much about how people died, if one cared so little about how they lived? At the time, I did not appreciate how deep the obsession with dead Jews went, how necessary it was to so many people’s unarticulated concept of civilization, to their unarticulated concept of themselves. But as our current century wore on and public conversations about Israel became increasingly toxic—far beyond any normal political concern—and as public conversations about observant Jews took on the same tone, I came to recognize the mania for dead Jews as something deeply perverse, and all the more so when it wore its goodwill on its sleeve. I dealt with this perversity in the most honorable way possible: by avoiding it.
For a writer and scholar of Jewish history and literature, this was challenging, because it meant avoiding the subjects my readers and students clearly loved most. Still, I tried. I wrote novels about Jewish spies during the Civil War, about a medieval Hebrew archive in Cairo, about Soviet Yiddish Surrealists, about a woman born in ancient Jerusalem who couldn’t manage to die. In my university courses and lectures, I emphasized the unprecedented revival of Hebrew, the evolving patterns of Israeli fiction, the growth of modern Yiddish poetry and drama out of traditional art forms, the complex internal religious debates that shaped secular writers’ works generations later. I fought hard to keep everything as autonomous as possible, making sure to tell the stories of how Jews had lived and what they had lived for, rather than how they had died. As I insisted to my Nashville roommates long ago, I was not that dark.
But the past kept seeping into the present. By the end of 2018, after a massacre of Jews in our more perfect union that hardly came from nowhere, the only thing my readers, students, colleagues, and editors wanted me to talk about was dead Jews. I became the go-to person for the emerging literary genre of synagogue-shooting op-eds—a job I did not apply for, but one that I accepted out of fear of what someone less aware of history might write instead. Even outside of those news-headline incidents, I found myself asked, again and again, for my opinions on dead Jews. Perhaps I was expected to approach the subject with a kind of piety, an attitude that would generate some desperately needed hope and grace. After all, I was a living Jew (a writer, a religious person, even a Hebrew and Yiddish scholar), so I was clearly equipped to say something decorous and inspiring, something sad and beautiful that would flatter everyone involved.
I couldn’t do it. I was too angry. My children were growing up in an America very different from the one I’d grown up in, one where battling strangers’ idiocies consumed large chunks of brain space and where the harassment and gaslighting of others—encounters like those I’d once buried in my mental sock drawer—were not the exception but the rule. My efforts to prove a negative—that we weren’t all dark—had failed, overwhelmed by the reality of being part of a ridiculously small minority that nonetheless played a behemoth role in other people’s imaginations.
So instead of avoiding and rejecting this haunted-house world, where my family’s identity was defined and determined by the opinions and projections of others, I decided to lean directly into that distorted public looking glass and report what I found there: to unravel, document, describe, and articulate the endless unspoken ways in which the popular obsession with dead Jews, even in its most apparently benign and civic-minded forms, is a profound affront to human dignity. I wish I did not feel the need to do this. But I want my children, and your children, to know.
This book explores the many strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment. I hope you will find it as disturbing as I do.
Adapted from People Love Dead Jews: Reports From A Haunted Present. Copyright (c) 2021 by Dara Horn. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
And while we’re on the subject . . .
Since October 27, 2018, a lot of attention, understandably, has focused on how 11 Pittsburgh Jews died. But Mark Oppenheimer’s new book: Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood” is about how Pittsburgh Jews lived — and continue to live. It captures, in part, why I feel blessed to come from Squirrel Hill.