Dara Horn, born in New Jersey in 1977, has made a name for herself with five novels on Jewish themes, novels all very different from the “Jewish-American novel” of Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, or Philip Roth. A scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature brought up in an Orthodox home, Horn eschews straightforward narration focused on Jewish adaptation to American life to explore the connections between modern and ancient lives in the US and in the “old country,” moving back and forth in time, sometimes over centuries.
Horn’s most conventional novel, All Other Nights, published in 2009, obeys the rules of the historical genre, centering around the American Civil War and the figure of Louisianan Judah Benjamin (1811-84), the first Jewish US Senator and, following the creation of the Confederacy, the number two figure in Jefferson Davis’ government; Benjamin left the US after the war for a distinguished career as a barrister in England. The novel’s main character is a New York Jew from a business family who enlists in the US Army and as a secret agent spies on (and kills) a Jewish southerner, but becomes attached to a second Confederate Jewish family, which he secretly defends while falling in love with one of its three daughters (the youngest one speaks in palindromes!). After being seriously injured in an explosion he is finally united with his beloved, both having presumably been purged of their sins through their sufferings.
In Horn’s latest and most provocative novel, Eternal Life, published in 2018, she creates Rachel, a character born in the time of the Roman expulsion of the Jews from “Palestine,” who is, along with her priestly lover Elazar, condemned to eternal recommencement, in each of her multitude of lives marrying, having children, growing old with them, and then starting over again as a young woman.
The book ends with a curious twist (SPOILER ALERT). Having reached the present day, Rachel’s granddaughter Hannah, a medical researcher, has discovered via DNA analysis the genetic miracle that has allowed Rachel to remain eternally 18 years old, her bodily deterioration with age being only for show, so that when the time comes to “die” she can let her body be destroyed and be reborn from undamaged DNA. At first Hannah wants to use this discovery as a means to make all humans immortal. But on contracting a serious disease of her own, she decides that not death but inability to change is humanity’s greatest problem, and she redirects her energies to developing a genetic treatment for “cognitive deterioration.” Meanwhile, Rachel goes on to still another family, accepting the curse of continual death and rebirth, which in the context of the novel can be likened to the role of a “mortal/immortal” novelist, who “dies” and “is reborn” with each new story, but who can never end her storytelling as she follows the Jewish people’s never-ending adaptation to a changing world.
Horn’s 2021 nonfiction volume People Love Dead Jews (Norton) touches on the same dilemma as Adam Katz’s and my The First Shall Be the Last: Rethinking Antisemitism (Brill, 2015). Although she is not concerned to develop a theory of antisemitism, her frustration with the gentile world’s attempts at a moral reaction to it expresses from a very different angle the same paradox that we pointed out: the Jews’ firstness in the Abrahamic world can be neither accepted nor ignored. Truly taking into account Jean Paul II’s designation of the Jews as “elder brothers” would require a revolution in Western anthropology.
The Romans opposed Jewish particularism, but it was Christians who inaugurated antisemitism as the resentment of firstness by claiming to be the New Israel. While consolidating their European territories, Christians had for many centuries little and always fragile tolerance for the Jews, persecuting and expelling them at different times, culminating in the Holocaust.
Horn’s book is explicitly a reaction to the rebirth of antisemitism among generations increasingly distant from the Holocaust, which discredited antisemitism for a couple of generations in Europe and America. In particular, since Israel’s victory in the 1967 “Six-Day War,” the growing international hostility to Israel as the “new Nazis” whose “genocide” of Palestinians is comparable to Hitler’s and whose “apartheid” to old South Africa’s, has spawned an ever-proliferating left-wing antisemitism.
This trend has really taken off in the past few years with the emergence of “wokeness,” a term absent from Horn’s book. That I was able to teach for fifty years in American universities, from 1965 to 2014, without ever facing campus antisemitism illustrates the abruptness of the sea-change that has taken place.
Horn complains of being obliged to compose op-eds in reaction to the recent rash of small-scale but often deadly incidents in the US that have made her realize that antisemitism is again in business. She is offended by reporters’ eagerness to explain as many of these assaults as possible as resulting from “community tensions” by pointing out that Orthodox Jews moving into minority neighborhoods are seen as agents of “gentrification”—even if their assailants are not in fact residents of the affected neighborhood and seemingly attack them simply as visible Jews.
A point that she does not make, although she mentions that many of the recent incidents were perpetrated by blacks, is that today’s antisemitism is not that of the Christian gentry of Gentlemen’s Agreement vintage. Even when its funding and ideological sources are traceable to the contemporary successors of the old Euro-American elite, its ideology is filtered through the new-fashioned woke, including many woke Jews, who, much as they look down on Trump-voting “deplorables,” view their Zionist brethren as “colonials” cruelly oppressing the Palestinians. Such behavior provides a cover of “intersectional” legitimacy to the thugs who commit antisemitic crimes in the West, as well as to the Palestinian “resistance” in Israel and its Western backers. But Horn’s understandable reluctance to get involved in the current culture wars precludes any effort to situate the new antisemitism in its political context.
More worthy of discussion is Horn’s attitude toward cultural attempts to preserve in a respectful form the memory of the Holocaust itself, and above all, that of the Yiddish-based Jewish culture it so largely destroyed. Horn is very unhappy with the exploitation of the Holocaust and other instances of Jewish suffering in “uplifting” narratives and museum exhibits. The idea that the irrational hatred and murder of Jews should “serve a purpose” goes against her grain.
One of her most poignant chapters describes the Soviet betrayal of the Jews whose Yiddish language and culture they had generously sponsored in the 1920s and 30s. Horn’s second novel, The World to Come (Norton, 2006), had dealt with some of the writers and artists, including Marc Chagall, who had participated in the Soviet revival of Yiddish culture, without of course realizing that it had been even from the start a mere propaganda operation that would end up after WWII with Stalin’s liquidation of its remaining participants.
After publishing The World to Come, Horn had been contacted by Ala Zuskin, the surviving daughter of Yiddish theater actor/director Benjamin Zuskin (transformed in the novel to Ziskind), who confirmed for Horn the Soviets’ betrayal of these artists. Horn sympathizes, without altogether agreeing, with Ala’s expostulation that their treachery in disguising their murderous intentions while persuading Jews to reject their religion (and Zionism) for the sake of preserving their Yiddish culture made them worse than the Nazis. “And [unlike the latter] they never, ever paid for it.”
Horn’s book ends on a personal anecdote that is more of a parable than a guide to action. As with her novels, the point is always to preserve and renew the memory of the Jewish people, and it is in that spirit that she concludes by explaining that, discouraged by the rebirth of antisemitism, she decided to participate, after her many years of study of Hebrew and Yiddish, in the Daf Yomi (a page a day) study of the Talmud, a procedure, inaugurated in 1923, meant to allow those who, unlike traditional ultra-Orthodox men, cannot devote their entire lives to this study, to get through the 2711 double pages of the Talmud in seven plus years… after which many simply go back to Volume I and begin again. For the endless disputations of the Talmud are not meant to reach a final conclusion, but to provide material for an eternal dialogue, the quintessence of Judaism supposedly consisting in the endless re-thinking and -debating of the Law. The Daf Yomi reading completed its most recent 13th cycle in 2020.
Horn’s attempts to deal with the dilemma of the Jew in Western Christian society are worthy of great respect. What might appear as a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is historically justified by the West’s endless backsliding into antisemitism, which, much like woke racialism, does its supposed beneficiaries, American blacks and Palestinian Arabs, more harm than good, but which, unlike racialism’s relatively minor effect on whites, is gradually making the so-called Christian West once again inhospitable and even dangerous for Jews.
Horn mostly avoids the vocabulary and mindset of critical theory, presenting her negative reactions to commemorative texts or displays as visceral rejections of what she sees as excuses for perversely justifying the deaths of the dead Jews they honor. She bewails the fact that Anne Frank’s journal, ending as published with “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart” is read as providing an ultimate catharsis, whitewashing the real horror of Nazism—and of her own tragically premature death in Auschwitz from cholera. Holocaust films like Schindler’s List are reproached with their “uplifting” messages, and even the currently circulating supremely tasteful Musealia Auschwitz Exposition, which while mentioning other victims of the Holocaust does not forget to insist that 90% of the victims were Jews, leaves her with a bitter taste and no desire ever to return. (Horn fails to mention, perhaps not having visited it, Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, completed in 2013, which sympathetically tells the story of the Jewish community in Poland from its beginning a millennium ago rather than focusing pointedly on the Holocaust.)
In Horn’s sole reflection on literary theory, she reproaches the Western European novel with what Frank Kermode called its “sense of an ending,” drawing a contrast with works of Yiddish literature in which she finds any such “sense” deconstructed by an ironic refusal to bring the story to a satisfying closure. As a counter-example to “epiphany” as a genre of “uplifting” ending, she cites the final exclamation of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the dairyman (popularized in Fiddler on the Roof): “Tell all our Jews everywhere that they shouldn’t worry: our old God still lives!”
Horn seemingly does not notice that this expression of confidence in God is itself an epiphany. But what she grasps intuitively is that it is an epiphany whose distinguishing Jewish characteristic is to be trans-individual, trumping the “sense of an ending” in the lives of the individual characters by affirming that whatever happens remains under the control of divine providence—which, in historical terms, implies that whatever horrors Jews must endure, the Jewish people will nonetheless survive.
The Holocaust not surprisingly led many to say with Adorno that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Thus the most challenging view of Horn’s novels is that, unlike those who continue after Auschwitz to write novels formally no different from before, she wants to find a path for the novel that will not ignore or trivialize the Holocaust, but that will permit its experience to be fully taken into account. Such a perspective makes the very idea of the “well-made” novel with its godlike author working out all problems inappropriate. In this perspective, the end of art cannot be described simply as catharsis, but as a challenge to the reader to remain, like Rachel in Eternal Life, eternally absorbed in life’s problems. Like the cyclical peruser of the Talmud, Horn would have her reader not passively experience the power of God’s providence, but share his endless pain and joy in helping his people survive through the ages.
People Love Dead Jews is a satiric title, expressing bitterness at even the most respectful memorialization of the victims of the Shoah, as though respectfully lamenting their death could prettify its sheer human ugliness and that of its roots in centuries of persecution.
Yet this title, not unlike Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” has a far broader relevance in Western civilization, once we consider that Christianity is founded on the worship of God as a “dead Jew” whose Resurrection is intended as a promise to all: I am the Resurrection and the life: . . . whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. What is strange indeed is how rarely this obvious connection is drawn.
Which is why I believe that Christians and others must accept the challenge that the Judeo-Christian history of the West must be explored from the Jewish side (and eventually from the Muslim side as well)—from which dead Jews remain dead, but God’s mortality, and that of his ironically “chosen people,” remains unthinkable. Dara Horn has grasped this challenge, and I very much look forward to her future insights.