Episode 69: Dara Horn: People Love Dead Jews (Transcript)
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Nahanni Rous: Hi! It’s Nahanni Rous. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.
Dara Horn’s novels are imaginative and steeped in Jewish history. But her latest book is completely different. It’s not a work of fiction. It’s a collection of essays with the provocative title People Love Dead Jews. There’s also a companion podcast called Adventures with Dead Jews. Dara writes, “I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews. I was very wrong.”
Dara Horn: You sort of think of antisemitism as being something like, you know, there’s some like neo-Nazi guy with a gun, you know, that's one aspect of it, but what we're really talking about is this, like, psychological dismissal.
In a recent interview, Dara and I talked about what she means. She told me she began noticing this subtler side of antisemitism a few years ago, when Smithsonian Magazine asked her to write an article about Anne Frank.
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Dara: I just had this sense of dread about that topic at that point. And I want to say that this is actually one of many requests that I have gotten over the years from non-Jewish publications, where they basically only want me to write about dead Jews.
I already sort of had this sense of the way these stories were being used, that essentially people tell stories about dead Jews that make them feel better about themselves. And I think that what happened was when I felt that sense of dread, it was because I knew that there's this thing going on, where—certainly when you talk about Holocaust memory, but it happens in many different contexts where there's a conversation about Jewish culture in a non-Jewish setting— where these stories of dead Jews are used to sort of teach some kind of nice lesson about redemption or humanity, and doing that requires this erasure.
Nahanni: What do you mean by erasure?
Dara: Okay. So what I mean by eraser is exactly what I then saw in this Anne Frank example, because what happened was, when I was contemplating this, having to do this piece, whether I was going to say yes to it, I remembered a news item of something that had happened at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam earlier that year, and this was 2018, where a young Jewish employee at that museum, this was a young man who was an Orthodox Jew, and the museum would not allow him to wear his yarmulke to work. They made him hide it under a baseball hat.
And he had appealed this decision to the board of the museum and the board had deliberated for four months and finally then relented and let him wear his yarmulke to work. And I had seen this news story, and I said, you know, four months is a very long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether or not it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.
Nahanni: Right, the Anne Frank House, which exists to educate people about a Jewish family that was forced into hiding.
Dara: Exactly. Right. I mean, this was so absurd. And it was very revealing, right? And then, you know, I discovered an equally absurd story that had happened at the same museum a few months earlier in 2017, where visitors had noticed something weird about the audio guide display. You know, there's that display where it says, you know, English and there's like a little British flag. And then it says Francais, and there's a French flag. Until you get to Hebrew. Hebrew, no flag. No flag. And I'm like, you know, these are PR mishaps, but they are not mistakes.
Nahanni: And didn't the museum say something like, “The yarmulke interferes with the universality of the message that we're trying to…”
Nahanni: So this does actually perfectly illustrate your point about dead Jews having this very important place in the non-Jewish imagination, but living Jews interfering with whatever that important message is.
Dara: Exactly, exactly. And so that's what I wrote this piece for Smithsonian about. I wrote the piece for them, but I wrote it about this phenomenon, and it's now the first chapter of the book, and this is where I got the title of the book. I opened that piece with the line, “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”
And I mean, that's it, as you say exactly what it is that this, you know, this murder of Jews has been turned into this, like, we're going to teach this nice lesson about humanity and about how we all need to love and respect each other. And who are we loving and respecting? Like, you know, the nice Jews, right? You know, the dead ones, not the yucky ones who are, you know, doing yucky things like, I don't know, practicing Judaism or living in Israel. Like that's gross. We don't like that. I mean, it's like, it couldn't be more clear.
Nahanni: So, this is really a side of antisemitism that you're describing.
Dara: Oh yes. Yes. I mean in the most benign guise, right? I mean, it's like, oh look how dead Jews are teaching us about the wonders of humanity, a vision of humanity that does not in fact include Judaism.
You know, I had written five novels before this. All of my novels deal very deeply with Jewish history, Jewish culture, Jewish texts. And I also have a doctorate in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and everything I had done in my career up to this point was very focused on the idea that I wanted this to be this autonomous experience. I was very much pushing back against the idea that Jewish identity was defined from the outside in, by, like, what the world did to the Jews.
I used to, when I would do public events for my books, I would even ask people at these events, “How many people here can name three concentration camps?” And, you know, that's often something a lot of readers can do. I would then ask those same readers, “How many people here can name three Yiddish writers?” You know, because 80% of the people murdered in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers. It's a famously literary culture. You know, why do we care so much about how these people died, if we're, like, taking no interest in how these people lived?
Nahanni: What made you decide to write this book now?
Dara: Well, so after I wrote that piece for Smithsonian, um, which really was very much pushing back on this idea, really— I mean, it was a piece about this problem, that piece came out in one of their fall issues in 2018. And it was just, like, a few days after that piece came out, that there was the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Within hours of that attack, the New York Times called me and was like, you know, “Would you like to write about dead Jews?” And, you know, as I put it in the book, you know, I became the New York Times’ go-to person for the emerging literary genre of synagogue shooting op-eds, right? I'd be like, you know, this was not a job I applied for.
And what I noticed also was they wanted me to write about it in a particular way. Like, I was expected to say something sad and beautiful and inspiring that would flatter everybody involved. And I just got to this point where I'm like, I just couldn't do it.
And what I then decided to do was to lean into this problem. Because, one thing I've learned in my, you know, 20 years writing books is that the uncomfortable moments are often where the story is. And I thought, you know, this problem itself is worth examining, because there's just not a lot of clarity about it. I just wanted to sort of explore that. And that's how I started writing this book.
Nahanni: So can we talk about some of those examples that you describe in the book that have to do with Jewish life in an American context?
Dara: Sure. So there's a couple pieces in the book about the American context. I have several pieces about these, uh, attacks on the Jewish community in recent years. So the shooting in Pittsburgh, also the shooting at a synagogue in the San Diego area happened about six months later.
But at the end of the book, I write about the attacks on the Hasidic community that happened just before the pandemic. And this is where I think you really see, the reality of this conversation. Um, and I think that it reveals a lot about the way we think about diversity in this country and the limits of the way we think about diversity in this country.
The first one was an attack in Jersey City, which, I live in New Jersey, so this is actually quite close to where I live. This was an attack on a kosher grocery store in a Satmar Hasidic community. So this is a very, you know, very religious community of Jews. And one of the first things I say in the book about it is like, after this attack, the New York Times did not call me for a quick op-ed about how sad this was. Nope. Nobody called me.
What I did at that point was I read all of the news coverage of these attacks and what astonished me, although it shouldn't have, was that I could not find a news article about these attacks that didn't say something derogatory about the community being attacked in the process of reporting the article.
So, um, for the Jersey City example, the media narrative about that attack, which I saw repeated again and again, in many different news reports in many different outlets, was that this Hasidic community was gentrifying a minority neighborhood. Is there this murderous rage against gentrification where people are walking into, you know, Blue Bottle Coffee with automatic weapons and, like, blowing away white hipsters? Because I haven't seen that happening. And then I'm like, why are we pretending that this is about gentrification?
And what I realized is these articles are sending a signal. And the signal is these people deserve it. I mean, it would be like if you were writing about, you know, uh, a case of sexual assault on a woman and you’re like, just for context, here's what she was wearing.
Dara: Right? I mean, it's exactly that dynamic. And you know, nobody's doing this for the attack on Pittsburgh because like, you know those are the nice Jews, you know, they don't have weird hairstyles. And then you see like there's a limit, right, and the limit is like, you know, you're allowed to be like this Jewish and no further.
And that's very much what I'm writing about in my book. Like the more Jewish you are, the less acceptable it is. And to me, this is of a piece with the erasure of Jewish identity that you see in Holocaust memorialization where it's like, these people were just like you and me, they're just like everybody else. Well, you know, a lot of those people murdered in the Holocaust were also Hasidim.
Nahanni: Yeah, so you do have a big critique of this, um, the approach to teaching tolerance, which attempts to paint people as sort of the same.
Dara: We have had this idea when we teach people not to be bigoted, that like the way to teach them that is to say, like, see this fill-in-the-blank group over here, like you shouldn't be mean to those people because they're just like you and me, they're just like everybody else. And it's like, well, the problem with that, especially in the Jewish case, is that Jews spent 3,000 years not being like everybody else.
We have this idea of like, you know, diversity means everybody's all...you know, it's like the opposite of diversity, these people are just like everybody else, we're all the same. Right? That's what I talk about when I say erasing living Jews, right, it's saying like Jews are accepted to the extent that they are just like everyone else.
Nahanni: Well, and I mean, in America, many Jews have done that voluntarily, or at least under duress, but have made a big project of trying to be like everybody else.
Dara: Okay. So this, you know, yes, that's true. I used to sort of feel, you know, a sense... I used to sort of look down on those choices and I now sort of feel more compassion for them, because I don't know how much of it is really a choice.
And also, I want to point out that this is not a problem only in America, and it's not a problem only now. This is very much part of the Hanukkah story. The way I put it in the book, as there are sort of two kinds of antisemitism that have persisted through history. One is what I call Purim antisemitism, where it's like, big, bad guy comes and is like, “Kill all the Jews,” right? It’s not ambiguous.
But then there's, you know, Hanukkah antisemitism, where if you think about the Hanukkah story, you have this Hellenistic empire that conquers Judea. There's never an attempt to kill all the Jews. And at first there's not even anything coercive about it, right? It's just this, um, you know, kind of a soft persuasion where they're like, okay, we have this Greek culture and now you're our colony. So now this is your culture too. And you know, the Jews at that time cooperated with that, they're like, “We can be a good vassal state.”
What I think is really interesting about it is how persistent it is in many, many societies, where you have this sort of larger non-Jewish culture that is, you know, they're not like this Purim thing where they're “oh kill all the Jews.”
This is something much more subtle and psychological, right, where it's like, you know, this is the choice you have to make in order to be a person who matters in this society. You know, there's this larger non-Jewish society that's telling you, like, here's how you're allowed to be.
And then there's sort of this absurdity of like, well, yeah, they're not antisemitic because look, they're not, you know, butchering you in a pogrom. And it's like, well, is that the standard?
Nahanni: I want to get back to talking about Anne Frank, because you said some things about her in the book that were really, you know, new ways of thinking about her story to me. And I think they're important.
Okay, so we already talked a little bit about the Anne Frank House, but I want to talk about The Diary of Anne Frank, um, which has sold, like, 30 million copies or something, in 70 languages. So can you talk about how Anne Frank is remembered?
Dara: Yes, so, well, there's a few things. I mean, you know, she's sort of seen as like, you know, this is someone who represents the innocent children of the world. And, you know, I mean, what's really interesting when you read her diary, her whole, um, drive was to not be seen as a child. She was absolutely very driven by, you know, professional ambition.
She's making sophisticated edits to this diary. She rewrites the whole thing, you know, with an eye toward publication. This was not like, you know, this like, oh, this child who's speaking, you know, from the heart. This was someone who was writing for an audience, right? So that's one way in which this person is diminished.
But the other thing is, this line that's plastered on the back of the book jacket and on the museum wall, “I still believe in spite of everything that people are truly good at heart,” this line is considered inspiring, by which we mean it flatters us, because it makes us feel forgiven for lapses in our civilization that led to piles of murdered girls. And, you know, if a murdered girl said this, well, then we must be absolved because it must be true.
The problem is then you're switching the order of events here because Anne Frank wrote that line about people being truly good at heart three weeks before she met people who weren't. Because three weeks after she writes that line, she is arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and guess what? She met people there who weren't truly good at heart. But you have to kind of dump that whole reality in order to get this like, you know, feel-good story that really works.
And I mean, there are a lot of other ones she writes in the diary that are expressing exactly the opposite idea. Like, you know, she has a line in there where she talks about how all of mankind has this urge to rage and murder and destroy and kill. I mean, that's not a line we're putting on the wall of the museum because it doesn't make us feel good about ourselves. Right. I mean, like person has been turned into this, like, you know, this figure who's like offering us grace and like, that's exactly the opposite of what this story really shows us. This is really about the viciousness of the triumph of evil.
Nahanni: Right. Right. And I couldn't help thinking, as I read that, the part about Anne Frank, that part of what makes her, um, appealing as sort of this universal symbol of innocent childhood is that she can be remembered as a helpless girl, not just child, but girl, and I wonder how you think her gender contributes to how she's remembered?
Dara: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Because I mean, even think about the way it was published. Um, certainly in English where it's like “the diary of a young girl.” Well, what is a young girl? Think about that. A young boy would be like a five-year-old. A young girl is apparently 15, right? I mean, like, isn't that person more accurately called a young woman?
And that's another interesting thing about the way that the diary is published. The picture that you sort of think of, that was on the cover of the book, is from when she's 10 years old. Right? I mean, it's like, you know, she was 15. But then we have this picture of her from when she really is a young child. But of course it emphasizes this like, oh, ’cause it's a pretty little girl in like a part in a birthday dress, pretty dress. Because it's all about how she doesn't have any autonomy.
Nahanni: Right. So I want to shift a little bit here, um, and talk a little bit about the overlap between antisemitism and sexism.
Nahanni: Um, because some of the ways that you talk about this particular angle on antisemitism, remind me of the language that's often used to describe sexism and the way women are expected to perform particular roles in society.
Dara: Okay. So this dynamic did feel very familiar to me from just my life as a woman. Um, you know, there's this idea that you are not allowed to express certain emotions, right? Like you're not allowed to express anger, for example. And that, you know, is something I saw also in the way that one was supposed to respond to antisemitism, is that it was in poor taste to express anger, right?
I noticed that, like, when I'm writing these pieces about these synagogue shootings, that, like, I'm not allowed to be angry about this, right? I have to be like, oh, this is so sad, but I'm going to find the little hopeful thing in here. Like, well, there's not a lot of hope when somebody goes and shoots up a synagogue, but I'm going to find the hopeful thing. Right? Instead of being, like, I'm enraged, which is how I actually feel. And that felt very familiar to me, too, from my life as a woman.
So, you know, and that dynamic is something that, you know, those two dynamics, the number one that you have this sort of like outside world, that's sort of telling you that the things that you know are violating and wrong are not really happening, you're just imagining them, right? And then there's also this dynamic of, you're not allowed to be angry about them because these people are doing you a favor, right?
So that sort of dynamic felt very familiar to me. I mean I know that when I give a public talk, even when I'm saying something really grim, I have to smile. Because, you know, I don't want to look like I'm being aggressive. You know, it's all about making other people comfortable, right? Like, that your job as a woman is to make people feel comfortable and to not be perceived as upsetting someone else.
And that, to me, felt very parallel to the role that Jews were expected to play in these non-Jewish societies, including our own, that we are not supposed to express anger. Right? You're supposed to express your gratitude about being, you know, being in this setting at all. You should be happy that you're here. And also that when these sort of belittling things are happening, that you're supposed to pretend that they're not happening and that actually, oh, it's all in your head because you're just paranoid.
Nahanni: I noticed that your tone in the book is, you know, there's a certain amount of snarkiness and anger expressed in that. And I, you know, I wondered how intentionally you, you did that, given that, you know, this is exactly what you're writing about, this sort of need to be appropriate and polite.
Dara: Yeah. I'm done being appropriate and polite. You know, it's sort of you, it is, this book is meant to make people uncomfortable. That was my intention.
Nahanni: And what do you hope to achieve by doing that?
Dara: Clarity. Clarity. Because sometimes you need some, like, you know, the friend to point out like, you know, this boyfriend's really not good for you. So, um, my goal in this book is clarity, is to sort of make this clear that everyone deserves full human dignity, right? And to think about the way we talk about, um, the role that Jews play in non-Jewish society, often is requiring Jews to erase themselves. And I'm pushing back on that.
Nahanni: How different is the need to be polite and quiet from other minorities in this country? Like don't Black people also have to show up according to certain acceptable parameters. And, um, you know, isn't the white majority culture writing the rules about that too?
Dara: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that's one thing actually that’s really been driven home to me by the reception for this book is, you know, I have a lot of readers who are not Jewish, but who come from other minority communities and read this book and are like, wow, this feels familiar.
Nahanni: Yeah. It was also gonna say the same thing about, like, this sort of mythologizing of the Jewish story. That's true for Native Americans also in a way...
Dara: Oh yes.
Nahanni: Like we have this mythologizing that's not at all connected to the lives of actual people who live in this country and are part of society and have their own real needs and stories.
Dara: It is a thousand percent familiar. What I think is interesting, though, is that what I think it really shows is that Jews have a lot to contribute to this country's conversation about what diversity really means and how we deal with the evils of the past, because Jews have, like, 3,000 years of experience on this topic.
Nahanni: So you talk in the book about “Western literature,” how it attempts to make sense of the world and create a feeling of resolution, whereas you say that Hebrew and Yiddish literature does something very different—there isn’t closure, there isn’t a moment of grace, which is a Christian concept. These stories are more about endurance and resilience and they open more questions than they answer… So given all of that, I’m not going to ask you to tie it all up in a neat little bow and provide a note of optimism to end on. I thought, maybe, how about leaving us with a question instead?
Dara: Sure. So my question is, what are the ways that we might be erasing ourselves to make other people comfortable? That's a question for, you know, for Jewish and non-Jewish readers, really, for anyone reading this book, because as I said, this really is a book about human dignity.
Nahanni: It's also a beautiful question for women to think about.
Dara: Yes. Yes, because we are so often asked to erase ourselves too, and to devote ourselves to making other people comfortable. Is there a way that making people uncomfortable could make all of us be more able to flourish?
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Dara Horn’s new book is a collection of essays called People Love Dead Jews. It has a companion podcast called Adventures with Dead Jews. Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Jen Richler and Judith Rosenbaum. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.
Join the Jewish Women’s Archive for a new online course about “The Hidden History of Jews and Reproductive Rights in America.” Visit jwa.org/events for more information and to register.
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I’m your host, Nahanni Rous… until next time!
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 69: Dara Horn: People Love Dead Jews (Transcript)." (Viewed on December 3, 2023) <https://jwa.org/episode-69-dara-horn-people-love-dead-jews>.