People Love Dead Jews

Reports from a Haunted Present

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Pub Date 7 Sep 2021 | Archive Date 31 Aug 2021

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An exploration of how Jewish history is exploited to comfort the living.

Reflecting on subjects as far-flung as the international veneration of Anne Frank, the blockbuster travelling exhibition called “Auschwitz,” the Jewish history of the Chinese city of Harbin, and the little known “righteous-gentile” Varian Fry, Dara Horn challenges us to confront the reasons why there might be so much fascination with Jewish deaths, as emblematic of the worst of evils the world has to offer, and so little respect for Jewish lives, as they continue to unfold in the present.

Horn draws on her own family life—trying to explain Shakespeare’s Shylock to a curious ten-year-old, her anger when swastikas are drawn on desks in her children’s school in New Jersey, the profound and essential perspective offered by traditional religious practice, prayer, and study—to assert the vitality, complexity, and depth of this life against an anti-Semitism that, far from being disarmed by the mantra of “Never forget,” is on the rise.

Category: Social Science / Jewish Studies

About the Author: Dara Horn is the author of five acclaimed and award-winning novels.

An exploration of how Jewish history is exploited to comfort the living.

Reflecting on subjects as far-flung as the international veneration of Anne Frank, the blockbuster travelling exhibition called...

Advance Praise

"Dara Horn has an uncommon mastery of the literary essay, and she applies it here with a relentless, even furious purpose. Horn makes well-worn debates - on Anne Frank and Hannah Arendt, for instance - newly provocative and urgent. Her best essays are by turns tragic and comic, and her magnificent mini-biography of Varian Fry alone justifies paying the full hardcover price." -- Tom Reiss, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Black Count

"Dara Horn has an uncommon mastery of the literary essay, and she applies it here with a relentless, even furious purpose. Horn makes well-worn debates - on Anne Frank and Hannah Arendt, for instance...

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Featured Reviews

Dara Horn has won so many awards for her writing, not only for her fiction, but for her essays. This latest book is a collection of her essays, some of which I have read before, but which are compiled here in a very coherent way and which deal with both timely and timeless themes. One of the main threads running through these essays is that there is a great deal more empathy and good feeling for dead Jews than those who are living. Moreover, books about dead Jews - Anne Frank’s diary being the most obvious - need to have positive uplifting messages, and preferably include non-Jewish rescuers. But as Horn points out, Anne wrote about her conviction that people were “truly good at heart” *before* she was captured and sent to Auschwitz Concentration Camp and then on to the Bergen-Belsen killing facility, i.e., before, Horn writes, “she met people who weren’t.” But from just reading the diary, readers are offered grace and optimism without having to confront the reality of what happened to Anne. Horn asks, “What would it mean for a writer not to hide [the] horror?” The answer is, that practically nobody reads the book. One of her most telling anecdotes is about a young Jewish man who worked at the Anne Frank house, who tried to wear his yarmulke to work. His employers, she relates, told him to hide it under a baseball cap. She writes: “The museum finally relented after deliberating for four months, 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.” Jewish literature in English, Horn writes, is basically Holocaust fiction, but fiction, like the story presented in Anne’s diary, that meets certain requirements. She notes that in the West, as the literary critic Frank Kermode suggested, “readers desire coherent and satisfying endings,” which he connected to the history of Christian religion - i.e., the desire to live in a world that makes sense and provides happy or at least understandable endings. At the every least, the main character should have an epiphany or give us a moment of grace. She observes: “the canonical works by authors in Jewish languages almost never give their readers any of those things.” The world Jews have known, she writes, is broken and unredeemed, and often doesn’t make any sense. Thus the Holocaust novels that have sold millions of copies have all been “uplifting.” The ones that haven’t been successful have “no contrived conversations with Nazis that show their humanity, nor even any brave rebellion - at least, not until the very end. Instead there is confusion, starvation, denial, and sheer sadistic horror.” She also writes about “Jewish Heritage Sites” in places that no longer have any Jews at all. She calls the phrase “a truly ingenious piece of marketing. It is a much better name than ‘Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.’” [We have taken a number of tours at such sites. The emphasis is always on how the city honors its former residents, with nary a mention of why they aren’t there anymore.] One of her essays deals with the role Jews play in popular imagination rather than the reality of who they are. Somewhat humorously (but not) she notes that in Harbin, China, the former home of around 20,000 Jews, and now the site of one of these “heritage exhibits,” Harbin’s mayor welcomed visitors in 2007 by citing “esteemed Jews” such as J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Of course, neither one was Jewish, but they were rich, so the mayor assumed they had to have been, because “the Americans’ money is in the pockets of the Jews.” How Jews themselves cope with anti-Semitism is another recurrent theme, and Horn tells about very interesting research that shows Jewish names were not in fact stripped of their identifying characteristics at Ellis Island, but afterward, by Jews themselves (as well as by people in other disparaged ethnicities) in the courts. She writes: “These new Americans and their children, living in what they hoped was the first place in centuries where their families could enjoy full and free lives, soon discovered that when they applied for a job as Rosenberg no one would hire them, but when they applied as Rose, everyone would.” Horn has a theory that Jews are reviled because since ancient times, they “have represented the frightening prospect of freedom.” By that she means the freedom to be different, but also the Jewish notion that freedom is inextricably associated with responsibility, accountability, and obligations to others. Blaming others for your problems, and being accountable to no one or no law but yourself and your own desires, is much easier, and, as it turns out, much more popular. How do non-Jews account for anti-Semitism? She points out the message promulgated by the newest Auschwitz traveling exhibition by Musealia, a producer of blockbuster museum shows, is that what is needed is more *love.* Horn writes: “The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented - have always represented . . . the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.” Evaluation: As usual with the writings of Dara Horn, these essays are full of thought-provoking insights, historical information, and moral passion. I highly recommend this collection for book clubs - it will provide hours of contemplation and discussion.

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People Love Dead Jews is a collection of essays on the disturbing and occasionally surreal ways the world gives attention to dead Jews and how this attention shapes the treatment of living Jews today. Author Dara Horn shares how individuals and institutions represent Jewish suffering and how this suffering is repurposed for the benefit of others. These nuanced accounts cover a number of time periods and places, with a few key themes running through the chapters. The first is trying to preserve the past through writing, record keeping and cultural preservation. This seems natural when discussing a people which has faced cultural destruction, banishment and genocide for generations upon generations. The second is that many are more familiar with and prefer their Jewish stories to be about ‘dead Jews’ rather than to learn about or help preserve living Jewish culture. I knew I would enjoy this book in the opening story of how the author took part in an academic competition in Tennessee as a teenager. Her Jewishness was questioned because of her blond hair and blue eyes when one of the other girls said I “thought Hitler said you all were dark.” The author recognizes decades later that those girls were not stupid and probably not bigoted, but rather that their total knowledge of the Jewish people and their history was rooted in school lessons based on what Hitler said about them. People Love Dead Jews focuses heavily on the arts, including the restoration of Jewish historical sites, the development of Holocaust museum exhibits and portrayals of Jews in film and literature. Having lived in China and toured the reconstructed and redeveloping Jewish areas of Shanghai, I could relate well to the chapter on the reconstruction of Jewish sites in Harbin. The author takes a sad, cynical look at the lack of true historic preservation (frankly not uncommon across all types of sites in China) and how this area was developed in hopes of boosting tourism and potential Israeli investment. What good does it do if it doesn’t explain why there aren’t any Jews there now? Or why they were there in the first place? Or how they were fleeced and murdered? Or when the exhibits display fake objects? Renovated Jewish heritage sites are springing up everywhere, but avoid “all those pesky moral concerns – about, say, why these “sites” exist to begin with evaporate in a mist of goodwill.” In many parts of the world, you can no longer travel to meet Jewish people, you can only visit their graves. Many Americans are completely unaware that Jewish families have lived in areas such as North Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Another blood pressure raising example is when the famous Anne Frank House dragged their feet on allowing a Jewish employee to wear his yarmulke to work. As Horn says, “I had mistaken the enormous public interest in past Jewish suffering for a sign of respect for living Jews. I was very wrong.” I found her brief comments on what she considered to be the sources of modern anti-Semitism to be very interesting and wish she had written more on this subject. For example, when I was young, the 1997 film Life is Beautiful was quite popular, but it wasn’t at all uncommon to hear derogatory comments about someone being, looking or acting Jewish (even if they weren’t Jewish) from what seemed like the most unlikely sources. Would they be ‘called out’ nowadays or is making comments about groups such as Jews or Roma somehow acceptable even amongst progressive groups because one can slip these comments through by saying they’re a culture, rather than a race? There were two things that took me by surprise in this book. The first was the collective memory myth American Jews have created about changing their surnames when pursuing education or employment. Evidently many families didn’t even want to admit to themselves discrimination was an issue in the new world, and so created stories that their names were changed quickly by some silly bureaucrat at Ellis Island. Bravely contradicting this popular narrative, the author shows thousands of court cases where Jewish people were legally changing their names to avoid discrimination. Of course, they didn’t want to tell their children and grandchildren they had changed it out of necessity rather than accident. In a world where “Anti-Semitism” has a high bar of being the Holocaust, lower levels of persecution or intolerance slide by, and especially when that bigotry is quietly visible where “Jews themselves are choosing to reject their own traditions. It is a form of weaponized shame.” There’s genocide and there’s also the slow dismantling of Jewish civilisation. Jews hiding their identity and changing their names is a story that goes all the way back to Esther and Purim. In these name changes, we “witness ordinary American Jews in the debasing act of succumbing to discrimination instead of fighting it.” Of course, Horn recognises that sometimes you have to prioritise feeding your family over fighting discrimination. This section keenly observes how American Jews might have completely different experiences and struggles based on their personal history, place of residence or their class. Similarly, in another section, the violence against American Jews is justified by the local community and media because they were ‘gentrifying’ the area, even when the victims were living in poverty and had moved to that area to avoid the soaring prices of where they had come from. It seems only recently that mainstream English language books and online articles are catching up to the fact that Americans of Jewish background are a diverse group and aren’t necessarily Ashkenazi, well off and living in certain zip codes. The second surprise was how Yiddish and Hebrew literature differs from English literature in how they portray Jewish suffering. The Hollywood films and “uplifting” books which use concentration camps as a back-story have reduced victims to mere metaphors. Many English language books want a Holocaust story to have a redemptive ending where a protagonist learns something. Better yet, non-Jewish rescuers should be involved to save some “hapless Jews.” The Jews who should be saved should be very relatable, not terribly religious and certainly not speak Yiddish. The Jewish suffering must serve some larger purpose and provide closure for the reader. This demand requires real dead Jews 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?” Of course, we know that the vast majority of real victims had their possessions seized and their families and love turned to ash. For those who survived, there was little welcome or support for them in their home countries after the war. In Yiddish literature, “the language of the culture that was successfully destroyed, one doesn’t find many musings on the kindness of strangers.” In this essay and others, the author helpfully shares her recommended Jewish literature, often available in translation, so your ‘to-read’ list will certainly grow after reading this book. The profile of American journalist Varian Fry, who rescued hundreds of artists, musicians, scientists and other intellectuals was a real page turner. Again, this book challenges our assumptions about what sort of person can be a brave rescuer and how victims to should act and respond. Here the author uses her incisive talent for puncturing the ‘feel good’ nature of these stories. Yes, it was wonderful that Fry did all he could despite his lack of resources, crumbling marriage and his own troubled mental health. He complained, “No, we should be able to save them all. Why just the world’s greatest painter?” Fry painfully understood that the U.S. government was only willing to save certain useful Jews, and that they determined what culture was worth preservation. Certain sub-cultures of Jewish arts and learning were wiped out forever, because they were determined by outsiders to be not worth the effort of saving. This cultural loss is again reflected in the chapter on Diarna, which uses new technologies such as 3-D modelling, satellite images, photography, and other methods to allow users to virtually visit disappearing or recently destroyed Jewish heritage sites. Another heartbreaking theme of this book is the recent deadly attacks on Jewish places of education and worship within the United States. When it comes to mass shootings at Jewish spaces, the author carefully reviews how the media coverage excuses these attacks, which contradicts the common belief that ‘Jews control the media.’ If Jews controlled all the media, attacks on Jewish children in the United States would not be excused by poorly researched articles providing “context” about why the victims deserved it. In one powerful paragraph, she describes how incredibly detailed holocaust museum exhibits mask lower level attacks on Jews that might not be “systemic” enough for the American public. Arson, assaults, shootings? Not the holocaust. “Doxxing Jewish journalists is definitely not the Holocaust. Harassing Jewish college students is also not the Holocaust…It is quite amazing how many things are not the Holocaust.” Are we educating people about bigotry or are we giving them ideas? People Love Dead Jews covers a number of heavy topics which will shatter preconceived notions and have you rethink the media you consume. Despite the themes outlined above, this book is often darkly funny and relatable. Well, relatable if you’ve experienced any sort of anti-Semitism or read a best selling concentration camp romance novel. The author’s voice comes through as if this was a close friend relating how these representations affect her and her loved ones. You feel the frustration over the hypocrisy, the fake concern and the commodification of Jewish suffering.

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Dara Horn has penned a scathing and rightfully righteous set of short stories on the fascination the world has with dead Jews. Her perspective is eye opening. That a Jew's worth is in their death, not in their survival. How other cultures praise themselves on their efforts in acknowledging Jewish existence in their culture while their participation in Jewish annihilation is glossed over with pretty remembrance museums. How Jews participate in false narratives to cover up anti-Semitism just to fit into their new cultures. Mouth dropping prose. A must read. Thank you to WW Norton for the ARC to read and review.

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Brilliant! This book had me in tears too many times, as it speaks of truths many are afraid to confront. Each essay spoke of the treatment of the Jewish people through history in well known, and some not so well known, historical episodes. What made this so poignant was the human and personal approach. While there are moments that can make you laugh out loud (and make you want to read out loud as I did), it is merely a way of dealing with the much more serious content that spans from disturbing to philosophical. The final essay is riveting and sums up the importance of not losing an important culture. I identified, as would many even if not Jewish. An important, moving and wonderfully written book that will glue you to your seat until finished.

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CONTENT WARNING: antisemitism, genocide, violence, gun violence, gore I must admit that the title of this book is what caught my attention, but I’m incredibly glad that I took the time to read this. It’s heavy material, but such a powerful book. The author talks about why dead Jews get so much attention, while the hatred aimed at living Jews is ignored and brushed under the rug. Dara Horn is well-versed and the material is thoroughly researched — she addresses a wide range of issues. She discusses the attention paid to the Holocaust, and how education has failed to stop the rising tide of antisemitism. A huge exhibit on Jewish life in Harbin, China has lofty aims, but fails to address the current lack of Jews in that area and what happened to the vibrant community that once thrived there. She draws attention to a project that allows access to Jewish sites throughout the SWANA (southwest Asia/North Africa) region, which have been destroyed or are currently inaccessible to Jewish people. She points out the difference inherent in Jewish and Yiddish literature, where there isn’t a focus on being saved, having an epiphany, or a coming to grace moment, and how this isn’t always received well from mainstream audiences. In addition, she talks about how even Holocaust exhibits aren’t immune from antisemitism within their own staff — the Anne Frank House prohibited a Jewish employee from wearing a yarmulke (religious head covering that Jewish men wear): “The museum finally relented after deliberating for four months, 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.” There were so many aspects to her writing that personally resonated with me. I could viscerally feel a deep reaction to when she talked about current events involving attacks on Jewish people around the country and in other places around the world. This line perfectly described how I’ve felt the past few months, especially: “The fact was that a communal memory of multiple millennia had been activated, and it was deep and real.” The one part that really hit home was about the two different types of antisemitism that she describes, relating them to our holidays. Many years ago, I described many Jewish holidays as “someone tried to kill the Jews, they didn’t, let’s eat.” It’s a dumbed down version of many of our holidays. But when she talks about how: “Two distinct patterns of antisemitism can be identified by the Jewish holidays that celebrate triumphs over them: Purim and Hanukkah.” Purim antisemitism is an outright call for genocide. The villain in that holiday wanted to kill all the Jews in Persia outright. But Hanukkah antisemitism is slower, more insidious, and what we are seeing currently. It’s still a call to get rid of Jews, but it’s done by chipping away pieces of Jewish civilization, by enlisting Jews themselves to become “good Jews” and conform to non-Jewish standards, getting rid of various aspects of our culture, our religion, our belief system, and ultimately who we are. In the end, this never works out, and the “good Jews” who conform still end up like the ones who refuse to conform. Where’s the evidence? Look to history — the Spanish Inquisition. Soviet Russia. It’s all there. This book really made me think. The events of this year have really brought me closer to my culture AND my religion. I’m so grateful for books like these, and this is a great insight into not just history and social sciences, but Jewish culture. I highly recommend this book. It’s a difficult and heavy read, but so incredibly worth the time.

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