U.S. author and essayist Dara Horn has a simple exercise to demonstrate how little most people know about Jewish culture.
At public events, she asks how many of her readers in the audience can name four Nazi concentration camps.
“That’s often something that many readers can do—or just three concentration camps,” Horn told the Straight by phone. “I would then ask those same readers: how many people here can name three Yiddish writers?”
That’s a far tougher question for most in the room.
“My point, of course, is 80 percent of the people who were murdered in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers,” she said.
That raises troubling follow-up questions. Such as, why do people care so much about how many people died if they really don’t care how people in this famously literary culture actually lived? And why is Jewish identity so often defined by what the outside world did to the Jews rather than what Jews have stood for and accomplished through the millennia?
Horn addresses these issues her provocative 2021 book of essays, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. The title is derived from the opening lines of her 2018 essay on Anne Frank in the Smithsonian Magazine: “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”
Shortly after the essay was published, a hate-fuelled gunman attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 and wounding six. That prompted a New York Times editor to ask if she would “like to write about dead Jews”.
“As I put it in the book, I became the go-to person for the emerging literary genre of synagogue shooting op-eds—not a job I applied for,” Horn said wryly.
A scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature, Horn had already written five novels on themes of Jewish culture, history, and tradition before embarking on People Love Dead Jews. She bluntly stated that people often tell stories about dead Jews to make them feel better about themselves.
“I now look back and think I was a little naive,” she said. “I think I didn’t appreciate this vast role that Jews—and especially dead Jews—play in the wider not-Jewish world of imagination.”
People Love Dead Jews delves into a wide variety of topics, including why the world is so devoted to Anne Frank but not nearly so much to Jews who wrote about their experiences in concentration camps.
The book also reveals how the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin brazenly markets its Jewish history—long after the Jews were displaced—in pursuit of tourist dollars while offering little insights into their lives building the community.
Horn pointed out that a museum about former Jewish residents in Harbin is one of many examples of a tourist-industry concept called “Jewish heritage sites”.
“This term is a brilliant marketing ploy because it sounds so much better than property seized from murdered or expelled Jews,” Horn said. “Like, who wants to go to that? ‘Jewish heritage sites’ sounds so benign.”
People Love Dead Jews focuses on modern-day attacks on the Jewish community in America even after all the efforts to educate people about the Holocaust to prevent this kind of thing from happening.
As a teenager in the early 1990s, she shared the optimism of others that if people attended museums exposing what had happened to Jews in the Holocaust, this would somehow inoculate the broader public against antisemitism. She said that many Jewish philanthropists funded museums to try to underwrite a better future for the community."
"As I said in the book, this wasn't a ridiculous idea," Horn acknowledged. "But I think 30 years later, we can re-evaluate it."
That's because by virtually every possible measure, she said, antisemitic attacks are much higher than they were in 1990.
It's reached the point where hateful trolls have been known to photoshop Jewish people's faces into gas chambers on social media.
"The problem is not that this person doesn't know about Auschwitz," Horn declared. "They photoshopped you into a gas chamber. They knew about it. It wasn't an education problem."
One essay in the book zeroes in on a show about Auschwitz at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
"I want to be clear: there are better and worse ways to do this," she stated. "I'm not saying these historic places should be, like, left to seed or something. That's not at all what I'm claiming."
Horn’s book also addresses antisemitism in Shakespeare’s work—and her 10-year-old son’s reaction to it. The boy likened Shylock's speech, which allegedly humanized him in The Merchant of Venice, to the standard monologue delivered by every supervillain in the Marvel movies.
"He's like, 'Mom, this is the supervillain thing where he's manipulating the other character,' " Horn said. "It was so obvious to a 10-year-old."
Celebrating Jewish accomplishments
Horn has been influenced by University of Chicago historian David Nirenberg. He argued in his 2013 book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition that western civilization defined itself in opposition to Judaism.
“He traces this not just through Christianity and Islam, but also in the Enlightenment through to, you know, Communism,” Horn said.
The Straight asked Horn what aspects of Jewish culture and identity are overlooked by broader society. She first mentioned “the idea of independent thinking”, as well as the “integrity of having your own civilization”.
Then she said that there’s a widespread misconception that average people only learned to read after Johannes Gutenberg created a printing press in the 15th century.
“It’s a lie,” Horn said, “because Jewish communities have had universal male literacy for, like, a thousand years before the printing press—at least. Poor Jewish kids in 12th-century Yemen knew how to read.”
By the 1700s and 1800s, she added, Jews were at the vanguard in the movement toward creating liberal democracies. Then, there’s the Jewish appreciation for ambiguity as reflected in the Talmud.
“Participating in an intellectual tradition means being able to hold multiple ideas even with contradictions,” she said. “That’s a huge part of Jewish civilization.”
High-school history books might have a chapter on the Holocaust, Horn noted, but there’s never anything said about how Judaism has been a “counterculture” dating back to ancient times.
She said that through the ages, Jews didn’t conform to the status quo by sharing the beliefs of their neighbours. And for that, they paid a very high price.
“What do you mean when you say ‘diversity’?” Horn asked. “What does it mean to live in a pluralistic society? Those are the questions you don’t have to ask if you’re just [saying] ‘Jews are just this symbol.’ That’s what I’m pushing back against in this book.”