People Love Dead Jews
People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present
By Dara Horn (W.W. Norton)
Dara Horn’s new book is not for the faint-hearted. Appropriately timed to confront the worrying rise in antisemitism, its unnerving title reflects Horn’s thesis that individuals both Jewish and non-Jewish are obsessed with selective memories of the past that focus on a “dejewing” process in many parts of the world without paying much attention to the Jewish present—which she calls a “profound affront to human dignity.”
A Hebrew and Yiddish scholar and the author of five novels, Horn got an early start as a published writer: The essay she alludes to in her introduction about visiting concentration camps was originally printed in Hadassah Magazine when she was a teenager. In People Love Dead Jews, Horn continues her exploration of “the strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment, leaning into the “distorted” public interest in past Jewish suffering, which she writes she had previously mistaken as a sign of respect for living Jews.
With brutal honesty, she bursts treasured myths like the changing of Jewish names at Ellis Island and tackles international icons like Anne Frank, whose appeal, she posits, lies in her lack of a future. “An Anne Frank who lived might have told us what she saw at Westerbork, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen, and people might not have liked what she had to say…. The most devastating fact of her posthumous success, which leaves her real experience forever hidden, is [that] we know what she would’ve said, because other people have said it, and we don’t want to hear it.”
Fiercely, ferociously, courageously and backed with meticulous research, Horn challenges readers to confront the reasons for the fascination with Jewish deaths, titling each chapter after a different type of dead Jew that few people know about: the “Frozen Jews” of Harbin, China—thousands of Russian Jewish entrepreneurs who were imported to populate a junction on the Trans-Siberia Railway until White Russian thugs and occupying Japanese seized their property and rendered them penniless in one generation; and “Executed Jews”—Soviet Jewish artists and actors like Benjamin Zuskin who were baited by the system with support and recognition, later forced to denounce their Jewish identity or culture in order to be accepted, then murdered by Stalin in 1952.
At its core, People Love Dead Jews (read an excerpt here) is a meditation on time and identity in which Horn ultimately reasserts the vitality of Jewish life, finding some measure of redemption in traditional religious practice and study.
Rahel Musleah leads “NamaStay at Home,” virtual tours of Jewish India and other cultural events (explorejewishindia.com).
I agree. Excellent review, Rahel.