The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are Jewish ghosts more valued than Jewish lives?

Workers begin cleanup and repairs after a deadly shooting at a Jersey City kosher grocery in December 2019. Such antisemitic attacks have increased in the United States in recent years. (Photo by Rick Loomis/AFP/Getty Images)

As a New Jersey-born teen at a Nashville quiz bowl tournament in the 1990s, Dara Horn shared a room with two Mississippians. The roomies stayed up late, gabbing about Mister Rogers. The Southerners were utterly convinced: Mister Rogers was speaking directly to them through their TV screens — just like they absolutely knew that Jesus loved them. They waited for Horn to concur. When she instead mumbled something about synagogue, they looked, stunned, at the blond-haired, blue-eyed Northerner: “I thought Hitler said you all were dark.” Reflecting on that experience, Horn would realize that what people know about Jews is that people killed them.

In her new book, “People Love Dead Jews” — a contender for the most arresting title of the year — Horn sets out to change that, writing not only about murdered Jews but about the lives they lived, the ones they might have lived and her own “haunted present.” In it, she gathers essays written over the past decade. Some essay collections are just compilations, an opportunity for readers to hold in one hand articles by favorite authors. Less often a compilation becomes a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. This is one of those unexpected, memorable books.

Fiction readers know Horn as the author of five novels set in the Jewish past and present. They feature real Jews, like Marc Chagall and the Yiddish artists murdered during Stalin’s reign of terror, and imaginary Jews, like Civil War spies, loosely inspired by historical figures. However, Horn began her career not as a storyteller but as a nonfiction writer, turning to fiction during a year at Cambridge University. Working on her first novel, “In the Image,” in England, she so missed America that she included a droll tribute to Costco’s “cavernous canyons,” laden with lawn mowers and diamond rings.

Horn, who has a PhD in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, is a master at making connections to the Jewish past. Writing of “The Merchant of Venice,” she tells us that when Shakespeare, “the epitome of Western civilization,” imagined Shylock’s malevolence, he probably had heard of how the converted Jew Roderigo Lopez, a doctor convicted of plotting to poison the queen, was executed in London as the crowd roared “Hang the Jew!”

“The Merchant of Venice,” of course, ends with Shylock’s conversion. From a Christian perspective, he has been saved. But taking the play in through Jewish eyes reveals “just how deep the gaslighting went.” Critics who insist that Shakespeare portrayed Shylock’s humanity ignore the “sheer awfulness” of phrases like “Certainly the Jew is the very devil incarnate.” Horn cannot.

As she knows well, and demonstrates in her own work, Jewish literature typically skips the uplifting messages of grace that readers expect from Western, which is to say Christian, literary traditions. Instead, Jewish literature often invokes the horrors of the Jewish past. Unsurprisingly, then, she opens with Anne Frank. The first published editions of this teen’s diary were carefully edited to strip away too much Jewish specificity as well as her emerging sexuality. Her iconic words — “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart” — turned this adolescent into what Horn calls “Everyone’s (Second) Favorite Dead Jew.” (Everyone’s first favorite dead Jew is, of course, Jesus.) Refusing easy cheer, Horn instead juxtaposes “The Diary of a Young Girl” with the notebooks that Zalmen Gradowski, who had to drag the dead from the gas chambers to the crematoria, wrote and buried in Auschwitz before he revolted against the Nazis and was murdered.

Next Horn heads to China, to Harbin, a city that arose at the end of the 19th century as the Trans-Siberian Railroad cut across Manchuria and the Russians, needing entrepreneurs to construct its buildings and run its hotels, promised Jews that if they came, antisemitic laws and pogroms would not follow. At its peak, there were 20,000 Jews in Harbin. Today, there is just one. Horn went there in search of “Jewish Heritage,” which she wryly quips should be renamed “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.”

But it is in the chapters on “Dead American Jews,” Parts 1, 2 and 3, about the murders at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., and at a Jersey City kosher supermarket, that her anguish and anger blaze forth. “There are no words,” respond many to these horrific events, but, of course, this violence sparked thousands and thousands of words. Yet Horn’s children need only five to capture the force driving such rage: “Because some people hate Jews.”

Encountering murderous antisemitism on American soil forces Horn to confront history closer to home. She turns away from Varian Fry rescuing Jewish artists in Vichy France and the Syrian synagogue smashed to rubble on her flickering screen. Relying on the historian Kirsten Fermaglich’s meticulous research into New York City name-changing petitions that proved, beyond a doubt, that immigrants’ names were not altered at Ellis Island, Horn asks why Jews cling to the fiction that some misguided immigration agent changed their ancestors’ names. Her answer: If Jews tell the truth about American antisemitism, they look like fools. They had come to a land that they thought promised the American Dream. Then they discovered that they couldn’t get a job as Rosenberg but could get hired as Rose. But to tell their children that story would prove that America is not all that different, that here, too, Jews face prejudice, discrimination and violence. So they crafted and clung to the tale of the funny thing that happened to Grandpa at Ellis Island.

A few years ago, I wrote in this paper that focusing so much on the Holocaust — the museums and memorials dotting our landscape, the innumerable memoirs and novels published every year, the states mandating Holocaust education — has let Americans off the hook. When we talk about antisemitism, we talk about an Old World problem, not a New World phenomenon. But Horn knows the dark story of Jew hatred on our shores that today has brought murders, attacks in broad daylight on city streets and vitriol on social media.

Horn writes that by the time five people (including the two shooters) were killed in the New Jersey kosher supermarket in December 2019, she had realized that as the Gentiles who had witnessed the shock of the Holocaust died off, “the public shame associated with expressing antisemitism was dying too. In other words, hating Jews was normal.”

This new normal pushes her off a beaten track strewn with victims of antisemitism to commune with a different group of dead Jews, the rabbis of the Talmud, and their living students of today. Joining hundreds of thousands of Jews around the world, she begins reading a page a day of the Talmud, the historic compendium of Jewish law, tradition and culture codified in the 4th and 5th centuries. Over the next seven and a half years, she will converse with the sages of the past whose words live in its pages and with her contemporaries embarking on the same journey. Turning to ancient words in a broken world brings Horn into a community of living Jews. She ends this riveting, gorgeously written book as Jews have done across the millennia: by engaging the past, embracing the present and facing toward the future.

People Love Dead Jews

Reports From a Haunted Present

Dara Horn

W.W. Norton.

272 pp. $25.95