The title of Dara Horn’s new book People Love Dead Jews actually repulsed me, so I dismissed it as a book I that I probably wouldn’t read.
You see, I grew up with dead Jews. My parents, born in Poland, came to this country leaving behind remnants of what could have been robust family trees. My profound sense of loss at having no grandparents hit me at a young age and among those missing from my life were aunts, uncles, and many cousins who could have enriched my life greatly. Through the years, I resisted focusing on the loss — on so many who were not a part of my life. Doing that would have put me in such a dark place that I don’t think I could have escaped from easily.
So, I didn’t feel like immersing myself in that world, in reliving my losses. This book seemed to be a sardonic take on the death of tragic victims. Besides, we are not dead. People tried to kill us, over and over again. After all, it’s even a joke, ever since the comedian Alan King said: “a summary of every Jewish holiday is – they tried to kill us, we won—let’s eat”. But the inescapable fact is that we’re still here, and that is incredibly miraculous. We’re an ancient people who constantly resurrect themselves from the dead.
Still, as a Jewish educator, immersed in all things Jewish, I felt this gnawing obligation to search the book out. At least it would be for the purpose of learning what another writer besides Bari Weiss, had to say about antisemitism, in this post-Pittsburgh-Tree of Life-massacre era.
Searching for the book on Amazon, even the algorithm’s bot questioned my choice of words: “Did you mean people live dead Jews?” . After the book popped up and accepting the invitation to “look inside”, I was riveted after reading the first essay. It’s difficult to formally review this book because it entails navigating through potential spoilers and tiptoeing through stories of the familiar (e.g., Anne Frank, Ellis Island, Shakespeare) that will absolutely widen your eyes. You will also read stories that were intentionally buried under mounds of willful deception. Often, it will be painful to continue.
So many times, the emotions of disgust, helplessness, anger, and hopelessness took over, forcing me to put the book down, and it was often hard to pick up the book again. But due to my own stubbornness and an allegiance to peoplehood, I felt I owed it to yes, my dead ancestors, to read about how Jews, in so many different situations through the ages were robbed materially, physically, and spiritually, of living a normal and decent life.
Dara Horn is a painstaking researcher who removes any doubt you might have about the veracity of her stories. Her descriptions are so factually detailed, there leaves no room for any doubt about her accounts, which actually makes things harder to take. Whatever we thought before about the outrageous antisemitic acts that are part of our collective history….it’s actually worse than that.
Missing from Horn’s book are prescriptions for how to counter the whirlwind of hate detailed in essays like Dead Jews of the Desert and Blockbuster Dead Jews. For that, I would recommend grabbing a copy of Weiss’ book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. The book that Dara Horn wrote is for peeling away the blanketing layer of comfort we’ve been living under.
Now you are forewarned, but please, you must read this book. Some essays will turn your stomach, some might set you on a course of activism (I hope so). But you have to gain the knowledge that Horn is providing you. You probably won’t find these stories anywhere else, and you owe it to yourself and yes, your dead ancestors, to be informed.
Through the ages, we’ve been ‘going along to get along’, rowing merrily, thinking that by blending in, and even losing a sense of ourselves in the process, we’ll be armored from hate.
Both history and Dara Horn show us that it will not work and never has.