Book Review

People Love Dead Jews

People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present

  • Author: Dara Horn
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Publication Date: September 7, 2021
  • Publisher: W.W. Norton Company

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book. I am offering my honest opinion voluntarily.

CONTENT WARNING: antisemitism, genocide, violence, gun violence, gore

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Renowned and beloved as a prizewinning novelist, Dara Horn has also been publishing penetrating essays since she was a teenager. Often asked by major publications to write on subjects related to Jewish culture—and increasingly in response to a recent wave of deadly antisemitic attacks—Horn was troubled to realize what all of these assignments had in common: she was being asked to write about dead Jews, never about living ones. In these essays, Horn reflects on subjects as far-flung as the international veneration of Anne Frank, the mythology that Jewish family names were changed at Ellis Island, the blockbuster traveling exhibition Auschwitz, the marketing of the Jewish history of Harbin, China, and the little-known life of the “righteous Gentile” Varian Fry. Throughout, she challenges us to confront the reasons why there might be so much fascination with Jewish deaths, and so little respect for Jewish lives unfolding in the present.

Horn draws upon her travels, her research, and also 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, the profound perspective offered by traditional religious practice and study—to assert the vitality, complexity, and depth of Jewish life against an antisemitism that, far from being disarmed by the mantra of “Never forget,” is on the rise. As Horn explores the (not so) shocking attacks on the American Jewish community in recent years, she reveals the subtler dehumanization built into the public piety that surrounds the Jewish past—making the radical argument that the benign reverence we give to past horrors is itself a profound affront to human dignity.

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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