People love dead Jews.

Yes, I too cringe at the title of this best-selling book of interrelated essays. But unfortunately it’s altogether appropriate. Mark Oppenheimer of the Unorthodox podcast calls it “the best collection of essays that I have read in a long, long time,” and I have to agree. Oppenheimer goes on to say that author Dara Horn “explains why so many prefer the mythologized, dead Jewish victim to the living Jew next door.” She does indeed explain that, in a dozen different case studies.

But that’s just one piece of the theme. Horn has written a truly important set of varied essays about today’s antisemitism, both overt and covert. As you might expect, it is horrifying and disturbing, but in some places it is surprisingly delightful and even amusing, albeit in a sarcastic way.

In the previous paragraph I referred to this collection as “truly important,” but what do I do about that? If I had read it when I was 24, rather than 74, it might have changed my life. But I’m not the same person that I was 50 years ago, and I don’t have the same opportunities. So I hand the torch to my current and former students, so that they might be able to do something—not to counter those who love dead Jews but those who hate live ones.

Or maybe the pandemic is just making me feel ineffectual and I’ll feel different a year from now. (The pandemic will end in 2022, right?)

Like pretty much any essay collection, the mostly first-rate writing can be occasionally uneven and essays can be only loosely related at times. No one sets out with the intention of writing a dozen essays on the same theme; if they did, they would simply write a standard nonfiction book with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The challenge is to take a bunch of already written essays, possibly with the addition of one or two just for the collection, and unite them with a common theme. Perhaps some reviewers who are bothered by their own difficulty in mentally connecting a couple of the essays to the title of the book are just too focused on the disturbing title, which looks to them like clickbait. But the title really does unite all the essays, especially if you expand it to include the implied contrast of loving dead Jews but hating live ones.

You are almost certain to learn a lot from reading these essays, especially if you are not an expert on Harbin or Varian Fry. (Who? What? Yes, that was my initial reaction as well.) You’ll even learn a new point of view about Anne Frank. I am not going to summarize the essays in any way; I’ll just close with four random points that struck me along the way:

  • When Horn tells people that their family name was not changed at Ellis Island, many of them become angry with her for dissing their great-grandfather or whatever! And yet it is well-known now that your name, whatever it might be, was not changed at Ellis Island. By now that myth should have been sufficiently debunked. But apparently not.
  • Horn’s doctorate was in Comparative Literature, or Comp Lit as my friends and I called it when we were undergraduates. It was rumored to be one of the three or four really difficult non-STEM concentrations, or “majors” as you probably called them (one other being the innocuously named Social Studies). My Comp Lit friends pointed out to me that the literature being compared was always English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and/or Russian, so it didn’t surprise me that Horn received pushback for focusing on Hebrew and Yiddish literature instead.
  • I had never thought of my teaching priorities as having anything to do with my being Jewish, but Horn has made me think again (here and in many other places), as with this paragraph:

In the most recent Pew survey, 49 percent of American Jews claimed that a key part of their Jewish identity involved “being intellectually curious.” In other words, American Jews see themselves as people who don’t merely value their university degrees, but also their skepticism, their critical-thinking skills, and their refusal to take anything at face value.

        Yep, that’s me.

  • Finally, a quotation that goes far beyond these particular essays: “The story is more important than the history, because the story is the device that makes meaning.” And that’s true even when teaching mathematics.

Categories: Books, Life