Review: From Novelist to Essayist, Passing through History by Steven Stein
Several years ago, I went with some of my family members to Poland to explore our roots. We visited towns where our families came from – Rachov (Anapol), Ostrowiec, Drilge (Ilza), and Chmielnik. We made some arrangements in advance and were interested in reviewing family records that existed – births, deaths, marriages, etc.
In one of the towns, Chmielnik, upon arrival we were greeted by the mayor’s assistant who had set up a wonderful lunch for our family and driver in one of the town’s buildings. He was excited to tell us about the town’s history and give us a personal tour of the Jewish sites we were interested in. It was wonderful.
After we were done, he asked if we’d be coming back in the summer for the Jewish Festival.
“What’s the Jewish Festival?” I asked.
“It’s when Jews, especially with relatives from Chmielnik, come and celebrate Jewish culture with us. The high school children put on Fiddler on the Roof for the occasion.”
“How many Jews live in Chmielnick?” I asked.
“Well, none,” he replied, a little sheepishly.
In fact, no Jew has lived there for decades. Before World War II, 80% of Chmielnik’s 12,000 residents were Jewish. Only four Jews were able to hide and survive the war there. They, along with all the Jews who survived the labor and death camps, moved to Canada, Israel, the United States, and elsewhere.
A Jewish festival in the town where the entire population of Jews had all their property confiscated, were either shot and killed in the town by Germans (with the help of many of their Polish neighbors) or forced off to Nazi death camps. Wow, that struck me as quite odd at the time.
While reading People Love Dead Jews by Dara Horn, I got a déjà vu to that fall day in Poland. Dara has a doctorate from Harvard in comparative literature – specializing in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. She’s written 5 novels – mostly about living Jews. She also writes non-fiction for numerous periodicals.
While giving talks about her earlier books, she seemed to notice people’s fascination with Jews of the past. She reports having had a pivotal moment when asked to write a story about the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam. It is one of the most popular museums in Amsterdam. She was reluctant to take on the assignment for a number of reasons – but she took it anyway.
As she began researching her story, she recalled an incident several years earlier that was reported in the news about an employee at the Anne Frank Museum being asked not to wear his kippa, or to cover it with a baseball cap. It seems the museum wanted to appear multicultural and not too Jewish. The employee refused and it took the board four months of deliberation until they finally relented.
Imagine, a museum about Jews that had to hide their identity to stay alive, now trying to force a Jewish employee to hide his identity. It blows your mind. Dara then started to pick up on a pattern.
In her book she takes you on a ride through many of these seemingly unreal experiences. The story that took me back to my visit to Poland was her experience in the remote northern Chinese city of Harbin. In the late 1800’s the Russians needed an outpost in this northern wilderness to help finish off building the railroad from Russia through to China. No Russians were willing to go and live in such a desolate place at that time. The Czar offered Jews a refuge from the pogroms and other antisemitic activities if they were willing to move there and settle. A number of Jews happily took up the offer. After all, freezing cold weather was better than being beaten over the head or killed by Cossacks.
The settlement grew into a town, then a city. The Jews had a good life there, they prospered – two synagogues, theatre, shopping, cultural events, freedom of religious activities. It was nice for about a generation. Then, between the Japanese invaders, jealous Chinese neighbors, and a host of other mainly antisemitic attacks, confiscations, murders, etc. the Jews were forced to leave the city they built.
Fast forward. The city now has one Jew who lives there – part time – an Israeli who advises on Jewish culture. The city leaders realized that if they memorialized the Jews who were there in the past, it might revitalize their economy. Hence, among trying to restore or rebuild old landmarks, they started holding a Jewish Festival. Dara realized there seems to be something about adoring dead Jews.
The book uncovers a number of initially amusing, but then quite sad stories. After the Russian revolution Stalin gathered the leading Jewish artists, writers, actors, and other luminaries and lavished them with material offerings as they helped sell the Bolshevik message throughout the country in order to win over the not fully indoctrinated minority groups. These Jewish creatives were gradually, yet strongly encouraged to de-Judiaze, as she frames it. They were to shed any Zionist or Jewish religious or cultural leanings they displayed in favour of the new communist revolution.
These talented Jews turned out to be great ambassadors for the success of the revolution. There was only one complication. Once the revolution was secure and Stalin had full control, he had no use for them anymore. Every last one of them was tried and executed on trumped up charges. They weren’t considered “real” Russians.
Dara describes Jews as having a history of 3,000 years of being “uncool.” Throughout history, Jews have tried to shed their Jewishness to “fit in.” In Greek times, sport was all the thing. Even in Greek occupied Judea, the Olympics were the pinnacle of success. Men competed in those days in the nude. Jewish athletes in Judea, so as not to be ostracized, had reverse circumcision operations to hide their Jewishness in order to compete. Can you imagine the pain they must have endured going through such an operation in those days?
Nevertheless, as you may know the history, these Jews ended up being killed in the end for not being true Greeks, or, not “fitting in.”.
We all know about the Jewish German World War I heroes who sacrificed limbs and lives for their country. They won many war medals. They did whatever it took to be “true” Germans. We all know how that worked out. Hitler sent the decorated and wounded Jewish war veterans to Theresienstadt labor camp and then to their death.
Dara makes two main points; one is that Jews tend to bend over backwards denying their Jewishness to fit inor be cool. The second is that non-Jews seem to think a lot more positively about dead Jews than they do about living ones.
She cites a poignant example in her own life. Once, while listening to an online version of The Merchant of Venice with her 10-year-old son, she tried to explain away the antisemitic interpretation of Shylock as a villain. With her Ph.D. in literature from Harvard University she deftly interpreted each of his lines, one by one, of his most famous speech, as not antisemitic. Her son listened quietly. But when she came to his concluding statement, basically revealing his true intent, her son just laughed at her.
“How gullible can you be?” asked the 10-year-old. He pointed out that anyone who ever read a Marvel or superhero comic book knows the nature of that speech. It’s the same speech given by the evil Joker in Batman, and nobody ever roots for the Joker. It’s pure evil.
It makes one wonder about today’s progressive Jews who become social justice warriors and join the “free Palestine” movement. Do they support BDS because in their minds it is just anti-Zionist and not anti-Jewish? By criticizing Israel, do they believe they will fit in much better with the zeitgeist of the day? Do they not realize that this movement calls for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish majority state?
Denying their Judaism (e.g., forgetting that regularly praying to Jerusalem is part of being Jewish) makes one think about those Jews who reversed their circumcision back in the times of the Greek occupation of Jerusalem. Pleasing the anti-Semites never seems to work out well in the end.
When Bret Stephens talks about anti-Semitism, he cites two themes recurring throughout our history. Jews are accused of being imposters and swindlers. They are seen as only pretending to be German, French, and now Middle Eastern. They are seen as swindlers in that they are accused of getting wealthy off other people in dishonest ways or through some secret cabal. Their success is attributed to nefarious reasons.
It seems that the Jews who de-Judiaze themselves are eventually called out as imposters. Dara’s solution is that we embrace our heritage and celebrate it, not hide. We have great literature, art, theatre, and music. While we have Sholom Aleichem, Chagal, and Klezmer music and so much more from the past, Jewish culture continues to evolve.
Overall, I'd say Dara has a somewhat cautious, if not pessimistic, view of the Jewish journey. She points out that Festivals now celebrate Jews in once Jewish majority towns where Jews were either expelled, killed, or sent off to concentration camps. These places are now Judenrein - there currently exists no Jews. She sadly sees these as failed economies trying to profit of the heyday of their Jewish past.
Another sad theme of this book involves the current spate of antisemitism in the world, including the US and Canada. After reporting on the first of the recent horrific Jew-killings - the Tree of Life in Pittsburg, then San Diego, she was relieved not to have been asked to report on the next antisemitic killing of Jews- the Jersey City murder around the kosher butcher shop and children’s nursery – not far from her home. The number of antisemitic attacks have increased so dramatically, most of them are no longer even reported.
Dara explains this by realizing that the killing of Jews is no longer newsworthy. In fact, what is newsworthy is the era many of us grew up in, with relatively few antisemitic incidents. According to her we are now entering the new normal. Jews have been harassed and killed for over 3,000 years, with various lulls in between. As the post-war generation we have lived through one of those lulls.
Dara Horn is a gifted writer, extremely knowledgeable, and a thorough researcher. Having seen her on webinars I was surprised that she looks like she could be anyone’s Jewish sister or daughter – very unassuming. But her scope of understanding of Jewish history and culture can be breathtaking. Read this book if you want to be enlightened, but not necessarily uplifted.