Award-winning author Dara Horn sheds light on prevalence of antisemitism

No. 33 on The Jerusalem Post's Top 50 Most Influential Jews of 2022: Dara Horn, award-winning author.

 Dara Horn, award-winning author. (photo credit: Michael Priest)
Dara Horn, award-winning author.
(photo credit: Michael Priest)

After penning five bestselling novels that won a range of prizes, award-winning American writer and lecturer Dara Horn turned to nonfiction in 2021. The title of her first nonfiction book, People Love Dead Jews, a collection of essays about antisemitism, turned out to be more true than she imagined – and it won the National Jewish Book Award for Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Life. The title comes from the first chapter, “People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much.”

People Love Dead Jews came out in September. The world was still deep in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, and antisemitic acts broke ground in a way they hadn’t before: in online spaces due to lockdowns.

It is a collection of anecdotes, her own and of others, reports and stories, all highlighting the seeming paradox of non-Jewish Western society accepting – even showing interest and fascination in – the stories of Jews but having trouble allocating space in the present world for ones who exist now.

Nearly a year after its initial release, and right around its US paperback release date, Horn, who lives with her husband and four children in Short Hills, New Jersey, discussed the year, the book and the impression its release has left on her and on the world at large.

 DARA HORN: The ancient antipathy will resonate with most Jews.  (credit: Michael B. Priest; WW Norton) DARA HORN: The ancient antipathy will resonate with most Jews. (credit: Michael B. Priest; WW Norton)
Is there a before and after?

“This completely [took over] my life,” she said. “Normally, you get bored talking about a book over and over again. I don’t feel that way [about this one] because I’ve learned a lot from my readers. In the book, I present a lot of problems, and my readers want me to solve them.”

Your book addresses live issues, issues that any Jew in the Diaspora has to deal with.

“It’s very emotionally different from novels. As a writer, you’re thrilled when people want to read your book and are interested in it, but with this one, I kind of wish people liked it a little less.”

Why?

“I don’t want to be right about this, [and] I was much more right than I thought I was. That’s been disturbing.”

As an author, especially of a book like this, Horn gets reader mail, but the ones from Jews stand out, and all have a slightly similar structure.

“The Jewish readers are from all walks of life but all say the same thing: ‘I’ve felt uncomfortable my whole life and I never knew why. Your book articulated this for me, thank you.’”

They always follow with a retelling of an uncomfortable interaction they had that follows the model of the book.

One woman wrote to her about how, as an actress, she had been going to auditions for two years, and every casting director would tell her that she looked too Jewish for the part, even when it was a Jewish part. The woman is now a voice actor.

Another told of his exchange experience at a university in Germany, where he received a warm welcome and was even asked to do a presentation for Kristallnacht. The end of semester exam was scheduled for Saturday, so the student asked the professor for an accommodation. The professor said they couldn’t accommodate, and the student failed the course.

That’s poignant.

“I have buckets of this stuff.”

From schoolchildren wondering aloud in the Dallas Holocaust Museum if Jews still exist today to the bizarre experience Horn’s children had in their elementary school study of ancient civilizations, she is convinced the root of the problem is a combination educational and cultural.

In her school district, sixth grade is when students study ancient civilizations. “At some point during the year, each kid came home very confused because they learned about all these ancient civilizations. But at home, for each of these civilizations, we have a holiday about how they tried to kill us. Are they great or are they not?

“There are some baseline problems in the way that people talk about Jewish history in non-Jewish societies,” she said, “and people want this problem solved.

Across America, you have so many people who just don’t know [enough] because most Jewish communities are concentrated, not spread out. The only thing they know about Jews is what they learned in their high school history textbooks, which is that they died in the Holocaust.”

What’s missing?

“Jewish civilization is this counterculture that runs through the whole history of the West, challenging it. That’s why people don’t want to talk about it because it would ruin the story to see Jews as anything other than powerless victims,” she explained. When, in reality, “it’s hard to understand the history of the West without understanding Jewish history. The textbook model doesn’t fit with that.

Does Israel have a place in this conversation?

“Israelis don’t need this book because Israelis have solved this problem: Israelis don’t understand antisemitism because they don’t have to,” Horn explained.

“For Israelis, antisemitism is only about violence, so they only understand it as that. The psychological compromise with people who don’t respect you is not there. That’s the triumph of Zionism.”

That’s why it resonated.

“What’s been really heartening is the responses from non-Jews. People have a lot of goodwill [and want to learn more,] which is encouraging,” Horn said, adding that other minority groups have reached out saying they identify with the problem.

Horn said she was working on another first, a graphic novel for children called One Little Goat. It tells the story of a family at a Seder, a family with four sons – Wise, Wicked, Simple and Can’t Ask – who “trash the house” so that the family can’t find the afikoman when the time comes.

This goes on for six months, until they hear a knock at the door and are convinced that it is Elijah the Prophet, but that can’t be, “because that’s not the order of the Seder.”

Wise turns to answer the door, and standing before him is a goat. “I’m a scapegoat, I’m the one that everyone blames for their problems,” says the goat. Wise asks the goat where the afikoman is, to which the goat responds, “Not where – when.

“Over the past six months, thousands of years’ worth of Seders have accumulated underneath your Seder – a mountain of Seders. You have to go down all these previous Seders to find your afikoman.”

A journey through history.