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The World to Come
By Dara Horn
W.W. Norton & Company, 2006
With her second novel, The World to Come, Dara Horn has achieved a rare accomplishment. She has created a thoroughly contemporary Jewish text without resorting to nostalgia, cliche' or romanticized religiosity.
Her characters are run-of-the-mill American Jews and they seem authentic, not stereotypical or grossly exaggerated like Fran Drescher's nanny or Woody Allen's stock heroes. And, similar to most Jews in the 21st century, her characters are socially Jewish, but not idiosyncratically Jewish. They are not especially compelled by Judaism, or even Kabbala, and their heritage is a historical link - a family chain, not a glorious past. Because of their parents and their parents' parents, they know who they are and do not need bagels or overbearing female relatives to remind them of their bond to the chosen people.
The story opens with the hero, Ben Ziskind, absconding from a Jewish museum with a small Chagall painting tucked under his arm. He is certain that the painting once hung on the living room wall of his parents' home. The main thread of the underlying plot is Ben's attempt to retain the picture, even though he has been identified as the thief by one of the museum's curators. Meanwhile, the story is interlaced with the complicated history of the Ziskind family and the way in which this compact piece of art fits in with their saga.
Horn's publicity material notes that she is a doctoral student at Harvard in Yiddish and Hebrew literature and she is at her best when she focuses on the subjects with which she is intimately acquainted. The Ziskind history that takes place in 20th-century Russia is intriguing, particularly the sequences that portray the relationship between Marc Chagall and the Yiddish writer Der Nister.
But there is nothing sentimental or trite in Horn's treatment of Eastern Europe. In The World to Come, there are no cozy shtetls or jolly hamlets peopled with eccentric rabbis and sharp-tongued housewives. Horn constructs an image of pre- and post-Soviet Russia as a breeding ground for anti-Semitism and oppression, where Jewish life was at best precarious, at worst doomed. Consequently, the hardships and tragedies suffered by Ben's grandparents, Der Nister and the other Jews who are part of the Ziskind chronicle, are horrific, but by no means far-fetched.
Horn knows this history well and makes no effort to soften its reality. There is a tendency among Jewish writers to emulate the Yiddish masters, such as Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokher Sforim, and write about Eastern Europe with self-deprecating humor and irony. From the safe comfort of the 21st century, Horn is disinclined to tread so gingerly and depicts the brutality of 20th-century Russia with rightful candor.
Jewish tradition is another area where Horn is on familiar ground. The book is permeated with Jewish beliefs, legends and lore, which are seamlessly woven into the novel. Nonetheless, the Jewish symbolism is a bit heavy. Horn decidedly has the knowledge and skill to meaningfully enrich her work with Jewish substance, but she is a bit too eager to demonstrate her access to Jewish wisdom and some of the book's Jewish content, especially sections pertaining to the "world to come," is excessive and too deliberate.
In contrast to the novel's Jewish content, the sequences that involve Vietnam are arguably the weakest. On the one hand, there is value in the novel's juxtaposition of the place of the Jew in American society (in this case the US army) and the fate of the Jew in Russia. On the other, depicting warfare is tricky, especially when every aspect of its complexity has to be imagined. The idea that the Jews did not escape tragedy and discrimination by disembarking at Ellis Island is important, but Horn over-reaches by dramatizing a tour of duty in Vietnam to show that American Jewish life was not without its own difficulties.
The World to Come is still a most welcome development. A good deal of current Jewish literature contains only the thinnest veneer of Jewish content, or a heavy dosing of Jewish law and custom that tend to weigh down the flow of the narrative. These works often seem either inconsequential or too culturally encoded to be understood by the Jewishly uninitiated. This novel subverts both traps. It borrows from Jewish tradition and Yiddish culture and is still genuinely American. It is accessible despite its substantive debt to Judaism and the world of Eastern European Jews and simply, though not unimportantly, is enjoyable to read.