Do (dead) Jews count? 2 books on Jewish survival with glaring omissions

The saddest part for me was not revisiting how Jews aren’t the flavor of the month abroad. It was the disconnect between live Jews in Israel and those who aren’t here.

 TEL AVIV’S Rabin Square is lit in American flag colors in solidarity with the victims of the attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Oct. 2018.  (photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)
TEL AVIV’S Rabin Square is lit in American flag colors in solidarity with the victims of the attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Oct. 2018.
(photo credit: NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)

“Why New Jersey?” I ask author Dara Horn, from my kitchen in Kfar Saba. “Did you ever wonder about writing from Jerusalem instead?”

The pretty, perky face on my screen creases into bewilderment, then lights up with laughter. “Are you suggesting all Jews should live in Israel?” she giggles. “That’s so ’70s!”

I suddenly feel very old. 

I don’t think all Jews should live in Israel; for a kickoff there’s no place on our roads or beaches. MK Prof. Alon Tal’s book The Land is Full predicts high birthrates and too many inhabitants could do us in faster than our enemies.

But Horn, a robust Jewish woman of worth, has just written People Love Dead Jews, a crisp, compelling look at Jewish history, and how others always view us as The Other. In a book that chillingly concludes that people love dead Jews, live ones not so much; and fears for the future of Jewish children, I did expect a mention of the land that the majority of the world’s Jews call home. 

 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)

But maybe I’m wrong. 

Horn lives around the corner from where she was born, in a leafy suburb of New Jersey, along with her four children and husband. Active in a Conservative community, and acclaimed author of five novels, life would seem all sunshine for this successful forty-something. Yet her latest book is not upbeat. 

America today, she claims, is a country “where battling strangers’ idiocies consumed large chunks of brain space and where the harassment and gaslighting of others... were not the exception but the rule.” And antisemitism just won’t go away.

Look what happened last year at the Anne Frank House, the iconic Amsterdam museum that magnetizes tourists marveling at the youngster who believed, in spite of everything, that “people are really good at heart.” Sixteen-year-old Anne was deported to Bergen-Belsen and a terrible death shortly after her optimistic declaration; not one good-hearted person stepped up to save her. And recently, at the hallowed site of her too-temporary haven, a living, Orthodox Jewish employee was commanded to camouflage his kippah under a baseball cap: the museum’s goal is “neutrality,” a representative explained to the British Daily Mail; a yarmulke might “interfere” with the museum’s “independent position.” Ultimately, he won the right to keep his head covered, relates Horn. But man! The Anne Frank House forcing a Jew into hiding?!

Since the book hit the shelves, Horn has been flooded with “I’ve never told anyone this before” stories; she’s immersed in her readers’ abuse.

Her surname itself is a strange synecdoche: it brought to mind a pretty blond student in my Shakespeare seminar some years ago. I was reviewing context to Shylock’s speech when she put up her hand to speak. During her first week at Sussex University, she told us, something had creeped her out. Every night a different boy invited her for a drink; mid-date he’d lunge and flick back her hair. Bewildered, she begged for clarification; eventually, an earnest young undergrad enlightened her. There was a rumor on campus – this was England, in the ’60s – that she was Jewish; a bet was on for who could find her horns.

Dara Horn can relate. She’s trawled the globe for such tales; she gallops us through opulent lives that turned to ashes, sometimes literally. In Harbin, China, she learns of Joseph Kaspe and Solomon Skidelsky, their wealth by hard work, and eventual murdered in gulags or gas chambers. She visits lands that kicked out (or killed) their Jews, where today refurbished synagogues beckon Jewish tourists to pop a quick prayer for long-gone brethren whose triumphs are memorialized on ballroom walls, but whose tragedies are erased. 

Horn not only scrutinizes age-old expulsions in exotic locations; she also chronicles the life and murder of Rose Mallinger in the Tree of Life shul in Pittsburgh four years ago.

Mallinger’s long life (she was 97 when she was gunned down at prayer) spanned the pogroms in Europe, men “invading synagogues with weapons, of blood on holy books.” Her lifetime encompassed the Holocaust; she’d seen survivors find freedom in the US. She died, along with 10 others, in an American act of terrorism targeting Jews. 

It’s a sad litany of an endless loop: the spectacular rise of Jews and their inevitable gruesome fall from grace. Yet Dead Jews sparkles with fascinating facts despite the bleakness of the thesis: tales of teenage boys who, over two millennia ago, had their circumcisions reversed in Jerusalem; the Hellenistic empire ruling Judea revered sports but not their conquered Jews. Sacred sports were played in the nude, ergo the problem. Ancient genital surgery was unbearably painful and could vault you right up to Heaven with no way back; Jewish adolescents thought disguising their covenant with God was worth the risk. 

The ancient antipathy will resonate with most Jews alive, although some, like me, have escaped firsthand experience. In apartheid South Africa, where I grew up, Jews were not first in the receiving line for hatred. Israel, weirdly, where I now live, might be the most likely place on earth where Jews are in danger of dying violently, but it’s not exactly antisemitism at work here. That’s another book.

This book is cutting, and cryptic, and unexpectedly funny; Horn has a comfortable, let’s-have-coffee-and-chat style. With prodigious knowledge she confidently challenges assumptions of superstar literary critics like Frank Kermode, whose monumental The Sense of an Ending posits that readers enjoy stories for their coherent and satisfying endings; even the Bible begins with “In the beginning” and ends “Even so, come, Lord Jesus.” Not our Bible, counters Horn; the Old Testament screeches to a cliffhanger halt, just before the Israelites enter the Promised Land. Will they ever make it home? 

It’s a gutting, rollicking read: everyone should own a copy. 

AND YET. Something about Dead Jews kicked me in the heart, and it wasn’t Horn’s dismissal of Shakespeare as one more antisemite. 

But if her reading of “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” did not upset me, the omission of Israel did, a bit. The Holy Land features: Hanukkah lights glimmering in cobbled streets, a tortured Jewish actor’s daughter in Jerusalem, summer trips. A Disneyland Israel. I was waiting – in a book that deals so explicitly with the interminable “Othering” of Jews, a hatred that’s been around since the Egyptian taskmaster hit the Jewish slave – for just a nod to the fact that after millennia Jews can again live “at home,” not dependent on China or Russia, Canada or Australia to make them welcome and safe. A place of haven for Ukrainian immigrants, and those from lands of plenty. Just a mention. 

So no, in answer to Horn’s question, I don’t think all Jews should pack up and join us in the center of the world. It’s a hugely hard place in which to live, the Holy Land, with exorbitant prices and intractable problems; sticky heat, terrible drivers, and the army hovering over our kids (unless we’re too devout to serve).

Still, it’s home, and it’s here, and, despite the craziness, it’s doing pretty damn well in the desert. Shylock could have sailed here, if Israel had been an option, and become a kibbutznik; his pound of flesh could have come from his kosher cows. 

Even if not all Jews should live here, the majority actually does; I would have liked a chapter, or a paragraph, or an afterword on that in a book about Jewish survival. 

CUE DAVID Baddiel

Baddiel has all the gifts: married to actress Morwenna Banks (who voices Peppa’s Mummy Pig), he’s clever, and funny, and lovely to look at, with an accent so gorgeously British that no matter what he says, he sounds absolutely fabulous. But it’s worth listening carefully: the London stand-up comedian, presenter, author, scriptwriter and father of two is saying some pretty radical stuff. 

Baddiel is quintessentially Jewish. His mother was spirited out of Nazi Germany as an infant; his primary school mandated yarmulkes; he professes to love Seinfeld and Saul Bellow, pickled herring and North London Seders. Being Jewish features majorly in his shows and on his social media; he’s comfortable in his Jewish skin. Yet something is curdling his kishkes about Britain today: Jews don’t count. 

In his wonderful book of that name – Jews Don’t Count – Baddiel riffs on the sacrosanctity of every other minority in our woke world. Query a transgender’s bathroom rights and you are phobic and toast; just ask J.K. Rowling. She wondered aloud whether men, even those identifying as females, can menstruate (should that be “womenstruate”?). An almighty drama ensued; now she’s uninvited to Harry Potter happenings. Bad-mouth an Indian, or a Mexican, or a person of color, and you are dead on the stage. Comedians or politicians who let slip a dreaded “P” might as well retrain as accountants, or leave the country. (Not being British, I had to Google the P-word – I guessed “prostitute” was not it, nor Donald Trump’s fond description of his favorite female body part – it’s a very British derogatory reference to immigrants from an Islamic country in South Asia starting with a P and ending with N, with some A’s and an I in between.)

Baddiel is vehemently against shaming anyone on stage, except perhaps his mom, whose 20-year affair with a golf-memorabilia salesman is hilariously depicted. That’s his shtick: he mines his life for comedy – even his dad’s dementia is deconstructed in sidesplitting, yet moving detail. He wouldn’t dream, he says, of dissing any group for laughs, even if it wasn’t taboo. 

Just one subset, claims Baddiel, is fair game; rubbishing Jews is not only okay but even applauded. Shout out “Yids” at a soccer game and that’s perfectly legit, even “menacingly, horribly, along with associated antisemitic chants – ‘Spurs are on their way to Auschwitz,’ for example – and hissing to simulate the noise of gas chambers.”

Jews are white and rich, goes the trope; how can they claim minority status? Except that not all Jews are rich, Baddiel counters, and not all Jews are white. And that isn’t even the point: in the US, Hindus hold the position of highest-earning ethnic group. Some Jews are rich, some aren’t, and either way, he retorts: “F*** off about the money.” Money doesn’t protect from racism – his grandparents were rich in East Prussia before they fled, penniless, to England in 1939. By the end of the war, most of their family had been murdered. Jews, he asserts, “are the only objects of racism who are imagined – by the racists – as both low and high status. Jews are stereotyped... as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world.” So how can they be in the sacred circle of the oppressed? 

Baddiel is persuasive: this book is great. I started at midnight, determined to stop at the end of Chapter One. But there are no chapters; I read it in one shot. It’s intelligent, gripping and so very sad. 

And somehow, although so universal, it’s also so British. 

In the 1600s a groupie at Elizabeth I’s London court defined a Jew as “sometimes a weather beaten, warp-faced fellow, sometimes a frenetic and lunatic person, sometimes one discontented.” Thomas Coryate had never seen a Jew; they were all kicked out of England centuries before, in the only British mass deportation ever. 

Coryate later traveled to Venice where he saw real, live Jews at prayer – “goodly and proper men” and “beautiful women.” That broke his heart. “It’s a most lamentable case for a Christian to consider the damnable estate of these miserable Jews,” he moaned. Frenetic or fair, lunatic or lovely, Jews can’t win. All too often are they denigrated and dismissed, even in their motherlands.

So what of the mother of all the motherlands, the ancient-modern punching bag in the middle of the Middle East, the homeland of all Jews, wherever they were born? The country that is so often blamed for a global resurgence of antisemitism, rebranded anti-Zionism. 

“F*!# Israel,” says Baddiel.

And I agree with him.

It’s immediately obvious that when Baddiel blows Israel off with a four-letter expletive, he’s not actually cursing the country. He doesn’t wish us harm, or good. He is disassociating antisemitism from the Holy Land; kicking it out of the equation. “F--- Israel” equals “Let’s not get sidetracked by Israel,” not “Israel, go to hell.”

It’s not perceived crimes in Gaza, he claims, that send thugs convoying down Finchley Road bellowing about raping Jewish daughters. It’s nonsense to equate the two: no one is screaming death to Syrians from rooftops, or urging the violation of Taliban wives. Where is the global outrage over Yazidi horrors, Assad’s massacres, Afghani refugees? Why do some kids stir up more sympathy than any others on the planet? The gas chambers worked their ghastliness before Gaza was Gaza; this ancient hatred was not suddenly spawned by the Six Day War. 

Baddiel is unequivocal: anti-Zionism is a smokescreen for traditional antisemitism.

Then he goes a step further. “I am not a Zionist,” he declares; to assume he cares about Israel more than any other country is racist. Sure, what goes on in Gaza upsets him, but no more than the other evils in the world. Just because he’s Jewish doesn’t mean he’s responsible for Israeli bad behavior – in fact, he announces, he has nothing in common with Israelis who are “Jews without angst, without guilt. So not really Jews at all.” 

He’s funny, David Baddiel, I laughed out loud when I read that. 

AND YET. Again, in a book picking apart the pitfalls facing Jews in 2022 in the developed world, maybe there’s a place for a few warming words about how tiny Israel, despite the endless dramas and balagan, is still hanging in there, making the desert bloom. Go ahead: dissect our problems and our actions; proclaim you’re not a Zionist and that our army and our ethos are not of your liking. But maybe just a tiny aside about how the country welcomes Jews from war-torn countries and lands of plenty; how, in Israel at least, Jews do count? 

BOTH BOOKS are terrific: the humor, the intellect, the research, the pain. Rush to buy copies; tell all your friends.

Still, the saddest part, for me was not revisiting how Jews aren’t the flavor of the month abroad. It was the disconnect between live Jews in Israel and those who aren’t here: the but-now-we-have-our-own-place missing piece. 

So no, Dara Horn, I don’t believe every Jew should live in Israel. I think they might be missing out, sort of, on a very bumpy miracle, but I understand most people can’t pick up and come, unless Russians start bombing their homes.

But it would be nice to think that every Jew, wherever they hang their hat, just somehow knew that if you prick us, we bleed, and in that blood, somewhere deep down, beats a gratitude to the fact that Israel is waiting to welcome us home. ■

The writer lectures at Reichman University and Beit Berl College. [email protected]