No. 67: The Global Fascination with Dead Jews

The following is a transcript of Episode 67 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity/Crisis: show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, president of Shalom Hartman Institute North America, and we’re recording on Friday, August 27th, 2021. First of all, I want to thank you all for enabling a little bit of a break, a hiatus from my hosting of Identity/Crisis over the past month. I want to thank my colleagues Mijal Biton, David Zvi Kalman, and Danielle Kranjec for guest hosting throughout this time. And I’m really excited to essentially be launching season two of Identity/Crisis. This project launched during the pandemic. And in many ways, for me personally, I’ll just say, kind of carried me through the pandemic to have these big conversations about Jewish life, with important newsmakers and thinkers. And I’m excited to continue this project and especially excited today to be talking to a friend and colleague Dara horn, whose new book, sixth book, if I’m not mistaken releases on Rosh Hashana.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
So that should be right around the time that this podcast comes out. The book is called, memorably, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. Dara is also the host of a related podcast. That’s going to be coming out about the book and connected to the book called Adventures with Dead Jews, and a lot more to say about this. I’m really excited to talk to Dara about not just the book itself and the writing of the book, but it’s kind of like a study book. It’s chock full of ideas about contemporary Jewish life and Jewish life in the past. So with that, Dara, thanks for coming on the podcast.

Dara Horn:
Thank you so much for having me. I’m a long-time listener, first-time caller. I’ve been enjoying the podcast. I’m really honored to be here.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Awesome. Thank you. I really appreciate that. Okay, Dara, so one of the things you say early on in the book, and then you repeat later on and a few times you address Squirrel Hill and Monsey, and a number of recent Antisemitic attacks. And I should just acknowledge this is a non-fiction book, People Love Dead Jews as opposed to most of your previous work, which has been fiction, some of the material here is previously published work or reworked previously published stuff. And I assume a lot of it is new. You say early on in the book and then later on that you actually hate talking about Antisemitism or at least it wasn’t the job that you were meant to do. In this respect, I’m with you. I don’t like this side of the work. I sometimes wonder like, wait, I got a PhD in Talmud, why am I writing and talking so much about Antisemitism?

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And I even felt like some rage in the book that this was what you had to do. You said at one point early on that you became the go-to person for the emerging literary genre of “synagogue shooting pp-eds.” I want you to talk about that a little bit. Like why does that happens? That you’ve become a person people are looking to, to weigh in on Antisemitism, even though that’s not like your work as a scholar, it’s not your work as a writer. And what’s motivating your own, whether it’s anger or frustration, or even willingness to say: okay, if that’s what I’m going to talk about, that’s what I’ll do.

Dara Horn:
Sure. So look, I spent 20 years as a novelist pushing back against the idea that being Jewish was about this like external experience of being alienated or persecuted. You have a PhD in Talmud and I have a PhD in Yiddish and Hebrew literature. All of my novels draw on Jewish history and tradition, but it’s like, they’re about to defining Jewish life from the inside of that world. And that’s always what I’ve been doing. And the reality though, is like, you run up against this topic as you know, constantly. And I always was pushing back against it. I do mention this in the book that when I would give public talks, I often would ask the audience how many people here can name four concentration camps? How many of those same people can name for Yiddish writers? When over 80% of the people killed in the Holocaust were Yiddish speakers.

Dara Horn:
It’s a famously literary culture. Why do we care so much about how these people died? If we’re not going to invest any energy in learning about how they lived. But what I didn’t realize was there was sort of this deeper piece of civilization that is sort of founded on this idea of dead Jews. And that’s very deep in the weeds, but basically what happened was that, as I mentioned, that the book I became the New York Times‘ go-to person for the emerging genre of “synagogue shooting op-eds.” And as I put in the book, this was not a job I applied for, but what happened was like people in the past several years started – just every time editors at non-Jewish publications that I would write for were contacting me. It was always to write about dead Jews. And at first I was sort of pushing back against this, but then I realized there’s a couple things.

Dara Horn:
Firstly, if it was something like the New York Times asking me to respond to this, I thought, if I say no, who are they going to ask instead? And what’s that person going to say? So in a sense, even if I don’t want to write about this, like at least if I’m ready to go about it, I’m a person who’s educated in Jewish history, culture, all those things, and maybe they’ll choose somebody who’s not. So that was part of the motivation. And then also the other piece is I’ve noticed that as a writer, I find uncomfortable moments to be the source of the most important stories. So an example of this is the first chapter in the book is about Anne Frank. That piece was something I originally wrote for Smithsonian Magazine. Smithsonian Magazine approached me and asked me to write a piece about Anne Frank and my feeling when I got that request was dread. I was like, wow, I really don’t want to write about Anne Frank.

Dara Horn:
And then I just thought like, why not? Why do I feel this deep discomfort? And in probing that feeling I thought, well, I’m going to write about that experience. And I had remembered at that point a news story, I had heard about something that had happened at the Anne Frank museum that year. This was, I was writing this, I guess it was in 2018. So a few months before that in 2018, at the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam, there was a young employee they had. There was an Orthodox Jewish man and the museum would not allow him to wear his yarmulke to work. They made him hide it under a baseball hat and he appealed this decision to the museum board, which then deliberated for four months and then finally relented and let him wear his yarmulke to work. As I put it in the piece, which is in the book, four months seems like a very long time for the Anne Frank House to ponder whether it was a good idea to force a Jew into hiding.

Dara Horn:
And then, you know, I realized like this is not the only time this happens. There was another incident at the Anne Frank museum, which I also mentioned in the book the year before, where for the audio guides, they have audio guides in many languages. And you know, when you go to a museum and it says English and there’s a British flag and it says Francais, and there’s a French flag, Hebrew, no flag. They did not have a flag for Hebrew. And I just thought, you know, there’s something going on here, which is like, these are not mistakes. And it’s one of these things that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And so, yeah, this is a book I didn’t want to write this book. I don’t want anyone to have to write these books, but here we are. I think that there’s something perverse that we need to understand.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
So, in the Anne Frank example, this was one of many chapters. I’ll just say personally where I was like, I recognize these stories. I feel like I’ve seen them and lived them. In fact, my wife, Stephanie, who, since I got an advanced copy, grabbed it first and read it. I read part of it on a beach, which got some interesting looks. But one of the things she said to me was just like, how well do you and Dara know each other because we’ve talked about this. Like for example, the Anne Frank example, I spent some time interning at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. And one of the things that they required the interns to do was to sign up for slots at the information desk. So I was up in the center for advanced Holocaust studies, which is like not part of the regular museum pathway, but I had to like go spend time at the visitor’s desk.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And when I was at the visitor’s desk, I was a weird magnet because I was standing there with a kipa. But unlike your example of it made people uncomfortable. I can not tell you how many people would walk up to me at the museum and feel the need to say something affirming about their Jewish identity, how much it meant to them for a kipa-wearing Jew to be in the museum. I was like a symbol of the fact that the Jew is alive and not dead. And I felt like what you were describing with the Anne Frank story was like the inverse of that, which is the Anne Frank story is popular the world over precisely because as you say, her appeal lies in her lack of future, that she is a popular story to people, to non-Jews because she’s a dead Jew, as opposed to a living Jew. That’s a pretty extreme statement there. What does that actually mean? Like, do you believe that like, is that really like – unpack that story of like – what is it you think about? And this comes up by the way in the Jewish heritage chapter also of like the tourism to places in the world where Jews were once and are no longer, what do you think it’s about?

Dara Horn:
There’s a lot going on here. So I think that with the piece about dead Jews versus living ones. Yeah, I mean, I think that those Anne Frank museum examples, like as I put it in the book, people love dead Jews. Living Jews, not much, right? It’s like we are all in favor of this dead Jewish girl who offers us grace, but not in favor of actually living Jews who are, you know, doing yucky things like, you know, practicing Judaism or I don’t know, living in Israel, right? I mean, there’s this like deep discomfort. And I think you see that also this is a little off from your question, but the last chapter of the book, I write about the brutal attacks on the Hasidic community that happened just before the pandemic. There was a shooting in Jersey City at a Satmar grocery store. There was an attack in Monsey.

Dara Horn:
And what I do in the book is I look at the news coverage of those events and it was astonishing because I almost couldn’t find a single news story about those attacks that didn’t say something derogatory about the community being attacked in the article. You know, like about this stabbing in Monsey. So Monsey – big Hasidic community – person walks into a crowded Hanukkah party with a four-foot machete and starts just slashing people. News articles about that attack would mention, oh, well there was this heated zoning battle between Hasidic and non-Hasidic residents or, oh, you know, something happened with the school board. And it’s like, do we normally express frustration with municipal politics by hacking people with machetes? And then I just thought there’s something that they’re sending a signal in these news pieces, right. Because, and then I looked down and compared it with coverage of the Pulse nightclub shooting, which was an attack at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, about five years ago, I compared it with the Walmart shooting in El Paso, Texas, which was like an anti-Latino attack.

Dara Horn:
And I looked at news coverage for those pieces. And it’s like, in that piece about the Walmart shooting, was there something in the article that was like, there have been tensions between Latino and non-Latino communities about bilingualism in school? It’s like, no, nobody writes about that. That would be bonkers, right? I mean, that would be this like hateful victim blaming where you’re signaling to the public: there’s something about this attack that actually is kind of okay. Right? And so there is a deep discomfort with living Jews and you see that everywhere. And I’m heartened that your experience at the Holocaust museum that people gravitated toward you and your yarmulke. I’m curious to ask you a question, which is, it sounds like from what you said, that it was mostly Jewish visitors to the museum.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Yeah.

Dara Horn:
I mean, I think that’s very telling as well, so that’s one piece of it. But the other piece of it though, is that dead Jews fulfill this function in this society, right. Where it’s supposed to be teaching you some kind of lesson about redemption or something or about humanity. But the way that that is achieved is by erasing Jewish identity. So the thing about the Anne Frank example is that this was a person who was not speaking the Jewish language was not particularly religious. That’s the appeal of that particular figure. Right? And in the book, I compare it with some of the writings of Yiddish speakers who are writing for a really different audience. And, you know, there’s this kind of erasure that’s happening, where it’s like Jews are just like everybody else. And that’s why it’s sad that they were killed. Well, what if they weren’t just like everyone else, then it would be okay if they were killed? Because that’s kind of what you’re saying. Right? I realize we didn’t get to the – I still have things to say about that Jewish heritage sites.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Come back to that, but it’s not just the Jews are like everybody else it’s that Jews are a construct of a certain morality play. And they only make appearance as part of that morality play once we’ve kind of forgotten what it was when they were alive, what they lived like. And once it can become universalized in the story, like you alluded to Naomi Seidman’s article on Elie Wiesel and the almost like sanitizing of Night that took place. Where the original version of Night had revenge fantasy. It was an angry book when it was first written in French.

Dara Horn:
In Yiddish, I’m sorry, when it was first written in Yiddish.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And when it gets published again, it turns Wiesel into a kind of character of conscience for the West because instead of it being like a broken wretched story that lacks redemption in a story that has rage, it’s a story that can be universalized. It can be used in curriculum on how to be a better person, how to see a society fall apart. So it’s not just the disappearance of the particularism. It’s also the emergence of this kind of moral story of universalism.

Dara Horn:
Well, it let’s people off the hook, right? I mean, because that’s the thing Wiesel is publishing that book in the 1950s in France. So you publish it in Yiddish. The title of the Yiddish book was, And the World was Silent, right? Which is about the failure of the world to prevent this mass murder. Right? And then changing the title to Night, and it wasn’t just the title, changing the text. He recast it as a theological problem, right? It’s not where were the nations of the world? It’s where was God? And that was a pretty canny decision. Right? And again, this is not me saying this, this is Naomi Seidman who analyzed these books. It was actually quite a canny decision because you know, it’s like, you’re writing a book in French in 1958 for people who this is a country that was in many ways cooperating with the Nazi regime.

Dara Horn:
So it’s like, who wants to read about how their society failed and how they are guilty, right? Better to blame God. Like we can all get behind blaming God. Right. But like what French-speaking reader is going to want to hear about how their society failed. So it is the cynical way of looking at it. I’m not saying all of these all work as a cynical project. I’m not at all suggesting – I actually think a lot of Hasidic thought is expressed in his work in a lot of ways. So I’m not saying that what he did was just for the cynical purpose. But I think that we overlook that difference at our peril because then it does mean that as Jews, we have to minimize our emotions and we also have to minimize our culture. Right? Because it is this question of the way that Jews are presented as oh, Jews are just like everyone else.

Dara Horn:
And it really is like, well, you know, we’ve spent 3000 years not being like everyone else, you know, un-coolness is Judaism’s brand. Right? We have a bossy and unsexy, invisible God. Right? Like we’ve never been cool. And in fact, I think if anything, there’s a sort of, if you wanted to do this essentializing thing where you’re like learning a lesson from the persecution of the Jews, maybe a more powerful lesson would be, and this is something I do write about in the book about the Poway shooting is this idea, the existence of Jews in a non-Jewish society expresses the possibilities of freedom because it shows that you don’t have to be like everyone else, right? You don’t have to believe what all your neighbors believe. You don’t have to live your life exactly the same way all of your neighbors do. And a society that allows that kind of pluralism to flourish is successful in a lot of ways. So I mean, if you want to go down that road of essentializing this and making this some sort of grand lesson for humanity, I think that’s the better lesson.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And it has an important corollary, which is this group is different, has its own defined culture, has – the word I was looking for throughout this – agency.

Dara Horn:
Yes.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
A sense of control of our own story.

Dara Horn:
Yes.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
By the way, when the society around it decides to attack that population because it doesn’t like its expression of difference and agency, that’s not a problem created by Jews.

Dara Horn:
No! Antisemitism is not the Jews’ fault. Okay. Let’s just put that out there.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
It’s not the Jews’ fault, but I was at this gathering recently for a major Jewish organization, trying to think about fighting Antisemitism. And I had to start by saying, Antisemitism is not our problem to solve.

Dara Horn:
No! Exactly! This is not our problem. Right? This is not our problem. Also, we can’t solve it because it’s not our problem.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Okay. So now here, I want to push, which is implied in the title of the book, People Love Dead Jews, and in a lot of these examples, the Anne Frank museum, the heritage sites – heritage sites that you described that are once places in which Jews lived in now are entirely devoid of Jews – a lot of your examples imply that when we talk about People Love Dead Jews, we’re talking about them. Non-Jews love dead Jews. In some ways it makes more sense to them than living Jews. Living Jews are uncomfortable because of their differences, their weirdnesses, their Zionismss what have you. However, at other times in the book, you allude to the ways in which how one of the things that we do as Jews, when we process our traumas is connect the dots to other traumas. This living and breathing memory of, and you even use your example of your children, and I’ve had similar conversations with my children of like Antisemitism, oh, isn’t that Purim or isn’t that Passover.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And I couldn’t help, but wonder at times whether we Jews are also obsessed with dead Jews. That with that memory move of no Antisemitism has always been alive and well, that kind of craving that you have as a Jew and Jonathan Safran Foer’s language is “What does it remember like?” To look at a contemporary story and find an old story that too is a kind of myth-making around dead Jews that it’s only through the categories of dead Jews that we can understand the present. So are we effectively complicit in the same thing, which is being obsessed with the dead versions of ourselves?

Dara Horn:
I mean, of course. Right? That’s just sort of the basis of the book, right? Yeah, no, so look –

Yehuda Kurtzer:
It’s easy to blame the Anne Frank museum for something that we are effectively doing the inverse of when it comes to our own identities as Jews.

Dara Horn:
But it’s the inverse and that’s important. Right? So yes, obviously Jewish culture is a memory-based culture. Right? And you know, I say this, like it’s, you know, obviously every culture on earth is probably a memory-based culture in one way or another, but yes, absolutely. And it’s not just about dead Jews, like remembering the past, specifically dealing with the history of calamity or trauma, right? I mean, that is very much built into Jewish tradition from the Tanakh, from the Hebrew Bible, right? I mean, this is from Eikha onward. It’s a theological foundation. These moments of calamity in Jewish history have a theological role in Judaism, right? I mean, it’s a contact point with God and there’s many different ways to understand that, but I think absolutely it is a component of Jewish culture for sure. But what that component does is it’s a connection through time.

Dara Horn:
And the idea behind it is the idea of resilience. It’s this idea of this through-line through Jewish history that is always maintained. And historians can talk about whether or not that’s really true, but that is the foundational legend on which Judaism is based is the idea of this through-line. And the idea of what psychologists now would call post-traumatic growth, right? The way in which a traumatic event is processed and then becomes part of a person who is emerged from trauma. And in other words, that you are not broken by trauma to use sort of language that I don’t find that helpful, honestly, but that you’re not broken by trauma, but that you become in a sense more of yourself through it. So, I mean the whole Talmud is about this, right? I mean, it’s like, why are we obsessing over? I mean, you know, you have a PhD in Talmud and I don’t, I don’t really know as much as you do, but you know, this, this is like the whole Talmud is sort of based on this, like calamity of the destruction of the temple and what do we do now?

Dara Horn:
And you would think that obsessing over this destroyed temple would not be great for people psychological growth. And you would think also that people 300 years after the destruction of the temple would not be still talking about like the layout of the gates of the building, but that’s what they’re doing. And it’s the question is, well, why are they doing that? And you know, how does that become something that builds into Jewish culture? And there’s something about people don’t move on, right? They move through and you know, these memories are not forgotten instead they accrue, right? And then the memories become part of who one is in the present. So it’s almost like an archeological Tel where it’s like these different layers of experiences are built one on another. And that was very akin to the way we move through our own lives as individuals too.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Okay. So that I got that theology. I got the language of resistance, post-traumatic growth. When that works I’m with you. It’s great. Right? What happens in practice, I think more commonly, at least among contemporary Jews is that knowledge of, and passion for the relatively recent persecution stories of our history actually winds up creating, not a theology of suffering, but a teleology of suffering. It’s actually its own form of loss of agency. No, no version of Jewish acceptance in America. Everything is a myth. No version of it is different than it was before. What we need to do is kind of constantly batten down the hatches, build institutions of Jewish life that are entirely about protection even though we may actually be in a position of relative power and privilege. That has a very different psychological effects than just great we are people who are capable of getting through trauma. It actually has the risk of being really dangerous.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And I know I’m channeling a little bit of Arendt here and you elude in the book that you don’t like Eichmann in Jerusalem. But one of the lines that I Arendt makes reference to is when the prosecutor and the Eichmann trial, Gideon Hausner points to Eichmann on the stand and describes him as the manifestation of a theological principle that extends from Pharaoh to Haman to the present. And she’s looking at that with a little bit of horror, not because, okay, maybe it does describe that in every generation they want to kill us, but it also has the effect of kind of taking us out of our story. It makes us as though we are just the recurrence of something else from the past. So that’s what I fear about the reiteration or the persistence of this story, that it doesn’t incline us to think about our resilience. It just kind of keeps us clogged in this story as the people who were once killed and will be killed again.

Dara Horn:
I mean, I think if you approach this from a place where Jewish identity does not have any content, other than that, then yeah, that’s a problem. But I think that if you are approaching it from within this tradition, I think it looks really different. I mean, look, I didn’t want to write this book. I spent 20 years not writing this book. And I really mean that because I spent 20 years writing novels that were from within Jewish life and drawing on all of the amazing riches of Jewish life in so many different facets and so many different ways and in so many different contexts and looking at exactly that question of agency, but then giving that agency to my characters. I don’t have novels where I wrote about people dying in the Holocaust. None of my novels are about that. Right? All of my novels are about people who are in charge of their own lives and their own decisions.

Dara Horn:
So, you know, I think that, I feel as you do, I agree. And I mean, I think that you are in a different position than I am and that you are sort of working in this Jewish institutional world, right? Where people have to make organizational decisions about how to interact with this kind of situation. I don’t envy you for being in that situation. Right. I mean, I’m a storyteller, right? I’m just looking at what I’m seeing and trying to uncover these moments of discomfort or the moments where the story is. So yes, I think that one of the things that’s been particularly horrifying about these attacks in the United States in the last few years, is not the attacks themselves, which yes are scary, but it’s what they activate in Jewish memory. That’s terrifying. Right? I mean, otherwise, it would just be like a school shooting, which is scary and sad.

Dara Horn:
And it’s also sickening that we now think that that’s a normal thing to happen, but like, you know what I’m saying? It would be like you say like, oh, it’s only however many people died in this synagogue shooting or something like, everything looks great compared to the Holocaust. Right? But like, what’s scary about it is not the incidents in themselves, but rather what they activate in Jewish memory. And because it does activate not just this like terror, but also this lack of agency, as you say. And so I agree with you about that, but I think that you have some hard decisions to make about how to respond to that from a Jewish institutional point of view. But I think that let’s just say you’re not the first person to make these kinds of decisions because Jews have been making these decisions, unfortunately, for a really long time.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Yeah. No, I think that’s right. I feel deeply a sense of like what’s the agency that we as American Jews want to have in a moment like this. And I get the pull towards either really serious and effective mobilization. Going back to Arendt, one of her first frustrations in the early forties was why Jews in Europe could not mobilize – like all of their political structures couldn’t do anything. So there’s one question about actual political mobilization. Another is the one I think you’re describing here, which is kind of claiming of our own stories, you know, at the Holocaust museum, the critique so much of the research coming out of the museum was it was perpetrator history. They were obsessed with the perpetration of the Shoah. And one of the things that we should be as a Jewish community is much more interested in the stories that Jews tell about our own experience than about chronicling meticulously, what happens to us because then you rely on other people’s records. And there’s another version of it, which is just tell Jewish stories, forget about this whole business. But those are as you signal really consequential decisions that are not just about the stories we tell, but actually about the future that we create.

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Yehuda Kurtzer:
So let me pick a couple of more of the – your book is like personal stories and a little bit of travelogue. And I love it as a travelogue because it’s literally sometimes a travelogue. When you go to Harbin, which you’ll tell us a little bit about, and it’s also a chronological travelogue through past and present. So let’s talk a little bit about this Jewish heritage tourism piece, because I didn’t know the story that you were describing, and maybe you could tell a little bit of the details about Harbin. I was just reminded whenever somebody says Jewish heritage tourism, I assume Poland, which has built this insane tourism industry based on death camps. And I’ve been there and I planned to go back. And I felt this horrible feeling when I was doing it of supporting an economy that was predicated on the mass murder of Jews. So let me just, I know he wants to come back to the Jewish heritage tourism piece. So tell me a little bit about those two stories and what they were about for you, what it meant for you to journey back literally to places where there were once Jews and almost felt like by the end of those chapters you were escaping.

Dara Horn:
Yes. So the way I opened that piece is by talking about something that I experienced when I was nine years old in what used to be called the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, which now has been revamped. And it’s called I think ANU a Museum of the Jewish People. And, but I went there when I was nine years old, so I’m 44. So that was, you know, what, like 1986 with my family. And in 1986, it was like this dark and depressing place where it was all these dour exhibits about these Jewish communities around the world. And then this like scroll of fire atrium where it’s like, you know, and then all these hapless Jews get burned alive, right? And it was this kind of view. And then to their credit, the museum is now quite different. And the way that museum was designed has a lot to do with Zionism and the time when it was built and et cetera.

Dara Horn:
But anyway, in that museum, there was this little cartoon. It does exist. You could find it online. This little 10 minute cartoon about a man named Benjamin of Tudela who was a medieval Jewish traveler. I mean, he was a merchant from Spain and in the 1100s, he did this like voyage around the world, which wasn’t really around the world. But you know, to a bunch of places, basically around the Mediterranean and maybe a little bit in the Middle East and claiming he had been to India and China, which he probably didn’t go to, but it’s this amazing sort of record of all these Jewish communities at that time. And he’s going to all these places and visiting all these Jewish communities like in Yemen and in Egypt and in Constantinople and Baghdad and wherever and reporting on all these thriving Jewish communities. And what’s amazing is now because of things that have happened, let’s just say, in Jewish history in recent years or recent centuries really is now you do that same tour.

Dara Horn:
And instead of visiting these thriving Jewish communities, you’re visiting people’s graves, right? Or you’re visiting what, as I put it in the book, there’s this tourist industry concept called Jewish heritage sites. And as I say in the book, it’s a much better name than “Property Sees from Expelled or Murdered Jews.” Because like, who wants to go to that right? Jewish heritage site. It sounds so benign but to the Harbin point. So yes, there’s this city called Harbin in Northeastern China, it’s north of North Korea, south of Siberia, which is as awesome as it sounds. And this city was built by Jews. So this is not Kaifeng. This is not Jews from the middle ages who became part of the Chinese population. These are Russian Jews. Basically what happened was the Russian government was trying to build an extension of the Trans-Siberian railroad through Manchuria, which is the traditional name for this region of China.

Dara Horn:
And they were building an extension road into China and they basically needed to build an administrative center for the railroad. They basically needed to build a town in the middle of Manchuria. They needed experienced Russian-speaking entrepreneurs to build this town for them. But they’re like who the heck wants to move to Manchuria? And they’re like, hello Jews. This is like in 1896. So it’s like Russian Jews. Would you rather go be a bottom feeder in a New York City sweatshop or go to Manchuria where you don’t have to learn a new language and you know, you can be free of these Antisemitic restrictions in a Russian-speaking situation. And so at its peak, I think it was about 20,000 Jews who really built this town. They built this city and then over various regimes, they were basically eventually persecuted in various ways to the point where the last Jewish family evacuated in 1962. There was actually one Jewish woman who chose to stay and did not leave and died in the remains of the old synagogue in the 1980s.

Dara Horn:
This place is so remote that today, there is no Chabad. So it tells you just how remote this place is. But there’s today one Jew who lives there, who is an Israeli in his seventies who lives there. And he basically is employed by the government to maintain these Jewish heritage sites. So basically what happened was in the past 15 years or so, the Chinese government has decided to invest $30 million in restoring Jewish heritage sites in Harbin. And basically what’s different about this from other parts of the world where this something similar is happening is that they are saying the quiet part out loud. There are all these records of documentations and speeches from the mayor and stuff like that, where they’re like, Jews are rich and they’re going to come here and give us money if we renovate the synagogue. Like they literally are saying these things out loud, very explicitly. And then you go to this place as I did. And it’s just very bizarre the way they preserved that. It’s a very extreme version of what happens in a lot of places. And I mean, I want to be clear. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t restore Jewish historical sites in places where Jewish communities have lived in the past, but it was very openly cynical the way this was being done.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Yeah. Yeah. There’s this weird news story over the last few weeks, about the last year of Afghanistan.

Dara Horn:
Yes.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
And a real fascination by so many Jews about what it means to be the last Jew. And I wonder whether it’s partly like not a fantasy, but a perverse nightmare, like, am I going to be the last person here to turn off the lights? And what does it mean to go back and visit? The other thing it reminds me of, and maybe this is a sequel Dara, which is, I don’t know if you’ve been to Morocco in the last few years.

Dara Horn:
Not recently, but yes.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
But one of the things that’s happened in Morocco is that the king, basically the monarchy has recognized that the loss of their Jews was bad. And so in order to correct for it also, there’s a little bit of the quiet part out loud, in order to correct for it, they have gone back and renamed the streets in the old city of Marrakesh that had Jewish names for hundreds of years, they’ve put the street signs back up. So now you street signs with Jewish names without that many Jews and an attempt to say, look, this is a place where Jews should be comfortable. And remarkably, I don’t know if the numbers held through the pandemic, but the year we were there, I think it was 2018 for the first time in 50 years, anywhere in the Arab world, there was a net increase of Jewish immigration to an Arab country.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
500 Israelis had moved in the past year, back to mostly Casablanca and mostly for business interests. And in some cases, they were second and third-generation Moroccan Jews who had grown up in Israel and never really felt that comfortable. And so there was like a desire to be back in that place. That was like this weird, like you never see that reversal, but in both cases, the image of the Jew has this really important function in these societies and these stories and once you’re counting in numbers of one person, 500 people is something that as a story that is kind of magnetic.

Dara Horn:
So actually I have been to Morocco, but a long time ago, but it is in my book because one of the chapters in my book is about an organization called Diarna which is a vast online archive of Jewish historical sites in the Middle East, which they’re sort of trying to preserve and photography and oral history. You can visit it online. And I was speaking with the people who run that organization. They were talking about how there’s like a real difference in the way different countries deal with this. And Morocco, they do hold up as a better example because it is local people who have done a huge amount of research into Jewish history and really are realizing their country’s role in like that they missed the Jews, et cetera. Right? And that there was floss and there’s an acknowledgement of a loss. And there is sort of an attempt to do that.

Dara Horn:
So, you know, that might be an example of one of the better ways of sort of preserving these places. And then it also, it is a place where, as you say, there are other than people who maybe have chosen to live there for business reasons, I mean, I think there’s like, you know, 40,000 Israelis who’d vacation there every year. I mean, it’s not like they never saw a Jew before. Right? I mean, that cannot be said of Harbin. So there’s like different ways of doing this, but there is something like these places, you know, they weren’t so crazy about the Jews when they lived there. I mean, that’s a vast generalization and obviously it’s different situations in different places, but what was striking about Harbin is in her being, you go to like their Jewish museum, where first of all, there’s nothing that tells you anything about what is Judaism or what is Jewish culture. First of all, it’s a regime that I think you can’t practice any religion in China. I mean, there’s all kinds of restrictions that are because of this repressive regime, but then there’s also, there’s nothing in that museum that tells you why this glorious community no longer exists. You cannot learn that from being there. And that’s the disingenuous piece we’re supposed to sort of just be like, oh, how wonderful that these people restored the synagogue, but there’s an eliting of the reality. That’s the piece that I find disturbing.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
There are so many stories here, there’s the whole story of Ellis Island and the ways American Jews censor their – the act of changing their own names at Ellis Island. The Varian Fry story, which I want to just thank you. I’ve been teaching your material on Varian fry for years now. Varian Fry, this kind of incomprehensible character of a great rescuer of many European intellectuals. Each of these is a podcast and of themselves. I’m sure you’re going to cover in your own podcast. Let me end by asking you kind of an unfair question and ironic question that you address in the book. One of the things you talk about in one of your chapters is a resistance to the happy ending. We alluded to it in Anne Frank that that’s not how a story has to be told, and it’s not really an accurate story for Jews and that ironically for a people who’s in the past, there’s something deeper about being able to leave unfinished stories in the present.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Therefore, your book doesn’t have an end, like the end is: here I’m going to lead my Jewish life. I’m going to talk to you about learning Talmud. What do you think the next few years look like for us as American Jews in struggling with Antisemitism? Not what the end is, but look forward with us. I’m not asking you for a happy ending to this book, but I am looking for: where do you think this is going? What do you think this looks like? And how does your own thinking and how does your own writing help us either as a Jewish community navigating this or help us as Americans?

Dara Horn:
Well, what I hope that the book will bring to people is an awareness of when one is forced to erase oneself. And that’s something that there’s a chapter in the book, which we didn’t talk about, for reasons that are not worth explaining, I somehow ended up listening with my ten-year-old son to a recording of the Merchant of Venice. And what I discovered in that process was that I had felt this need to like, well, you know, it’s Shakespeare and Shakespeare always creates these wonderful human characters. And it’s only like listening to it with him as a ten-year-old that he hears this Shylock speech about “hath not a Jew eyes” or whatever, which, you know, every English speaking Jew is supposed to take as a compliment. And he’s like, mom, this is the evil supervillain monologue. This is what every evil supervillain does. You’re not supposed to fall for the evil supervillain monologue where they’re like, oh, I had a rough life and if you were being, you do the same thing, that’s why I’m going to go kill Batman buhahahaha. Right?

Dara Horn:
Like he saw that, right. He had this clarity that I have lost. And so to me, you know, as you said, we talked about agency, like, is there anything that Jews can do about Antisemitism? Like I kind of think, no, honestly, but that’s honestly a problem for people like you who work in these organizations to think about. And in a sense, I’m not qualified to address that question, but clarity in seeing when you’ve been conned, really seeing when you have been forced to minimize yourself, seeing when you are forced to participate in your own humiliation, seeing when you’re forced to reduce yourself. There’s so many things that I realized in writing this book that we as Jews in a non-Jewish society are sort of forced to say about Antisemitism.

Dara Horn:
Like, oh, Jews are the canary in the coal mine, right. Once Jews are attacked, that’s a sign of the decline of society. Think about how much of an affront to your dignity it is to say that because what you’re basically saying is like, you know, when Jews are murdered or maimed, it might be an ominous side that real people might later to get attacked. Right? I mean, that’s really what you’re saying. So like give yourself that integrity that you would, I hope give to others. And that is something that I hope that in writing this book, I’m hoping to bring to both the Jewish and a non-Jewish audience, right? The idea that people should not be expected to erase themselves in order to gain respect of others.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Yeah. Dara, I’ll just finish with my own story for you. Which was when my oldest kid was about three and I was driving him home from daycare. And he said to me in the backseat, and I’m like, toodling along. He says in the backseat, Abba, who are the Jewish people. And I’m like, it begins. And I said, well, we’re are the Jewish people. And he burst into tears. And I pulled over the car. I said, what’s going on? He said, well, I don’t want Pharaoh to get me. Firstborn son. And obviously part of what I had to do was to disabuse him of that wasn’t happening, right. That wasn’t going to happen. And part of me also was like, ah, “Shver tsu zayn a yid.” Right? You got it. That’s part of your story is you belong to this story for better or worse. And you’re not the same as the character in that story. And you do have agency to shape your own story, but that’s part of what it means to hold onto the past, not to be consumed by it, as you say, to claim our own dignity and claim our own agency, but to still also claim those stories.

Dara Horn:
And to do so really through this rich vein of Jewish culture and tradition in whatever ways, there are many ways in, but to have the basis of your identity, be something that’s rooted in agency and rooted in this culture rather than what other people did to this culture.

Yehuda Kurtzer:
Amazing. The book is called People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. It comes out on Yom Hazikaron on Jewish Memorial day, which is Rosh Hashana. I strongly recommend people read it. It makes a great high holiday reading book. And thank you Dara for being on the show. Thanks to all of you for listening. Identity/Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. It was produced this week by David Zvi Kalman and edited by Alex Dillon with assistance from Miri Miller and music provided by So-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after the episode airs to find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, visit us online shalomhartman.org. We want to know what you think about the show. You can rate and review us on iTunes to help more people find it. And you can write to us with your ideas, suggestions, commentary feedback [email protected] You can subscribe to our show in the Apple podcast app, Spotify, SoundCloud, audible, and everywhere else podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week. Have a Zisen Yor. Happy and healthy Jewish new year. And thanks for listening.