“This book explores the many strange and sickening ways in which the world’s affection for dead Jews shapes the present moment. I hope you will find it as disturbing as I do.”

This is not the way most books introduce themselves to their readers. And it’s not how Dara Horn wanted to start People Love Dead Jews. She wanted to say, “I hope you will hate it as much as I do.” Her editors made her change the line.

People Love Dead Jews is not your typical book about Jewish history. It’s compulsively readable, pugnaciously provocative, yet profoundly humanizing. Given my occupation and obsessions, I read many books about Jews, and I’ve never read one like this. Its argument is stark: Our society, Horn argues, prefers to tell stories about how Jews died, rather than how they lived, because it’s much easier to mold dead Jews into martyrs and morality tales than it is to coexist with living ones.

To prove this contentious claim, Horn takes readers on a whirlwind world tour, whisking them from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam to a little-known Chinese city that was founded by Jews, then expunged them. Readers meet a host of colorful characters, from Yiddish actors in the Soviet Union to Varian Fry, the man who saved thousands of Jewish artists and intellectuals from the Nazis, including Hannah Arendt and Marc Chagall—but was rarely mentioned by them.

While this is Horn’s first non-fiction book, it is her sixth overall. That’s because she has written five novels, and is, in my entirely subjective estimation, our greatest living English writer of Jewish fiction, having tackled everything from the Civil War to a gender-swapped contemporary retelling of the biblical Joseph story that somehow … completely works. She also holds a Ph.D. in Hebrew and Yiddish literature from Harvard, which frankly feels like overkill, given her manifold talents.

We sat down to discuss the reasons that anti-Semitism persists, the difference between Jewish fiction and fiction about Jews, and why Shakespeare’s Shylock is actually a Marvel villain.

Yair Rosenberg: One of the fun parts about covering anti-Semitism is that you get to hear the countless excuses that people have contrived to avoid thinking about anti-Jewish prejudice or doing anything about it. So you’re told “it’s fringe,” which is not true in many cases, but even when it is, everything is fringe before it becomes mainstream—just ask Donald Trump about his candidacy. In actuality, if something is bad, the whole point is to stop it before it goes mainstream. Then there’s “anti-Semitism is not systemic,” which is also often false. You literally have entire towns in New York and New Jersey that recently passed laws to keep Orthodox Jews out. But even when the bigotry is not “systemic,” is the idea to wait until it becomes institutionalized before you decide to do something about it?

Dara Horn: At which point it’s too late.

Rosenberg: Exactly. People come up with all these reasons why you don’t need to care about anti-Jewish prejudice, which is actually just giving it free rein. This stuff isn’t about confronting anti-Semitism; it’s actually enabling it. So I’m morbidly curious: Do you have any other favorite excuses that folks have given you for not caring about anti-Semitism?

Horn: Oh, a lot. You mentioned one I put in my book: “It’s not systemic, it’s a lone wolf.” It’s amazing how these lone wolves all have the same idea.

“This person’s just deranged.” Well, yeah, but there are a lot of people you could have killed when you were deranged, and you picked these people.

There’s the “Jews are rich” stereotype, which is regularly used to justify anti-Semitism. In David Baddiel’s book [Jews Don’t Count], he notes that one of the wealthiest minority religious groups in the U.K. and the U.S. is actually Hindus, and no one’s like, “Well, they have money,” as an excuse for prejudice against them.

There’s “something something, what about Israel,” which is another great one that I don’t really talk about in the book, but obviously, one that everyone knows about. It’s kind of bottomless.

Something I do talk about in the book is how explicitly these excuses come out in reporting about anti-Semitism. In the last chapter, I write about the attacks on the Hasidic community just before the pandemic. Looking through the news coverage of those events, what shocked me was how I almost couldn’t find an article about them that didn’t say something derogatory about the community in the process. Some people shoot up a Jersey City kosher supermarket, and [the coverage] it’s amazing, because almost every news report says something like, “There were these zoning battles between the Hasidic community and non-Hasidic residents.” Do we normally settle municipal disputes with guns? Because silly me, I did not think so.

What you’re doing in that kind of reporting is you’re signaling to the public that these people got what was coming to them. That’s the purpose of including that information in that report.

Dara Horn (Michael B. Priest) and her new book, People Love Dead Jews
Dara Horn (Photo by Michael B. Priest) and People Love Dead Jews

Rosenberg: Speaking of the different excuses people give for dismissing anti-Semitism, there’s a chapter in the book about Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, which infamously revolves around a Jewish moneylender demanding an actual pound of flesh from his Christian debtor. On the surface, the piece is about you trying to explain the anti-Semitic play to your 10-year-old son. But it’s really about the many ways that sophisticated people talk themselves out of seeing obvious anti-Semitism in front of their faces. It reminds me of Karl Marx’s virulently anti-Semitic essay “On the Jewish Question,” where he straight out says, “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.” It’s ugly stuff. And yet there are so many apologetics that have been written just to avoid acknowledging what he’s actually saying. Some of it is technically true, but also irrelevant. Yes, there’s no question his later stuff is less anti-Semitic—

Horn: Give him a cookie.

Rosenberg: Right. And yes, this was really early in his career and he wasn’t established, and he probably felt the need to distance himself from what was seen as “Jewish discourse” in an anti-Semitic society, and on and on. But of course, all of what he wrote is still insanely anti-Semitic, and it continues to inform some people who follow in Marx’s footsteps—when they are prejudiced toward Jews, this is how they talk. It didn’t go away. It comes up again and again.

But people don’t like to admit that their intellectual or artistic heroes are flawed just like everyone else, and possess prejudices just like everyone else. And this leads them to defend the indefensible and refuse to see the self-evident. Which is basically what you found with Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Can you tell me more about how you came to that realization?

Horn: Shakespeare was just a glaring example of this. For reasons not worth going into, I ended up listening to Merchant of Venice in the car with my son. And like you said, there are all these apologetics that go into explaining how it isn’t really anti-Semitic, even though it blindingly is. But what was shocking to me was not just the apologetics, but that I was participating in it. I’m a person with a PhD in Yiddish and Hebrew, and I was like, “Oh, you know, it’s Shakespeare, and look, he has this wonderful monologue where he’s like, ‘Jews have eyes,’” which apparently every English-speaking Jew is supposed to take as a compliment.

“Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

–The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1

Then my 10-year-old son turned to me and said, “Mom, this is the evil supervillain monologue that every evil supervillain does. You know, ‘I’ve had a rough life and if you were me, you’d do the same thing. So I’m gonna go kill Batman.’ You’re not supposed to fall for it!” And he’s right! That’s what Shylock is doing! The end of that monologue is “Don’t Jews have eyes and hands and feelings like everyone else—and don’t we want revenge like everyone else?” It’s the evil supervillain monologue, and any attempt to look at it otherwise is just fooling yourself.

Rosenberg: This brings us to a bigger question, which I think as a novelist you’re particularly equipped to discuss because you write about imperfect people all the time: How should we relate to our flawed but formidable cultural forebears? Do we throw them in the trash, or is there a way to appreciate them while still recognizing that sometimes things that they said were trash?

Horn: I’m not suggesting “Let’s cancel Shakespeare.” Because you can’t read as a Jew in any Western language without running into this crap all the time. There’s almost nothing where you don’t run into this problem. It’s built into our world. Are there other examples aside from Shakespeare? Yeah. You want to go read Voltaire? You want to go read Dostoevsky? Charles Dickens? It’s everywhere. You can’t avoid it. Even the minor things. I was just listening the other day to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as an audiobook. It’s a great book. It also has throwaway anti-Semitic passages. And I get to them, and I just keep going. I’m so used to doing that. Now there’s this whole movement in American culture of “We need to cancel these people” or something. But you can’t do that—not just because that’s not a great thing to do for all kinds of reasons, but because there’ll be nothing left to read.

Jewish Stories or Stories About Jews?

Rosenberg: Let’s talk about your own fiction, which takes a very different approach to Jews—not just compared to anti-Semites, but compared to many other Jewish writers. What’s interesting about your novels is that while there’s a lot of American fiction written by Jews about Jews, there isn’t actually a lot of Jewish fiction, by which I mean fiction about Judaism itself. Philip Roth writes at length about American Jews, but not about Judaism. Meanwhile, you’re doing something very different. You’re always weaving Jewish texts and history and ideas into your narrative. You’ve got seminal Jewish figures like Maimonides and Solomon Schechter as actual characters in your novels.

Horn: Also Yohanan ben Zakkai.

Rosenberg: Yes! So the question is: Why do this? And why isn’t there more Jewish fiction about Judaism, not just people who are Jewish?

Horn: This is what I set up my whole career to try to do. When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the intersections between literature and religion, and was fortunate to be born into a religious tradition where we do things like kiss books and dance with books. It was a great place to be as a writer. But as a young reader, I didn’t have the words to articulate my interest. And when you’re 14 in 1991 in New Jersey and you tell someone you’re interested in Jewish literature, they hand you a book by Philip Roth, which was not what I was looking for at all. He was part of a generation of writers in the United States who were writing about Judaism as a social identity, not about the content of this tradition. What made someone Jewish in those stories was being alienated, which was not very relatable.

It took me a few more years to discover Cynthia Ozick, who was one of the very few writers at that time who was engaging with the actual content of Jewish tradition in fiction—in English, that is. Then I learned Hebrew, and suddenly I discovered many more people doing this. So starting with contemporary Israeli literature, I began reading my way back in time.

By that point, I was in college. I was studying Hebrew literature, and then I started learning Yiddish, because I got to a point where I would be reading these Israeli writers and though I understood their Hebrew, I didn’t understand what they were talking about. That was because they were writing in Hebrew before Hebrew had been revived as a spoken language, and so they were writing in Hebrew but thinking in Yiddish. So I started learning Yiddish to be able to better understand these Hebrew writers. And then I did my doctorate in both.

What happened then was that I became incredibly jealous of the writers I was reading. Not jealous of their lives, which mostly sucked, but jealous of what they were able to accomplish with language. Because every language has this archeology of belief that’s built into it that native speakers don’t necessarily hear. Like, when you say to somebody in English, “Oh, it’ll happen, for better or for worse,” you’re not thinking, I’m quoting the Anglican marriage ceremony. But of course you are. When you say to somebody “Go the extra mile,” you’re not thinking, I’m quoting the Gospels now, but that’s what you’re doing. There’s this archeology of meaning in these languages that comes to the surface every time somebody sneezes.

In Jewish languages, those references go back to the Torah, the Tanakh, the Mishnah, the Gemara [Talmud], and the siddur [prayer book]—this whole edifice of Jewish text. That’s where those kinds of references are from. I was reading those Hebrew and Yiddish writers, and I got it. There were all these layers; every sentence was like an archeological tell. There were some writers who played with that more than others, and some more consciously than others, but they all used it because they couldn’t avoid it. And I realized that the lack of authenticity I had experienced in American Jewish literature came from the lack of a Jewish language. American Jewish literature was being written in English, and because you’re stuck in this language, you’re not able to make those references.

So I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if I could turn English into a Jewish language? What I meant by that was not writing books with a bunch of [foreign] words in italics, but writing books where the substrata of the references that you’re making, the stories that you’re building on, and the language that you’re building on, is drawn from Jewish texts, but in a way that any reader can appreciate.

So that has been the test that I assigned myself. I’ve worked to that in all of my novels, in subtle and not so subtle ways. Not every reader is going to get every single Jewish reference in my books, but every reader who reads any of my books will be introduced to the most important proof texts that are part of that book. And that’s what I spent the last 20 years doing before this book.

“I became incredibly jealous of the writers I was reading. Not jealous of their lives, which mostly sucked, but jealous of what they were able to accomplish with language.”

How to Love Living Jews

Rosenberg: Your new book critiques the many misguided ways that people talk about dead Jews, from Chinese transplants to Anne Frank. But how should society talk about Jews and their history? What’s a better, healthier approach?

Horn: I don’t think that Jews can solve the problem of anti-Semitism. I don’t think it’s our problem to solve. But I do think there’s an educational problem with the way that Judaism or Jewish culture is taught in broader society, and it can be addressed.

Look at a middle-school textbook about social studies—the “history of the world” kind of classes that we teach kids in public school. Generally, what you have in that curriculum is a paragraph at the beginning about the ancient Israelites, and then a chapter at the end about the Holocaust. That’s it. There’s a bit about Israelites, and then they get murdered at the end. That’s the Jews in the history of the world. But is it the whole story?

This question was brought home to me by my children. In our school curriculum, I think they do ancient civilizations in sixth grade. And each of my kids at some point during that year came back to me and said, “I’m super confused, because in social studies, we’re learning about all these great civilizations. We’re learning about ancient Egypt and ancient Persia and ancient Babylonia and ancient Greece and ancient Rome. And we’re learning about how these amazing civilizations built the world. But then at home, for each of those civilizations, we have a holiday about how they tried to kill us. So are these great civilizations, or are they not?”

That contrast is exactly the point. Judaism is a counterculture. Uncoolness is Judaism’s brand. We’ve never been cool, starting with being the world’s only monotheism with the bossy and unsexy invisible God. We were never cool, and it has persisted. Judaism has always been a countercultural movement.

But that recognition flips the whole idea of social studies in the humanities upside down. Because it turns out that there’s this other story, one that is actually more important and more relevant to where we are now in the modern world, and it’s still around. And I think that’s actually a story that everybody, not just Jewish students, would benefit from knowing.

If rather than “Here’s the Jews, we killed them and that’s bad,” we were taught more about “Here’s this civilization that developed as a counterpart to these other civilizations, and that often exposes their flaws,” that would really change the way that we think about Jews in a non-Jewish society.

Thank you for reading this edition of Deep Shtetl, a subscriber newsletter for The Atlantic. You can sign up for the free version of the newsletter here. To receive all posts, support this work, and gain access to the entire Atlantic site, be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already.