I was alerted to this book by Jewish Twitter soon after its release, and read many positive reviews and impressions. It was also mentioned by one of the rabbis at the synagogue I livestream services from (seeing as how I’ve been unable to go to shul in person since lockdown began in March 2020). Many of these people brought up Ms. Horn’s sobering statement that more people can name three death camps than three Yiddish writers.
The twelve essays in this volume make painfully clear how many Gentiles, often without doing this on purpose or being consciously aware of it, only know about us through the Shoah and visiting heritage sites in places whose Jewish community has long since vanished. In other words, they know a lot about dead Jews, but not living Jews (either past or present).
We also have to contend with Gentiles goysplaining antisemitism to us, lying about Jewish history (particularly our indigenous connection to Eretz Yisrael and the Hebrew language), happily believing any false information they hear because it’s wrapped up in the guise of wokeness, only listening to fringe tokens instead of proud, committed Jews, and trying to gaslight us.
I’m still angry at the fellow writer and former virtual friend who soft-blocked me on Instagram in May because I shared so many stories calling out antisemitism and supporting Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland and to defend itself against terrorism. She was sharing stories with the exact opposite message. The end of our virtual friendship isn’t much of a loss, though, since she’s gone full woke over the last few years, and is the kind of clown who gets off on virtue-signalling by putting freaking pronouns in her screen name.
The new woke antisemitism comes straight from the Soviet Union’s playbook.
Ms. Horn’s first chapter, “Everyone’s (Second) Favorite Dead Jew,” opens by talking about how an employee of the Anne Frank House was told not to wear a kipah to work in 2018. The previous year, visitors noticed Hebrew was the only language in the audio-guide displays without a national flag next to it.
The rest of the chapter discusses how Anne’s diary has been so popular and palatable to the masses largely because it’s not about the Shoah at all. Had Anne lived and written about her experience in the camps, it’s doubtful she would’ve found such a receptive audience. She also wrote the famous line about everyone being good at heart before she met people who weren’t good.
The next-best-known Shoah memoir, Elie Wiesel’s Night, is full of rage in the original Yiddish. Only after it was published in French and transformed into a story of theological angst did it gain notice. In other words, many Gentiles look to Shoah memoirs for feel-good inspiration, and are deeply uncomfortable when they don’t follow that socially-acceptable mold.
Chapter Two, “Frozen Jews,” concerns the history of Harbin, China, which had a large, flourishing Jewish community from 1898 till the 1950s. The last Jewish family left in 1962, and Harbin’s last Jew died in 1985. Though many Harbintsy fondly recall their lives in the city, there were also many pogroms, particularly after White Russian refugees arrived in 1919 and brought their violent antisemitism with them. Among their vile acts was burning a synagogue. The city’s golden age lasted less than one generation. Then came the Japanese occupation, and the situation became even worse. Many people viewed immigration as inevitable because of how difficult life was.
Now Harbin’s remaining synagogue is a typical heritage site paying homage to the former Jewish community, with no mention of just why everyone left. The displays also only have photos of and captions about the minority of rich and bourgeois residents, not the poor and proletarian majority who could only dream of servants and grand society events.
Chapter Four, “Executed Jews,” talks about the Soviet Union’s persecution and eventual purging of Jewish writers, artists, actors, and playwrights. They were allowed to remain at liberty after Stalin’s crackdown on Yiddish only because they served as useful tokens. Basically, classic Chanukah antisemitism as opposed to Purim antisemitism. Chanukah antisemitism purports to like and respect us, but demands we dutifully assimilate and abandon our faith and culture. Purim antisemitism openly declares its belief that we’re inferior and intent to murder us.
Chapter Five, “Fictional Dead Jews,” discusses the differences between Jewish and Gentile literature. Traditionally, many Jewish novels end without an uplifting, redemptive happy ending, but instead are morally ambiguous or even depressing. Given Jewish history, it’s easy to see why. I got a lot of great authors and books to add to my TBR list from this chapter.
Chapter Six, “Legends of Dead Jews,” discusses the urban myth about surnames being changed at Ellis Island. A lot of people react with anger and disbelief when they’re presented with undeniable historical and documentary proof that this never happened. They cherish their family stories about stupid clerks changing the spelling or inventing an entirely new name.
What really happened was that many immigrants felt compelled to change their obviously Jewish names due to systemic, institutionalized antisemitism. Other groups of immigrants, like Italians, Greeks, Germans, and Ukrainians, typically kept their names, or at most changed the spelling to make the pronunciation more obvious or look a bit less foreign. Jewish name-changers routinely cited difficulties in finding jobs, being accepted at schools, being allowed to stay at hotels, and housing.
They also claimed their names were unpatriotic, too foreign, uneuphonius, cumbersome, annoying, uncomfortable, hard to spell and pronounce, embarrassing, and a hindrance to employment, education, social acceptance, and housing. Rarely did they cite the clear culprit, antisemitism. The only name-changers who mentioned this were Christians with Jewish-sounding names. Instead of challenging this unfair system, they submitted to it.
Chapter Eight, “On Rescuing Jews and Others,” is by far the longest. I was surprised Ms. Horn believes barely anyone has heard of Varian Fry, one of only five Americans to date honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. I’ve known about him for years, even if I didn’t know so many details until now. Mr. Fry rescued several thousand people from his base of operations in France, including many famous artists, writers, and intellectuals such as Marc Chagall and Franz Werfel.
Chapter Nine, “Dead Jews of the Desert,” discusses Diarna, a virtual museum documenting vanished Jewish communities primarily in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Diarna is a Judeo-Arabic word meaning “our homes.” Some of the synagogues and other places documented have now been destroyed by wars, like the gorgeous 500-year-old synagogue of Damascus. Due to Ashkenazocentrism, many people don’t know what a huge, vibrant Jewish presence there was in this part of the world until the ethnic cleansing following WWII. Jews living in Muslim lands were also subject to dhimmitude, a legal, humiliating second-class status.
Chapter Ten, “Blockbuster Dead Jews,” is about Shoah museums and the travelling exhibit Auschwitz: Not Long Ago, Not Far Away. Ms. Horn was very uncomfortable with this exhibit because it once again ultimately used the Shoah as a lesson about love and feel-good inspiration. All these museums, which do wonderful work, also tend to reduce Jewish history and our people to the Shoah, and leave out testimonies soaked with rage at all the bystanders and collaborators.
Chapter Eleven, “Commuting with Shylock,” is obviously about The Merchant of Venice, and explores the cruel reality of Venetian Jewish history. Ms. Horn found that people who critique the play as irredeemably antisemitic are called whiny, vulgar, censors, and too PC, and of course have antisemitism goysplained to them, while Jewish scholars who declare it nuanced or not at all offensive are lovingly praised.
Chapters Three, Seven, and Twelve discuss the shooting attacks on U.S. synagogues in recent years. The final of these “Dead American Jews” chapters reveals the shocking fact that many news stories about the attack on the Jersey City kosher grocery defended the shooters’ motives. They were just angry and frustrated about gentrification, school zoning, and Chasidic Jews moving in. Yet these news outlets never justify hate crime attacks on Black churches, gay nightclubs, and stores with a big Latino customer base, nor do they show sympathy for the murderers.
Ms. Horn concludes by talking about Daf Yomi, the worldwide Talmud study group that studies one page (back and front) of Talmud every day. When this study cycle ends after seven years, there are huge celebrations, and then it starts all over again. I would love to start participating when the next cycle starts in 2027.
I highly recommend this book to everyone. Many of the insights might make Gentiles uncomfortable, but these are important conversations we need to have for the sake of healthy, positive interfaith relations. Oh, and read more Yiddish and Hebrew literature!