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People love dead Jews – Reports from a haunted present by Dara Horn

Reviewed by Ch, Capt Saul A. Rappeport, USAF

We live in a curious time. Antisemitism is no longer supposedly accepted in mainstream discourse—at least formally. Yet incidents of antisemitism in the United States, violent and otherwise, remain at all time highs. At the same time, there also appears to be a strange, philo-semitic “love-affair” with Judaism in many circles. Where does this come from, and how can we make sense of it all? Dara

Horn offers a unique and frightening answer to this in her masterpiece, People Love Dead Jews: Reports from a Haunted Present. Horn shares a collection of essays, woven together to create a cohesive literary gem that demonstrates the disturbing fact that much of society loves and is fascinated by dead Jews, but has little interest in, or care for, living ones. One of the strengths of the book is its willingness to grapple with the difficult and often uncomfortable truths of Jewish history. Horn does not shy away from examining the ways in which Jews have been vilified and victimized throughout history, nor does she gloss over the complexities of Jewish identity and culture. Instead, she offers a frank, nuanced, and sophisticated perspective on the ways in which Jewish identity has been shaped by centuries of persecution and survival, and the enduring impact of antisemitism on Jewish culture and history.

Another strength of People Love Dead Jews is the clarity and elegance of Horn’s writing. An accomplished writer and masterful storyteller, she weaves together personal anecdotes, historical analysis, and cultural criticism in a way that is both engaging and illuminating. Her prose is insightful and thoughtful, and her writing is suffused with a deep sense of empathy and understanding for the struggles and triumphs of Jewish history. Horn succeeds in taking an incredibly uncomfortable subject, the reasons for the persistence of antisemitism and the global fascination with dead Jews, and enables the reader to be simultaneously entertained (by the quality of the writing) and enraged (by its content).

Horn addresses divergent issues including the public’s infatuation with Anne Frank, as well as the continued gunning down of Jews in 21st-Century America, Stalin’s execution of the Soviet Yiddish actors, the Chinese investment in a town that was built by Jews (before they were expelled), Schindler’s List (and why it was not “good for the Jews”), the demise of Middle Eastern Jewish civilization, and several others. Every essay is enlightening, fascinating, and tragic.

One item of particular note is the famed American “legend” of surnames being mistaken at Ellis Island from their original Jewish-sounding version to an Americanized, sanitized, nondescript one. Horn proves that this entire episode from Jewish history is fiction. Names were not mistaken at Ellis Island; the truth is that Jews facedso much bias and antisemitism in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that they changed their last names en masse in an attempt to survive. Rather than blaming our forebears, Horn offers us a glimpse into the complex world in which they lived and a new appreciation for their struggles.

As members of the US Military who proudly wear the uniform, People Love Dead Jews is an important read. It helps us understand our identity and history as Jews, as well as the imperfect nature of the world in which we live. We swore to defend the Constitution of this great nation in part so that we can continually and collectively strive toward “a more perfect union.” People Love Dead Jews identifies some of those imperfections that we have the great privilege and responsibility to correct. Unequivocally a must-read!

Originally published in the Pesach 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.