Reviewed by Rev. Cariño Casas
If you follow Jewish American media – or even if your only Jewish-related info is from us at CMJ USA (I hope not) – you’ve read over the past few years that antisemitism is rising in the United States and the western world. Just this month, The Forward reported that “anti-Jewish incidents jumped nearly 20 percent in 2021,” according to the FBI.
So, how do our Jewish neighbors feel about this? If they’re like Dara Horn, they’re angry and they are worried. They might even be scared. They also may be wondering how antisemitic attacks fit in with Jews being the most liked religious group in the US.
First, let’s talk about the title: People Love Dead Jews. It certainly got me to pick up the book. Horn has two types of people in mind: the hard-core antisemites who believe the only good Jews are dead Jews and the well-meaning people who see Jewish history as some morality tale but have never actually engaged with living Jewish people in a neighborly way.
Horn defines the latter type of people with a personal anecdote. While on a high school quiz bowl trip, two girls discovered she was Jewish.
"'You,' one of the girls stammered, 'you—you have blond hair!' …'I thought Hitler said you all were dark.'" (xiii)
These girls just seconds before had been talking about Jesus and going to church. Dara, in a conversation with her mother, says:
"'I don’t get it. These girls made it to the nationals. These are the smart people! And they’re getting their information from Hitler?' My mother sighed, a long, tired sigh. 'I know,' she said, without elaborating. 'I know.' … Those girls were not stupid, and probably not even bigoted. But in their entirely typical and well-intentioned education, they had learned about Jews mainly because people had killed Jews." (xiii-xiv)
This opening story stirred me because I am passionate about a similar problem among Christians. In our entirely typical and well-intentioned churches and seminaries, we talk about Jews in the past tense, those Pharisees and Sadducees who rejected Jesus as the Messiah. Never mind that nearly all the followers of Jesus in the Gospels and into Acts 10 are faithful, Torah-observant, temple-going Jews!
Dara’s point is that many Americans have no idea how to relate to living, breathing Jews, only dead ones like Anne Frank. Is this true in our churches, too?
Image of disciples on right from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing via FreeBibleImages.com
Throughout the book, Dara gives heartbreaking examples of Jews being avoided, demeaned, persecuted, tortured, and killed for being Jews. She shows that the oft-repeated stories of Jewish names being changed at Ellis Island are false. No, rather, Jewish families petitioned the court to change their names when they couldn’t get jobs.
But the U.S. is safer than other places, right? There isn’t real antisemitism in the U.S. These assumptions were tested by a series of three attacks on Jews since 2018:
• Murder of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018.
• Murder of 1 Jew in a San Diego-area synagogue during the Passover holiday in 2019.
• Murder of 4 at a kosher grocery in New Jersey in December 2019.
“You,” one of the girls stammered, “you—you have blond hair!” …“I thought Hitler said you all were dark.” (xiii)
These three deadly attacks prompted Dara Horn to write this book. Before these three attacks, Horn had been writing novels about Jewish life.
"I fought hard to keep everything as autonomous as possible, making sure to tell the stories of how Jews had lived and what they had lived for, rather than how they had died. … By the end of 2018, after a massacre of Jews in our more perfect union that hardly came from nowhere, the only thing my readers, students, colleagues, and editors wanted me to talk about was dead Jews. I became the go-to person for the emerging literary genre of synagogue-shooting op-eds — a job I did not apply for, but one that I accepted out of fear of what someone less aware of history might write instead." (xix)
By the third attack, she was done commenting on Jewish deaths for American non-Jews.
"After the first attack in Pittsburgh, I was devastated. After the second attack in San Diego, I was angry. But after the third attack near my home and the season of horror that followed, I simply gave up." (216)
Dara doesn’t really give up. She does what Jewish people have done for generations: she redoubles her efforts to prepare her children for life in a cruel world and she looks for solace and strength in the wisdom of those who have come before her.
Biblical images on the left by James Tissot via The Jewish Museum / A gift of the heirs of Jacob Schiff
Dara is an award-winning novelist, and it shows in this non-fiction book. Her narrative style is easy to read or listen to. Her angry, sarcastic tone at first pulled me in, like when you have that friend who complains about the hardships of life in a witty but cutting way. You laugh at the turns of phases even as you wince at the brutal truth.
I got a bit bogged down in two of the latter chapters which comment on a project documenting abandoned Jewish spaces in majority Muslim countries and the problems with for-profit Holocaust education exhibits. I like hearing stories about people, and while her commentary on these projects is important, it wasn’t as compelling as when she was sketching out the lives of real people. Horn finishes strong, with two very personal stories.
Jesus is not dead. He is alive. That is the good news.
Within her commentary on how the stories of murdered Jews are used merely as a teaching device, Horn hints that Christianity has a similar problem. In a chapter titled “Everyone’s (second) favorite dead Jew”, she writes about the fascination with Anne Frank:
"The line most often quoted from Frank’s diary are her famous words, 'I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.' These words are 'inspiring,' by which we mean that they flatter us. They make us feel forgiven for those lapses of our civilization that allow for piles of murdered girls — and if those words came from a murdered girl, well, then, we must be absolved, because they must be true. That gift of grace and absolution from a murdered Jew (exactly the gift that lies at the heart of Christianity) is what millions of people are so eager to find in Frank’s hiding place, in her writings, in her 'legacy.'" (9)
In the chapter title and this quote, we infer that “everyone’s favorite dead Jew” is Jesus. Our rebuttal is that Jesus is not dead. He is alive. That is the good news. While there were many who claimed to be the messiah who were executed by Rome, Jesus is the only one who rose again in resurrection life. He, and not Anne Frank, can offer forgiveness and absolution because his resurrection proves him to be the Son of Man (Dan 7:13-14) and the Son of God (Ps 2).
However, let’s not dismiss Horn and the probing question that her whole book is asking her fellow Americans and especially American Christians: Does Jesus’ life and death have any bearing on how we treat our living, breathing Jewish neighbors in the 21st century? Does knowing about the Holocaust stir your heart in compassion for those who must lock their synagogue doors before they can start worshiping? After reading about yet another antisemitic attack in our “melting pot” nation, will you have the courage to call out that friend who keeps telling antisemitic jokes? For the sake of our favorite resurrected Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, we must care more for the Jewish people living among us.
The Rev. Cariño Casas is the Executive Director of CMJ USA. She joined the CMJ family in 2014 as the media coordinator of Christ Church Jerusalem. She has a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Trinity School for Ministry and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Texas A&M University. She is the deacon at Grace Anglican Church in Edgeworth, Pennsylvania.
This review by Reverend Cariño Cases was very insightful and really touched my heart! It definitely made me want to read this book! I found myself getting “choked up” as I read the truths she explained that are happening in our world, mainly the USA at this time. It also caused me to want to send the book to other Jews. For sure, the title of the book is an eye catcher. Thank you Reverend Cases for sharing your review here! I really enjoyed it!
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