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The thing about dead Jews

What is it about Jewish suffering that is so attractive?

A woman and her children pause Nov. 3, 2018, to take in a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue honoring the 11 people killed Oct. 27, 2018, while worshipping in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(RNS) — I never really liked working at archaeological digs in Israel. Too much dust.

Besides, I have my own archaeological dig. It’s called my files, and right about now, I am digging through them, trying to discern what to keep and what to discard.

That is how I came across a now-yellowed clipping from Esquire, November 1974. It is a long essay by the author Cynthia Ozick, with the title: “All The World Wants the Jews Dead.”

Ozick wrote that essay in the wake of the Yom Kippur War. Its subtitle: “An overwrought view from the peak of the bottom.” The piece is an anguished reflection on what had already become woefully apparent to me — that anti-Israel sentiment and antisemitism were essentially identical.

Among many prescient quotes, this one: “Jewish and Israeli are one and the same thing, and no one, in or out of Israel, ought to pretend differently any more.” While that is not demographically true, she was right — the terms “Israeli” and “Israel” were substitutions and euphemisms for “Jews.”

It is now 2021, and novelist Dara Horn has published her own set of reflections — “People Love Dead Jews: Reports From a Haunted Present.” Dara mirrors and echos Cynthia’s literary flair, her focus on Judaism and her suspicions about the Jewish place in the world.

Take a minute to compare the titles of those two works.

Ozick believed the world wanted the Jews dead — or, at the very least, that it wanted the Jewish state obliterated.

(Do I believe that? My conclusion is not as bloody as hers. It is fair enough to say that many people in the world want the Jewish state discredited.)

For Horn, it is not that the world wants the Jews dead. 

But many in the world are blasé about Jewish death, and therefore, find dead or suffering Jews to be the most sympathetic.

Consider a recent reflection by comedian Sarah Silverman. Sarah pleaded with the Squad (whose domestic politics she otherwise admires) not to defund the Iron Dome: “Please don’t defund the Iron Dome. You know my family lives there … People only really like Jews if they’re suffering. Dead Jews get a lot of honor.”

From Ozick to Horn to Silverman, the sobering truth: The world can relate to Jews who suffer. To Jews with power, not so much.

But it is not only the world that has a fascination with Jewish suffering. It is the Jews themselves.

For decades, I have been pushing back against what historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose view” of Jewish history. Throughout my career, I have noticed it was easier to raise money for Holocaust memorials than for Jewish education, and that more Jews seemed to care about how Jews died than about how Jews live.

Horn has read my mind. She notes that any Jew can name three death camps, but that almost none can name three Yiddish authors — “the language spoken by over 80 percent of death-camp victims. What, I asked, was the point of caring so much about how people died, if one cared so little about how they lived?”

In one essay, she contrasts the turnout at a rally against antisemitism with that of a celebration of the ending of a cycle of Talmud study (that essay contains some of the best descriptions of the world of the Talmud that I have ever read).

Horn makes so many salient points in this book of essays. Let me list for you my major takeaways.

There is no “context” for Jew hatred.

Horn looks at the 2019 attack on the kosher grocery store in Jersey City, quite close to where she lives. There were almost immediate choruses of hemming and hawing, with some observers saying the attack on the Orthodox Jews was really a protest against gentrification.

Never mind that the Orthodox victims were themselves refugees from the gentrification of their old neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Never mind that the murderer did not live in that neighborhood, but rather, almost randomly looked for Jewish locations to attack.

Moreover, even if the murders had been a pushback against gentrification, whence the idea that violence is an appropriate reaction to neighborhood change? She writes:

As the journalist Armin Rosen has pointed out, the apparently murderous rage against gentrification has yet to result in anyone using automatic weapons to blow away white hipsters at the newest Blue Bottle Coffee.

People said you needed to put this horror into “context.” The very idea is obscene.

Context? I was not able to find any similar “context” in media reports after the 2015 massacre at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, or the 2016 massacre at an LGBTQ nightclub in Orlando, Florida, or the 2019 massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas frequented by Latino shoppers — all hate-crime attacks that unambiguously targeted minority groups … This is hateful victim-blaming, the equivalent of analyzing the flattering selfies of a rape victim in lurid detail in order to provide “context” for a sexual assault.

Jewish stories end differently.

Many of us understand that Jews, and Judaism and Jewish culture, are “different.” How different? Horn, who is first and foremost a scholar of Yiddish literature, points out that whereas typical stories end on an up note — “They all lived happily ever after” — that is not how Jewish stories end. Jewish stories are not as uplifting as we would want them to be.

This is especially true with stories about the Shoah, and it is even more true with stories about righteous gentiles. Everyone loves Schindler’s List, but the truth is that .001% of Europeans saved Jewish lives. 

In fact, quite often, Jewish stories do not end; they stop. The Torah does not really end; it just kind of stops with the death of Moses. “In Jewish storytelling, (there is) a kind of realism that comes from humility, from the knowledge that one cannot be true to the human experience while pretending to make sense of the world,” Horn writes.

Your family’s name was not changed at Ellis Island.

You want to bring down the full wrath of a Jewish audience on your head? Try telling them: No, the people who worked at Ellis Island did not strip your great-grandfather of his European name.

And no, your ancestor was not the exception to that historical fact.

The truth is: The people who worked at immigration centers were highly literate, in multiple languages. They were not able to blithely change people’s names. They already knew the names of new arrivals. Why? Because they had the ship manifests before them.

But, no. This is the origin myth of American Jews, and as a myth, it is quite potent.

Horn says: No. She shows that it was Jews themselves who changed their own names, because they believed that more “neutral” names would lubricate their entry into America, and would be the key that would unlock the gates of opportunity.

I could have imagined Horn arguing that, in fact, it was the Jewish need to fit in that drove the name-changing thing. In other words, we changed our names because we wanted to assimilate.

Except…

Many names circulating in the United States during this period were “foreign-sounding” and “difficult to pronounce and spell” — for example, LaGuardia, Roosevelt, Juilliard, Lindbergh, DiMaggio, Vanderbilt, Earhart, Rockefeller, and Eisenhower. Yet as the remarkably low numbers of non-Jewish name-change petitioners in New York City demonstrate, such families and their forebears do not appear to have been “subject to embarrassment” or affected “socially, educationally, economically, and patriotically” by having names that were “difficult to pronounce and spell.”

In other words, it was not the desire to merely fit in. It was fear — fear that American antisemitism would prevent their family’s success. That Jews were not welcome here.

One last thing. It occurs to me that all the people whom I have cited in this essay — Ozick, Silverman and Horn — are women. Add to this the names of Deborah Lipstadt and Bari Weiss. Not to mention Horn’s dissertation adviser, Ruth Wisse.

It has long been this way, but it is only now, perhaps, that we notice: Some of the most trenchant observers of Jewish life — and especially, some of the most vociferous voices against antisemitism — are women. (Yes, her recent remarks offered Silverman an honorary key to this club.)

This is, as they say, good for the Jews.