Accidents of Birth

Dara Horn is an award-winning novelist, Harvard Ph.D. in comparative literature, mother of four, and observant Jew who lives near the New Jersey town where I first encountered anti-Semitism. The deliberately provocative title of her new non-fiction book, People Love Dead Jews, is meant to “confront the reasons why there might be so much fascination with Jewish deaths, as emblematic of the worst of evils the world has to offer, and so little respect for Jewish lives.”

Dara Horn. (Photo: Brendan Schulman)

The book is a collection of twelve essays, re-appraisals of comforting narratives about Jewish tragedies. Rage occasionally pushes Horn to overstate her case, but more often it frees her to land a concussive jolt. Anne Frank is best known for the uplifting sentence “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Horn reminds us that “three weeks after writing those words, she met people who weren’t.” Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House compounds the betrayal of its namesake, forbidding an orthodox employee from wearing a skull cap for fear of seeming too Jewish. According to the foundation that runs it, the Anne Frank House “is an independent organization without religious ties.” Wow, denial much?

Which brings us to my own strategy for handling anti-Semitism: not being overtly Jewish in public.

In People Love Dead Jews, Horn argues (though not in so many words) that while every other identity group in America wallows in victimhood and demands contrition from mainstream society, Jews persist in minimizing their distinctiveness — and it’s not working. Right-wing anti-Semitism is surging; Horn notes that after the Poway (near San Diego) synagogue shooting in April 2019, most of the organizations she belongs to issued statements of regret, but only the Jewish ones added “long detailed lists of their security protocols.” Left-wing anti-Semitism is on the rise too, mainly in the form of the anti-Israel — but supposedly not anti-Semitic — BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) Movement.

Unlike Horn, I am not an observant Jew. I don’t believe in the Jewish god. I derive little comfort from Jewish rituals and holidays. I haven’t set foot inside a synagogue in years, and I lost my last vestige of illusion about Jewish exceptionalism after the Israeli Defense Force’s inexcusable complicity in the 1982 massacre of innocents at Sabra and Shatila, Lebanon.

That said, my parents were full-blooded Jews, as were their parents. I was bar-mitzvahed. I know the rituals and holidays — and some of the prayers — even if I have no use for them. What’s more, my ethos is guided by Rabbi Hillel’s summation of the Torah: do not do unto others what you would not want done to yourself. I strive to be a mensch (a man who fulfills his obligations with integrity and compassion). And I share what Horn dubs Jewish heritage, “centuries of epigenetic instincts reminding me that I am only a guest.”

This type of Judaism is common enough to have a name: secular (or sometimes cultural) Judaism. My parents made sure I received a Jewish education but never pushed me to be religious, as they weren’t very religious themselves, so for me being a secular Jew is like being male or white or American, an accident of birth, and therefore something to be neither proud nor ashamed of. And yet I’ve spent most of my life hiding it, or at least soft-peddling it. Is that not a form of shame?

Dr. Horn, you got me. I have to concede that it is.

So, what to do?

Horn finds relief from growing anti-Semitism by committing herself to reading the Talmud daily. That doesn’t work for a non-observer like me. If hiding my Judaism is an outdated survival strategy, the best alternative, I believe, is explaining myself, as I’m doing here. Ultra-orthodox Jews won’t be impressed; to them, I’m an apostate. Anti-Semites won’t be impressed either; to them, a Jew is a Jew. But I find that most people are tolerant, even welcoming, of nuance, and that acceptance is my best hope for continued safety.

I also find that most people are open to a universalism in which all of us are just vulnerable creatures with common environmental needs (air, water, food, shelter, warmth) and psychological needs (context, meaning, dignity, safety, stability). If we stick together and help each other, even when at risk to ourselves, that’s the best protection we can expect in our unhappy, volatile society — and very Jewish.

“There is in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind without exception undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated and grown will be cut down and disfigured, and mankind will have to begin all over again.”