Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews: Tales from a Haunted Present is the book that launched a thousand Jewish podcasts. Through a series of essays, Horn explores how comfortable the world is with dead, victimized, and marginalized Jews. The world is far less comfortable, she expounds, with vibrant Jews, physically strong Jews, and a robust Jewish identity dripping with content.
The book scolds a non-Jewish world that accepts milquetoast Jews and the remembrances of dead Jews. It is also an implicit warning to Jewish leaders and educators, challenging us to build a community that is fully alive and not simply producers of the anti-Semitism “disaster porn” industry. I devoured the book in 48 hours.
Two experiences in the month since have reminded me that, while I weep for dead Jews, I love living Jews.
Kansas City is only the second home to the world-renowned exhibit “Auschwitz: Not long ago. Not far away.” The exhibit is produced by the Spanish company, Musalia, and its only other American stop has been at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage. Horn also profiles this exhibit (from its New York installation) in her book.
It is a stunningly good exhibit, and a coup for a city the size of Kansas City to host it at our Union Station. It is even more impressive that 250,000 Kansas-Citians have gone through, including dozens of multifaith clergy groups hosted by our local Jewish Community Relations Bureau | AJC chapter. When I visited, I was proud of the Jewish community’s presence and grateful for the broad cross-section of visitors. But that same evening, I witnessed something even more inspiring.
At a neighborhood clubhouse, I officiated a “new normal” shiva service for two dozen masked congregants and another 20 participants on a big-screen TV via Zoom. The deceased was the child of a survivor, and nearly all the attendees were children and grandchildren of survivors (and one lone survivor, as well). After the final kaddish, the adult children of survivors began sharing memories with each other in person and through the screen. They recalled the card games played by their “New American” parents, the carpools to religious school, the new Jewish lives they had built together on new soil. These were the children of parents who came with nothing but nightmares, and realized the American dream for themselves and their offspring. These New Americans built up the synagogues, the day school, and the whole Jewish community.
A child of survivors in my synagogue told me recently: “The generation that fled Europe and rebuilt their lives again is as important to the history of the Jewish people as the generation that fled Egypt and received the Torah in the Sinai desert.”
Two weeks later, I flew to my previous hometown, Dallas, Texas. Before COVID, the community had completed the enormous Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. I wanted to see it, but only if I could see it with a dear friend and adopted grandmother figure, Magie Furst. Magie had survived the Shoah because of the kindertransport. More eyepopping than the museum itself was watching Magie walk the entire building for two hours without sitting down once. The museum artfully highlights local survivors and distinctively sheds light on the Nuremberg trial and universal human rights.
When we came to the kindertransport exhibit, our guide, Veronique Jonas pointed out the picture of Magie as a young girl. A class from the local nursing school, there as part of their medical ethical training, looked on. As they realized that the girl on the wall and the woman with the walker were one and the same, they fell silent. You could almost see the connections being made in their minds in real time, that this wasn’t a museum — Magie was a real person, their neighbor, who had built her life in Dallas.
Before leaving, we stopped by the museum offices, still sparkly and neat, with rows of double-screened workstations staffed by budding historians, graphic artists, and museum educators. When Magie entered, she was a celebrity; my family was clearly not the only one to adopt her as honorary bubbe. Magie asked about every staff member’s partner or spouse or children, and how they had all been faring through the pandemic. Seeing the love of our 90-something companion for these awesome young staff members was better than any museum exhibit.
In the beloved Yehuda Amichai poem, “Tourists,” the poet becomes the mark for a Jerusalem tour guide. He concludes with:
Redemption will come only if their guide tells them,
“You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it,
left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
I want a museum for Jewish resilience and renaissance. Must we exclusively remind ourselves of the Nazis that potentially lurk inside each one of us? Do we need to continually debate whether our museums should impart either a distinctly Jewish narrative of unique persecution or a universal story of man’s inhumanity to man?
I am worn down by hearing only the details of how evil takes place, and I want to learn the lessons of replanting seeds in new soil. How do you pick yourself up? What did your parents and grandparents teach you that gave you this strength? What was the energy source that propelled you to new shores to build, and rebuild, and still rebuild again? How did you become a force for love after living in the face of such hatred?
Such hope our people needed to find love in a DP camp, and to start a family without knowing what the next day would bring. Such courage it took to learn Spanish in Buenos Aires, French in Montreal and Paris, English in America, and Hebrew in Israel. Such strength was required to learn a new trade, to build a new business, to start all over. How did you do it?
To paraphrase the poet Amichai, redemption will come only when a Holocaust museum also tells us:
You see that replica of Arbeit Macht Frei? That’s not important, but look out the window. There’s the child of a survivor getting his daughter into a car, taking her to a bat mtizvah lesson.