Name changing was often not a rejection of Judaism, but rather a recognition of the power of America’s antagonism toward Jews.
Ernest Hemingway claimed that “a writer’s job is to tell the truth.” The thought goes back a long way. About 25 centuries earlier, Confucius wrote that “Wisdom depends on calling things by their proper names.” That sounds easy, but somehow, people get distracted. We do not see an event that happens in front of our eyes until a sharp-eyed writer names it truly.
A sharp-eyed writer means someone like Dara Horn.
Horn, a celebrated novelist (who also earned a Ph.D. at Harvard in Yiddish, Hebrew and English literature), in these essays focuses on the evasions we use to avoid recognizing antisemitism. The collection earns its shocking title, People Love Dead Jews. Each essay focuses on different circumstances, but in all the circumstances, we have trouble noticing hatred against Jews and find uplifting lessons we can learn from the murder of Jews.
Hate crimes happen with disheartening frequency all around the world, and journalists routinely write stories about the latest violence against Blacks, gays, Muslims, Asians, Jews and other stigmatized groups.
When reporting about hate crimes against Chasidic Jews, Horn notes, journalists often include a paragraph putting the crime in context: They report that ethnic tensions have grown in this changing neighborhood in reaction to an influx of Jews … or words to that effect.
Horn notes that this contextualizing happens even when the perpetrator of the crime does not come from the neighborhood, and even when the neighborhood has shown no other signs of ethnic tension. Horn acidly translates the terminology of “changing neighborhood” and “influx of Jews” as: “In other words, the cause of bloodthirsty antisemitic violence … Jews, living in a place! Sometimes the Jews who live in a place buy land on which to live” (page 211. Italics are Horn’s).
Of course, journalists do not typically provide contextualizing paragraphs about attacks against Blacks, gays, Muslims or Asians. That would be blaming the victim and gaslighting. Contextualizing what Jews have done to provoke hate crimes deserves the name of antisemitism.
In the 20th century, thousands of Jews turned to American courts to petition to have their names changed. They explained they wanted names that would not sound foreign, that other Americans could spell and pronounce. With these more American-sounding names, people could more easily fit in to America. The courts generally allowed Epstein to become Evans, Levi to become Lewis, Finkelman to become Fields and so on. The petitioners avoided mentioning antisemitism, but Horn names antisemitism as the driving force that compelled name changes. She notes with ironic precision that some Americans did not change their hard-to-spell foreign-sounding names and still achieved some measure of success with names like Eisenhower and Roosevelt.
Horn notes that many of the people who felt they had to change their recognizably Jewish names did not intend to abandon their Jewish commitments. They remained active in the Jewish community.
Name changing was often not a rejection of Judaism, but rather a recognition of the power of America’s antagonism toward Jews. Rather than admit that ugliness about America, families then told their children the soothing falsehood that their names were inadvertently changed at Ellis Island. Horn records, though, that Ellis Island had a staff of multilingual experts who checked travelers’ names against the names on ships’ manifests. Names did not get changed at Ellis Island. The soothing story preserves America’s good name as a haven for Jewish immigrants and covers the shame of those who feel embarrassed at having abandoned their family names.
Horn calls things by their proper names, but she, perhaps uncharacteristically, sympathizes with those who distorted the story of how they got their American-sounding last names. She notes that Jewish communities around the world preserve wishful legends about how their friendly non-Jewish neighbors welcomed the Jews who first came to this place.
Sites around the world that once had Jewish communities now make expensive efforts to reconstruct their now-empty synagogues and study halls, and even to build new museums of local Jewish culture. Leaders hope to attract tourists — primarily Jewish tourists — to view these memorials with nostalgia and affection.
Horn herself travels to these venues, but they leave her feeling queasy. The memorials to a once-thriving Jewish community do not feature exhibits about what happened to make the Jews disappear. Somehow, these venues have warm nostalgia for the Jews who used to live here, but only after those Jews have been murdered or at least driven away.
One example of a memorial to a departed Jewish community: In 1896, when the Czarist regime built the Trans-Siberian Railway, the planners needed a hub in Manchuria, a frozen land adjoining Siberia. Industrialists could build a town where none existed, but which wealthy industrialists would want to live there? The czar’s minister of finance had a brilliant idea: Jews who needed to flee the Russian’s own pogroms and antisemitic laws. Wealthy Jews did build the hub, the city of Harbin, and poor Jews joined them, especially after the Russian Revolution; so, Harbin became a home to thousands of Jews, until it wasn’t.
Japan conquered Manchuria in 1931, and, with help from anti-Communist White Russians, claimed Jewish-owned businesses. The Soviets took over in 1945 and sent Jewish leaders to the gulag. When the Chinese conquered Manchuria in 1949, they allowed the remaining Jews to leave for Israel, if they would abandon all their property. Now Harbin, with its one returned Jew, works at building an affectionate memorial to its long-departed Jewish community. Visiting Harbin leaves Horn uncomfortable.
Horn asks, how did the diary of Anne Frank become the best-known account of the genocidal war against the Jews? How did one sentence become the most-often quoted, the “lesson” of Anne Frank’s work? Anne Frank wrote, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” Horn notes that these words “flatter us. They make us feel forgiven.”
Horn writes, “Frank wrote about people being ‘truly good at heart’ before meeting people who weren’t. Three weeks after writing these words, she met people who weren’t.”
Holocaust museums around the world also make Horn feel uncomfortable, though she passionately believes we do need to learn and remember the facts. Whenever she detects a lesson to be learned, though, Horn gets that queasy feeling. If we learn the details of how Jews were killed, without devoting much attention to how Jews lived and live, we can come to know those Jews as “people whose sole attribute was that they had been murdered and whose murders served a clear purpose, which was to teach us something” (xiv).
Other essays in People Love Dead Jews focus on Varian Fry, the American diplomat who heroically saved dozens of the greatest musicians, writers and thinkers of Europe. An American heiress named Mary Jane Gold (not Jewish) provided funding the American government would not for the effort to save people whose “art had put them in danger.”
Fry’s life went downhill after the war and, as Horn demonstrates, the artists he had saved did little to help him. Horn notes that “it is easy to forget there are other values a culture might maintain, other people whom one could consider the guardians of civilization instead of artists and intellectuals — and that a large proportion of the people who were actually murdered in the Holocaust adhered to one of these alternatives.”
She continues: “No rescue committee was convened on behalf of the many people who devoted their lives and careers … to the actual study of righteousness” (164-65).
Read Dara Horn’s essay collection People Love Dead Jews. The book can help us learn to call things by their proper names.