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The Hidden One of N.J.: Why Dara Horn Is the Best of the New Breed of Jewish Novelists

Her fourth novel, ‘A Guide for the Perplexed,’ reanimates the past without falling into the traps of ‘Shtetlworld’ nostalgia

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Horn’s notebooks, kept on a shelf in her bedroom, serve as records of her powers of observation. (Courtesy of Dara Horn)
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Dara Horn’s home, like her life, has two levels. On the higher level are rooms full of toy dinosaurs and Babar posters. On the lower one, shelves full of Yiddish and Hebrew books and Zambian carvings and wooden panels from China do battle with water guns and baby bottles. “I live a double life,” she said as she provided me with the abbreviated grand tour of her Essex County, N.J., home. “I think all parents have a double life.” Horn’s double life is just a bit more double than most other parents’; perhaps we can call it her quadruple life. The relevant statistics: age 36; four children; and, with the publication of her new book, A Guide for the Perplexed, four novels.

In addition to two levels, Horn also has two desks. The first, in her bedroom, is home to a haphazard pile of books and school forms and cover mockups. The second is in her living room and is completely bare except for a slim laptop. Horn prefers working at her second desk, where the everyday concerns of her other life can be temporarily left behind. Her work day lasts from 9:30 until 2:30, when her children finish school, and she heads off in her minivan, outfitted with four car seats, to pick them up. On this midsummer day, though, her kids are in camp, and the workday has been extended for an additional hour.

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Inspired by the stranger-than-fiction story of the Cairo geniza, an archive of a millennium’s worth of letters, documents, and religious texts discovered in a Cairo synagogue in the late 19th century, A Guide for the Perplexed alternates among three interlocking stories. In the first, a contemporary software developer named Josie Ashkenazi, inventor of a program called “Genizah” that uses technology to preserve users’ memories, goes missing on a trip to Egypt. Josie is stranded in a Cairo prison, presumed dead after a grisly video of her abduction is released. In the second, 19th-century Cambridge professor Solomon Schechter stumbles upon the original geniza on a research expedition to Egypt. Both Josie and Schechter link to the third plot strand, about medieval physician and religious scholar Maimonides (some of whose letters were found in the geniza), who sends his brother on an ill-fated journey to track down an asthma medication for a royal patient. The book, which shares a title with Maimonides’ legendarily forbidding philosophical text, is a meditation on memory and a working demonstration of the interlocking strands of Jewish history, the past speaking to the present. “Nothing ever really disappears,” Josie observes, “even when you want it to.”

Horn’s novels are devoted to reanimating the past; she digs into the archive of Jewish history and makes it her own, eschewing the more familiar Central and Eastern European stories of some of her contemporaries. The World to Come centers on the tormented friendship between Marc Chagall and Yiddish novelist Der Nister, and All Other Nights is set among Jewish Confederates during the Civil War. Horn is embracing her own, livelier brand of Jewish history, embodied in the joys of discovering—and creating—the past anew. “Even now that we are old women,” two British explorers tell Schechter in Guide, “we treasure that tiny discovery of a world that was. Even if it was a world that wasn’t.”

Horn and I headed out to her garden to talk, and on our way out, she offered me free use of the impressive array of Nerf baseball bats strewn on the ground, in case our interview grew unexpectedly argumentative. “My siblings and I had this theory that my parents were spies,” Horn said of her childhood. Her parents, a dentist and a high-school teacher, regularly took her and her three siblings (her sisters are both writers, and her brother is an Emmy-winning animator) to far-flung destinations across the globe, and no trip was complete without a visit to a Jewish point of interest: a synagogue in Peru, or one in a museum in Shanghai. She was encouraged to keep a journal of their travels as a parental management technique on long plane flights. By the time she was in high school, Horn had published articles in Hadassah magazine based on her journal entries.

Heading into her freshman year at Harvard, Horn believed herself destined for a career in journalism and spent her college summers interning at magazines like The New Republic and Time. But she had also developed an interest in Hebrew as an adolescent, studying it after school at her local JCC without telling any of her friends. (“Living a double life seems to be continuous throughout my life,” said Horn.) After graduating, Horn got engaged and won a fellowship to spend a year studying Hebrew in England. Boredom unexpectedly led to her trying her hand at fiction and to her first novel: “I’m not interested in soccer or beer, so it cut me out of most of the social life in England.” Horn told her husband she would not have any children until her first novel was published. The strike did not last very long; her first book, In the Image, came out when she was 25.

Horn pursued a doctorate at Harvard and was teaching full-time at Sarah Lawrence before family commitments pushed her toward making a choice between fiction and academia. “I did realize you can have a child and have a career,” Horn said, “but you can’t have a child and have two careers.” The Schechter character in Guide can be seen as an echo of her own academic pursuits, as well as of the link between scholarship and mortality. “As he glanced at the dust that had caused his trouble,” Horn writes of Schechter, surrounded by the crumbling documents of the geniza, “it occurred to him that his body would ultimately become something just like it, that the bodies of every person alive would ultimately become something just like it, that every human being, in the end, becomes the opposite of an archive.”

Horn’s work bears a distinct resemblance to recent books with a Jewish lilt like Nicole KraussThe History of Love and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but she politely takes issue with what she views as their longing for shtetl life. “Those kinds of books, they often don’t feel right. It’s not just about some detail they have wrong,” said Horn. “What feels wrong to me about them is either they often sentimentalize the Jewish past or romanticize the Jewish past. There’s a nostalgia that’s often—not always, but often—built into such books.”

Sidestepping the familiar stories of Eastern Europe, Horn also dismisses what she sees as their artificial warmth. “Shtetlworld,” as Horn calls it in a short story, “is not a place where you’d want to live. It’s really, really, really not a place where you’d want to live. It’s like living in a small village in Afghanistan.” The disinterest in longing for a vanished Eastern Europe stems from Horn’s own studies in Yiddish, which revealed the rot eating away at Jewish life even before the Holocaust, and from her own sense of the lifeless brand of Judaism endemic to her 1980s childhood. “It reminds me of that anemic element of the way I grew up in a community where it was like, here’s Jewish history: There was a shtetl, and there was a Holocaust, and now there’s Israel.”

Her differences with them notwithstanding, Horn is part of a new generation of Jewish novelists who write specifically Jewish stories—as opposed to the more deliberately integrationist stories of Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and other notable Jewish writers of the postwar era. Horn noted that she grew up in the same town as Brenda Patimkin from Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, who got a nose job in order to fit in better at Radcliffe. As a student at Harvard some 40 years later, Horn studied Yiddish instead.

On our way to town, where we ate late in the hopes of missing the ladies who lunch, Horn pointed out the neighborhood country club, once barred to Jews in the days of Goodbye, Columbus—and now integrated. Horn remembered being one of the few grade-school girls not invited to participate in a local school of manners: “It was this prestigious thing. And they did not invite Jewish kids to be in these classes,” she said. Recently, Horn’s oldest daughter was sent an invitation to the very same school. Roth’s New Jersey is apparently no longer. Horn said she appreciates the Jewish writers of a preceding generation—“they created an audience for Jewish literature in English”—but feels no particular affinity for their work: “They were writing a story not any more familiar to me than Junot Diaz talking about Dominican immigrants in Paterson.”

In his book How Fiction Works, James Wood pays tribute to classic novelists as “great noticers.” His theory is borne out by Horn’s notebooks, kept on a shelf in her bedroom, which serve as diaries, scrapbooks, and records of her powers of observation. In them, alongside transcriptions of stories told by her friends and ideas for titles for imaginary thrillers she is unlikely ever to write (Murders and Acquisitions?), are letters to the editor snipped out of the New York Times, records of her impressions of places like the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, notes jotted in Hebrew, and lists of books to read. The notebooks serve as source material for her novels, with ideas and images borrowed for use as necessary. One entry, scribbled during the process of writing A Guide for the Perplexed, reads, “I am 260 pages into this book and I am still feeling severely lost.”

Horn uses her notebooks for inspiration, as well as for jotting down crucial scenes from the books she is working on. “My brother’s an animator, and they have something in animation called key frames,” said Horn. The key frames are the drawings of essential actions in a given scene—standing up, throwing a punch, falling over—leaving the grunt work, all the intermediary drawings necessary to provide the illusion of motion, until later. “I handwrite key frames, key scenes,” she explained, filling in the rest later on her computer.

Horn’s novel, following the lead of Maimonides, and of the original Guide to the Perplexed, explores the clash of predestination and free will. If God knows all, how can we reasonably claim to have agency in our own lives? The historical novelist’s task is hemmed in by the same constraints. Horn has free will to write as she pleases, but only within the limits established by her characters’ real lives. Maimonides cannot become the king of Spain, or a brigand. “I feel like I don’t have any leeway at all,” Horn said. “At the same time, you can’t write without inventing.” A passage toward the end of A Guide for the Perplexed unites the author with her characters—explorers of genizas, past and present, paper and electronic—as demiurges: “Looking back at the past, no matter how false that past might be, allows a person to become like God.”

Dara Horn and family
Horn with her husband Brendan Schulman and children Eli, Ari, Ronen, and Maya. (Courtesy of Dara Horn)

Readers might assume that Horn scans her shelves for inspiration, selecting some new little-known nugget of Jewish history and smoothing it into novel form. The reality is much messier and less easily summarized. “The books are like children, in that having written one doesn’t make writing the next one any easier,” she explained. “Because it’s a new set of problems, and a new set of challenges with each one, and having dealt with one before means that you now know how to do it.” A project about a woman who travels back in time to work as a maid in her own home never fully blossomed. Neither did her husband’s suggested money-making scheme of writing a Jewish vampire novel.

Asked whether she has another project lined up, Horn nodded. “Keeping my children fed and clothed. Making sure they don’t grow up to be jerks.” Her oldest son, who enjoys writing books about a superhero and his entourage, has already critiqued his mother for what he viewed as her paltry output—an impetus, perhaps, to getting back to that bare desk, those notebooks, that laptop, and that slot from 9:30 in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. Now it was time for Horn to get behind the wheel of her minivan and pick up her children from camp. The double life beckoned.

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The Hidden One of N.J.: Why Dara Horn Is the Best of the New Breed of Jewish Novelists

Her fourth novel, ‘A Guide for the Perplexed,’ reanimates the past without falling into the traps of ‘Shtetlworld’ nostalgia