Adar I: The Month of Joy

Set into the corner of an old building, a tile reads "Barrio de la Juderia 1492" above another tile with a Star of David and menorah design

I had a lot to say in Tevet about anger—somehow, joy feels harder. This year, Rosh Chodesh comes right on the heels of International Holocaust Memorial Day, which, though the Hebrew months move around on the Gregorian calendar, is always celebrated on January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz. That’s to say, the month of joy doesn’t always begin five days after one of the most solemn days of the year, but this year, it does.

Joy certainly can feel hard to come by these days. News broke on the 27th of a school district in Tennessee which had banned the graphic novel “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s testimony of his parents’ experience surviving Auschwitz—and his mother’s subsequent suicide. Both days this weekend, neo-Nazis rallied in Orlando, FL, less than two hours from where I used to live. Two weeks ago, a gunman held four hostages in a Texas synagogue. He allegedly believed his actions would attract the attention of the all-powerful global Jewish cabal, which would mobilize to give him whatever he asked in exchange for the hostages.

None of this is joyful. At all. My apologies if you came here expecting a post about joy. I suppose the title might have been misleading. But I encourage you not to click away, even though it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Because what was worse—for me, at least, watching events unfold from a safe distance—was the way each of these three incidents transformed immediately into a political football.

It’s true, what Dara Horn asserts in the title of her newest book: People Love Dead Jews.

I spent my weekend reading People Love Dead Jews. The inside flap calls it “a startling and profound exploration of how Jewish history is exploited to appease the living.” I’d expand that to include the Jewish present.

I read this book and I felt—depressing as it sounds (and it was)—slightly less alone.

Horn opens with some statements that might startle a non-Jewish reader. In an anecdote about a high school quiz bowl and some startlingly misinformed roommates, she writes in her introduction:

But in their entirely typical and well-intentioned education, they had learned about Jews mainly because people had killed Jews. Like most people in the world, they had only encountered dead Jews: people whose sole attribute was that they had been murdered, and whose murders served a clear purpose, which was to teach us something. Jews were people who, for moral and educational purposes, were supposed to be dead.

Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews, xiv

This is not at all startling to me, a Jewish reader. In fact, it makes all too much sense. This is why Governor Ron DeSantis uses the Orlando rallies as a political opportunity to tout his record of supporting Israel rather than issuing a statement condemning the literal Nazis in his state. (And what does Israel have to do with Florida anyway, other than as a place Jews can go so that they’re not in Florida?)

Horn shares another anecdote in which a reader demands an “uplifting” and “joyful” story about dead Jews—one at which people can “laugh” and presumably feel good about themselves for connecting emotionally to the Jewish plight. This is not surprising to me, either. It’s the reason “Maus” was pulled from Tennessee schools. “This is disturbing imagery,” said Spiegelman in an interview on Holocaust Remembrance Day. “But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”

Parallel structure demands I write about the Texas gunman now, but frankly, I don’t have it in me.

What I want to write about instead is another section of Horn’s book that grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go.

Six years ago last week, I was in Toledo, Spain, visiting the famed synagogues of their Jewish Quarter. They’re remarkable for how well they’ve been preserved. Most of them are museums now; a thriving tourist industry has grown up around them, selling all manner of Judaica. Or, I should say, Judaica lookalikes. You can get a piece of ceramic shaped like a mezzuzah, complete with a painted shin and star (or a bearded rabbi, if you prefer), but there’s no room inside for a klaf.

You see, there are no Jewish in Toledo.

When Dara Horn writes about her experience visiting the former Jewish community of Harbin, China, she might have been describing my experience in Spain. She puts it, quite eloquently, like this:

There is a tourist-industry concept, popular in places largely devoid of Jews, called “Jewish Heritage Sites.” The term is a truly ingenious piece of marketing. “Jewish Heritage” is a phrase that sounds utterly benign, or to Jews, perhaps ever so slightly dutiful, suggesting a place that you surely ought to visit—after all, you came all this way, so how could you not? It is a much better name than “Property Seized from Dead or Expelled Jews.” By calling these places “Jewish Heritage Sites,” all those pesky moral concerns—about, say, why these “sites” exist to begin with—evaporate in a mist of goodwill.

Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews, 22-23

I came to Spain full of excitement, part of a college class that would be spending three weeks in Spain and ten days in Israel with the intention of studying Sephardic history. Walking into the architectural marvels of Spain’s synagogues, I was full of awe—until I began to realize, with a sinking feeling, that most of these docents and tour guides had never met a living Jewish Spaniard before. Reading about my own culture and traditions in dusty museum displays—written exclusively in the past tense—I had the bizarre sensation of being a time-traveler, or a fossil come to life.

Horn talks about this, too. She continues, better than I can:

And not just goodwill, but goodwill aimed directly at you, the Jewish tourist. These non-Jewish citizens and their benevolent government have chosen to maintain this cemetery or renovate this synagogue or create this museum purely out of their profound respect for the Jews who once lived there (and who, for unstated reasons, no longer do)—and out of their sincere hope that you, the Jewish tourist, might someday arrive. But still, you cannot help but feel uncomfortable, and finally helpless, as you engage in the exact inverse of what Benjamin of Tudela once did: instead of traveling the world and visiting Jews, you are visiting their graves.

Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews, 23

In 2015, over five centuries since the expulsion, the Spanish government announced that they would be providing citizenship to any Jewish person who could provide proof of their Sephardic ancestry. It would be, they promised, a form of reparations for the terrible crimes committed against the Sephardic people during the Inquisition.

Then, in 2019, Spain stopped accepting applications. By 2021, rejections began pouring in.

They never said why. Maybe they realized that pledging reparations to dead Jews was slightly more glamorous than learning to accommodate living ones. And in a country that’s X% Catholic (by design) and whose national foods are all exceedingly non-kosher (again, by design), that’s no mean feat.

Maybe Spain, like so many others, preferred the Jews who were a teaching tool. Who stayed quiet and didn’t protest at the way their stories were being told. Who could be locked back up in the museum at night, safely out of the way, asking for nothing, needing nothing, challenging nothing, when the day’s lessons were over.

In short, who were dead.

Our class took us to museums and synagogues, on walking tours and through heritage sites. We attended presentation after presentation on the Inquisition, and even a handful of concerts in Ladino. We visited Toledo, Madrid, Seville, and Cordova—but we didn’t visit Barcelona, the city with the largest living Jewish community in Spain. I didn’t even know there was a living Jewish community in Spain.

Why not? I had the same question as Dara Horn: “What…was the point of caring so much about how people died, if one cared so little about how they lived?”

Because there is a Jewish community in Barcelona. It’s not just living, it’s thriving. Four synagogues serve the diverse diasporic community, which—COVID notwithstanding—will be hosting its 24th annual Jewish Film Festival. Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jewry, is experiencing a similar renaissance as Yiddish—resources abound for online lessons, forums, radio stations, newspapers, speakers’ groups, and even a handful of university courses.

And here’s where we come back to joy. Because if what people love most is dead Jews, the best way form of resistence is living.

Living joyfully.

We are not a teaching tool. We are not a national tragedy. We are not a political football or a talking point or a cautionary tale about the depths of the human potential for cruelty.

We thrive wherever the Diaspora has scattered us. Our traditions have endured through thousands of years of exiles and genocides and forced assimilation. Our celebrations—religious and secular—are nothing more or less than the expression of our fundamental human joy at being alive.

It’s not always easy to feel joy. I read People Love Dead Jews this weekend for a reason—but that’s not the only kind of Jewish book. There’s Jewish romance. Jewish comedy.

Jewish fantasy.

(Hey—isn’t that what I’m writing?)

5782 is a leap year, which means we get two Adars, two months of joy. Maybe that’s exactly what we need.

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