Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed and the National Jewish Book Award-winners In the Image and The World to Come, spoke at the University of Washington’s Stroum Lectures alongside Amherst professor Ilan Stavans May 23–24. She spoke with Jewish in Seattle about what Hebrew means to her writing and to her identity.
Jewish in Seattle: What is your connection to Hebrew?
Dara Horn: I always had a personal and visceral connection to Hebrew similar to the connection that Jews have felt to Hebrew for thousands of years. It wasn’t part of my life in the way it is for contemporary Israelis, but it was part of my life in the way that it has been for Jews for thousands of years — not as a spoken language, but a spiritual language. I think there is this continuity in studying Hebrew as a child and coming to learn it better as an adult. Where it was an afterschool activity when I was a child going to Hebrew school, I later became aware of this greater sort of emotional and cosmic significance of this language. Hebrew is something that is powerful and moving to me in a religious way.
So, for you, Hebrew is a sacred language?
In Hebrew, the word for sacred means “separated.” In many ways, it is the opposite of sacred, because Hebrew is connecting you. It creates a presence of the past, which I think American life is designed to avoid. We have this myth in American life that it doesn’t matter who your parents are or what your background is, it just matters what opportunities you take. On the other hand, we have this founding myth of Jewish life of being given the Torah in a way that keeps us constantly connected with the past. It’s not that one of these myths is true and the other one isn’t; what is interesting to me is how contradictory they are. American culture is based on newness, where only the most recent things matter. When you study Hebrew, you have this connection to something that is telling you exactly the opposite about your place in the world. That tension animates my writing.
How has that tension played out in your work?
All languages have their own archaeologies of belief. As an English-language writer, I’m working in a language that is designed for the erasure of the past, though I’m always dealing with the presence of the past — with history and memory. For example, when I went through the Hebrew translation of A Guide for the Perplexed, I had this strange feeling that I was reading the original. It was very eerie to read through it and see that this is what I meant.
Are you working on anything new?
I just signed a contract for book number five and I’m halfway done. Let’s just say that it deals with this question of the presence of the past in contemporary life. It deals with Jewish history. All my novels are about the problem of time, and what time means, and how we experience it, and how the essence of time is not as linear as we think it is.
Local and Notable
Recent works by Northwest Jewish authors
Carolina Israelite: How Harry Goldin Made Us Care about Jews, the South, and Civil Rights
(U of North Carolina P, 2015)
Portland-based writer Kimberly Marlowe-Hartnett explores the eccentric life of Harry Goldin, the activist, satirist, and newspaper publisher.
Jews Against Themselves
UW professor emeritus Edward Alexander analyzes the groups of modern Jews who subscribe to anti-Zionism, as well as the recent growth of traditional anti-Semitism.
Jewish Peoplehood: An American Innovation
(Rutgers UP, 2015)
UW Jewish Studies chair Noam Pianko studies the concept of Jewish peoplehood, claiming it’s less of a timeless idea and more of a 20th-century innovation.
Marty Jaffee, UW professor emeritus, provides a new translation of fourth-century rabbinic commentaries on Deuteronomy, focusing on the rhetoric and performative dimensions.