Author Archives: Dara Horn

Dara Horn

About Dara Horn

Dara Horn is the author of the National Jewish Book Award-winning In the Image and The World to Come.

Orthodoxy’s Limitations

This article was written in response to Yehudah Mirsky’s working paper,
Orthodoxy’s Power
, which was presented at

the Bronfman Vision Forum’s

Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities

, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Going Against Secularism

What would be the fun of tradition if one couldn’t use it to rebel against one’s parents?

One or two generations ago, young Jews who craved their parents’ disgust went out of their way to eat pork on Yom Kippur and marry non-Jews. For those of us in our twenties and thirties, the game has changed, but only slightly.
kiryas jewish orthodoxy limitations
Since our parents or even grandparents have already intermarried or otherwise rejected a life of Torah, how can we fulfill our generational duty of pissing our parents off? The answer is clear: go to Chabad-Lubavitch, have 12 children, and then refuse to eat at Mom’s house since her food isn’t kosher enough.

Despite Yehudah Mirsky’s claim that the current rise of Jewish orthodoxy is a “mind-bending surprise,” there is nothing surprising about young people–ideological thinkers by nature–gravitating toward whatever ideology reverses the choices of their elders, whether it happens to be Puritanism or Communism. Nor is this return to religion unique to Judaism; one finds the same phenomenon in Christian and Muslim communities today.

In these young people’s eagerness to surpass what they see as the inauthenticity of their parents’ relative secularism, one can see shadows of their parents’ rejection of traditional faith thirty years prior, in favor of a way of life that at the time seemed more authentic to them. And one can look even further back to see similar religious revivals in the past, whether in the “great awakenings” of Christianity in early America, or in the invention of Hasidism in the wake of 17th century Jewish tragedies. None of this is news.

Mirsky believes that Orthodoxy has been successful because it offers its adherents answers to Kant’s three basic philosophical questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? Very religious communities undoubtedly address these questions far more thoroughly than anyone else does. And the more religious the community, the more certain the answers to these questions become.

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Criticism

A version of this article appeared on WBUR’s online exhibit for the Isaac Bashevis Singer Centennial.

Why do Yiddish readers so often hate I.B. Singer’s work, while non-Yiddish readers so often love it? The answer is revealing, and tells us more about what it means to be an American writer than most readers could ever imagine. 

Jealousy and Nostalgia

The too-easy answer, of course, is jealousy. Singer was the only Yiddish writer in the thousand-plus years of Yiddish literary history ever to support himself through writing, and his fame couldn’t help but irk Yiddish readers whose favorite writers were ignored while Singer graced the world stage as the “representative” of the Yiddish-speaking world. The almost-too-easy answer is nostalgia.

For Yiddish readers, the world of Jewish life in Eastern Europe was something they knew intimately and whose loss they had suffered wrenchingly, and to many of them, Singer’s work managed to both romanticize and trivialize it at once. Meanwhile, non-Yiddish readers simply saw a writer who they unquestioningly accepted as the mouthpiece of an “authentic” Yiddish-speaking past. But there is a deeper reason why Singer has become uniquely appealing to an audience of readers who never read his work in the original, and it is this reason that makes his fiction both so inherently divisive and so inherently compelling: his artistic approach to the problem of evil.

Demons On the Loose

Singer is often cited–sometimes with contempt, more often now with admiration–for his “amorality.” His characters are frequently demons, whether in personality or in name, sliding easily into acts of crime and passion. No one in his stories is immune to the ravages of pride and lust. Religious and social mores wither at the slightest challenge, and entire communities collapse under the banner of depravity. Goodness goes unrewarded, while the demons always endure.

For Singer’s compromised characters, the only way to escape these forces of corruption is simply to run away–to hide oneself in a closet, like the hero in The Magician of Lublin, or to vanish into the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, like the heroes of Shadows on the Hudson or The Penitent, or to disappear, like the protagonists in “Gimpl the Fool” and Enemies, a Love Story, or, like the protagonist of Shosha, to become a Yiddish writer in New York. But even these endings are barely solutions. The demons still survive.