Faculty Spotlight: An Interview with Dara Horn
The Dara Horns of this world don’t come around too often. As the Straus Center’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar for the 2019-2020 academic year, she teaches a course called “When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Divine Justice and Human Creativity,” which meets for four hours every week and spans two full blocks on the schedule. She has eight people in the class.
Horn doesn’t plan her books; “I’m writing them the way you’re reading them,” she said. She may write up to 1500 words a day only to throw out the whole lot afterward (it’s a skill she said she’s honed over the last 20 years).
The five-time novelist was sharp and honest when she said, “writing is not a career choice, it’s a chronic illness.” It doesn’t matter to her if the work is good or not, but only that she is generating words. “That happens,” she said. “That’s part of the creative process. Not everything works out the way you’d hope it would.”
“You were hoping for a little quote where you could say ‘she went to Ramaz,’” she told me when I interviewed her. I actually wasn’t. Hearing that Dara Horn had gone through the public-school system and then took time to educate herself in ulpan classes at a local JCC (she was the only one not retired, and her nickname in the class was tinoket), was a breath of fresh air.
She is the “weird exception to the Pew survey.” Horn currently lives in Short Hills, New Jersey, where she also grew up. She has reached dozens of readers from various backgrounds and her informal Jewish education gave her the tools to package Jewish ideas for anyone. Unlike other children who attended synagogue Hebrew schools, Horn actually learned something from the one she attended, she said.
Horn graduated with a PhD in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006. She studied Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and although her class at Stern College for Women is listed under the English department, most of the works she teaches are in Yiddish or Hebrew (one was originally written in German).
Horn has previously taught classes at Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York in Jewish literature and Israeli History. She was also a visiting Professor at Harvard University where she taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature.
“I’ve taught in many different contexts — adult education, high school, graduate studies — this is the best class I’ve ever taught!” she said about the class she teaches at Stern. But these intellectually rigorous institutions have got nothing on YU. “I’ve felt that at other places I’ve taught, the seminar discussion is about people trying to impress me. No one is trying to impress me here, or if they are, they’re just succeeding and I’m a chump,” she quipped.
She also added that the mere fact that she is teaching at a Jewish college means that many students understand the biblical/prophetic references in the literature they discuss. “YU students are the readers who these texts are meant for,” she continued.
Horn comes from a long line of Jewish educators. Her mother got a doctorate in Jewish education and her family grew up bringing the holidays alive — acting out the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim by redoing their house on Passover into a “Plague House of Horrors,” which takes participants through the Horn’s papered basement. Her son pops out and slaughters the first born, then participants go through and “there’s 500 yards of blue yarn hanging from the ceiling and one of my other sons is there and he’s dressed as Moshe and he’s leading you through the red sea as you part this yarn,” she explained with excitement.
Horn always thought about Judaism through the prism of creativity — whether that be the plays she and her family enact or their “Plague House of Horrors.”
When she read books with references to Tanach and Gemara, she was amazed at their depth.
“Now I think it’s different,” she said. “But there was this thinness to the American Jewish literature that I grew up with which was all about Judaism as a social identity, it was not anything about the content of this tradition and I was like ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have this in English.’” So that’s what she wrote her novels about.
Judaism, to Horn, is the opposite of the American dream. Judaism is not about the individual, no matter how many lines of “If I am not for myself, who will be for me” lines exist in Jewish literature.
“Actually, the most important thing in your life happened thousands of years ago, there’s nothing you can do about it … Everything about Jewish life is about reliving the past and that the past isn’t even the past. Everything is this endless spiral.”
Photo Caption: Dara Horn lecturing at an event on the meaning of Jerusalem.
Photo Credit: YU News