Out of this world
In new novel Short Hills native Dara Horn builds bridges from earth to heaven, now to then
When a painting was stolen from The Jewish Museum in New York during a singles cocktail party in 2001, the story was in all the papers. Art heists make good copy, and this one was particularly colorful: The theft was not discovered until late the next morning, the painter was the whimsical and popular Marc Chagall, and a ransom note received soon after threatened that the painting would not be returned until there was peace in the Middle East.
Some readers probably thought of Topkapi or The Thomas Crown Affair. Dara Horn, however, author of the recently published The World To Come and a student of Yiddish literature, had a different take. When I read about this theft, she said in an interview at a coffee shop a few blocks from her New York City home, I thought of all the writers I knew who had their work illustrated by Chagall. After a pause, she made another connection: The painting was stolen it took the museum a whole day to notice the painting missing, but [in the real world], stories written by Yiddish writers have been stolen and plagiarized. She relishes the chance to redress old wrongs. Her book puts Yiddish stories, some of them making a first appearance in English, front and center.
In Horns art-imitates-life novel, the author Benjamin Ziskind impulsively steals a Chagall painting at a museum party, triggering the dramatic events that follow. Horn tells Ziskinds story and that of many others, including his twin sister, Sara; their Russian parents; the young Chagall in his native Russia; and Erica Frank, a museum staff member who finds Ziskind both attractive and reprehensible and intersperses the central narrative with excerpts from Yiddish stories that I have translated from the Yiddish. The title World To Come revives these works for this world, she explained.
Horn grew up in Short Hills with her father, Jack, a dentist; her mother, Susan, a middle school teacher who has a PhD in Jewish studies; her two sisters, both writers; and her brother, an artist. As children, Horn and her siblings traveled on 40 or 50 trips with the family. My parents told us we were each obliged to keep a journal. I wrote down everything we saw and did. I am very grateful to my parents for making me do this. Their home was also one in which Yiddish things Jewish were very important, she said.
(Horn, in fact, had been published earlier one of her stories, about a trip to Spain written when she was 14, appeared in New Jersey Jewish News.)
The mother of a six-month-old daughter, the author is completing a doctoral program in comparative literature at Harvard University. Her required two languages are Hebrew and Yiddish, which she began learning as an undergraduate in her senior year. Studying Hebrew, she said, I realized that a lot of [early 20th-century] Hebrew writers were writing in Hebrew before it was a spoken language and thinking in Yiddish I could tell by the way they used certain words, idioms, syntax. Still, she struggles with the dichotomy between the academic and the folktale, the religious and the secular. Judaism is a religion, she said, but literature is a sacred thing.
Then she added more forcefully, highlighting one of her novels motifs, In Judaism books are a conduit between people and God. The connecting bridge is words.
Meet the author
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