Congratulations to Dara Horn, 26, a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Harvard University, whose first novel, In the Image (W. W. Norton), has been awarded the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction.
Conceived by Dr. Alexander Mauskop, a New York physician and member of Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, New York, the $5,000 award is designed to assist emerging Jewish authors who have achieved excellence in the writing of a novel or short story collection on Jewish themes.
In their evaluation, judges Sanford Pinsker (Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College), Janet Burstein (Drew University professor of literature), and Melvin Jules Bukiet (Jewish fiction writer and literary reviewer) wrote: "In the Image brilliantly combines a renewed interest in Jewish ideas with the old-as-the-hills requirements of good fiction: compelling themes, absorbing plots, characters we care about, and good writing. Modeled on what she learned from an academic study of modern Hebrew literature, Horn conjures up a world in which we feel the presence of 'a language, a literature, a held hand, an entire world lived and breathed in the image of God.'"
A Sampling from In the Image
Mr. Rosenthal began babbling on and on about the journey to America, about how you had to cross two borders with forged papers just to get to Bremen, which was a town in Germany where your ship to England was docked, and then the ship took you to Liverpool, where you boarded another ship, this time to America, and then about how horrible it was in steerage class at the bottom of the ship, how you and all the other Jews were packed in by the hundreds, piled on top of each other like packages....
After two weeks in this pit, Mr. Rosenthal finally reached the Promised Land, and he and all the other Jews on the ship crawled out of their steerage hellhole to go up on deck and see New York Harbor, the place of their dreams. They crowded over to the side of the deck as the ship pulled in right under the Statue of Liberty, and Mr. Rosenthal was as awestruck as everyone else. But then Mr. Rosenthal noticed that the other Jews on the deck weren't just looking at the Statue of Liberty. Instead they were actually pushing up to the edge of the deck, as if they were looking at something in the water. Mr. Rosenthal pushed in a little closer, and then he saw why they were all gathered on the side. They were throwing their tefillin overboard. Because tefillin were something for the Old World, and here in the New World they didn't need them anymore.
"And that is why I want you to be a deep-sea diver," Mr. Rosenthal told Jason. "I want you to dive down to the bottom of New York Harbor and bring those cast-off tefillin back up to the land." Then he collapsed on the nursing home bed.
A Conversation With the Author
Where did you grow up, and how did it influence you as a writer?
I grew up in Short Hills, New Jersey, which is probably best known for Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus. As a reader who cared about Jewish identity, that book made me so angry, because here's this spoiled girl who gets a nose job to look less Jewish so she can go to Harvard. I went to Harvard too, but to learn Yiddish!
I have to say I was frustrated and disappointed with much of the American Jewish literature of the 1960s. Roth and other writers of that generation told stories that have nothing to do with what people my age experience growing up. They were all about hating your parents and running away from Judaism. For my generation, the way to rebel against your parents is to become Orthodox.
When did you first become interested in Hebrew literature?
When I was twelve, I became a Torah reader for the junior congregation in my synagogue. Every week I had to learn the Torah portion, so I became very familiar with the text. Later I became interested in the ways that the biblical text was used by writers such as Agnon, Brenner, and Berdichevsky, who wrote in Hebrew before it had been fully revived as a spoken language. They were using all these lines from the Torah because that was the Hebrew they knew; they were writing secular books using religious sources. I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to write a book in English that is connected in this way to the Jewish tradition? This sounds very ambitious, and I can't say that I succeeded necessarily, but that's what I tried to do in my book.
When did you get the idea to write In the Image?
Just before graduating college I had won a scholarship to spend a year at Cambridge University in England. My fiancé didn't come with me; he had a job in the United States. So I was there, he was here. I was very lonely and really not into the culture of hanging out in pubs and drinking warm beer. Having a lot of time on my hands, I kept a notebook in which I wrote ideas for magazine stories. One day while on the train, I was flipping through my notebook and saw a way to tie all these ideas together. All I needed were characters to connect them. And so, even though I had never intended to write fiction, I started writing the novel.
We've excerpted a passage from In the Image describing how Jewish immigrants threw their tefillin overboard as their ship entered New York Harbor. What was the inspiration for that scene?
I first heard the story at a Hillel dinner before our graduation. One of my classmates made a speech in which he recalled a story his great-grandfather used to tell about his coming to America. When the ship pulled into New York Harbor, he and all the other immigrants went up on deck to see the Statue of Liberty and their new home. He noticed that a lot of Jewish immigrants weren't just looking out at the city; they were throwing their tefillin overboard, convinced that in the New World they would no longer need them. My friend's great-grandfather then told everyone in his family, "I want you to become a marine archaeologist so that you can go down under the ocean and bring these tefillin back up to dry land." I should mention that my friend is now actually an archaeologist. I was so intrigued by this story. It was so different from anything I'd heard in my family. I'm a fourth-generation American; all my great-grandparents were born here or came as children. I later repeated the story to several people and was shocked to discover that those who were, let's say, 75 and up had heard it before. They would say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, their tefillin, they'd throw them overboard...." I wondered if this something was that had really happened many times or if it was a cat-in-the-microwave kind of urban legend that one person heard, thought was true, and now everybody sort of knows it. Later, I came across a Yiddish poem by the American Jewish poet Jacob Glatstein which describes the same scene. At that point I still didn't know if it was a true story, but I decided it didn't matter. It resonated with people, and so I would include it in my book. Sometime later, after In the Image was published, I told the tefillin story while on a book tour in Memphis. During the question-and-answer period a very old woman raised her hand and said, "Ms. Horn, I really enjoyed your book and I just wanted to tell you I was on one of those ships when I was a little girl, and I saw people throwing their tefillin overboard."
What's the symbolic significance of this story for your novel?
Of course, it's not just tefillin that are discarded, but names, language, culture--a lot of things. One person's garbage is someone else's treasure. When I was in college I started noticing the phenomenon of people my age deciding to become more religious than their parents. And I found this to be a fascinating choice, because if you think about it, if you choose to become more religious than your parents, that means that someone in your family, however many generations back, had made the opposite choice, deciding to become less religious than their parents. What someone in your family once decided to jettison, you decide to retrieve. How interesting, I thought, that you can't really ever get rid of these things.
The tefillin might also signify Judaism. Israel means "struggles with God," and to me what's most fascinating about the Jewish tradition is the way that we are constantly struggling with it. We sort of edit it, or at least our understanding of it, retaining what we need and cutting other things away. Having a religious tradition is in many ways a blessing, but in many ways it can also be a tremendous burden. There are problems with our tradition, like there are with any tradition. That's what actually fascinated me in this story of these people throwing their tefillin overboard. I don't think they rejected religion out of ignorance. There are quite good reasons to disagree with certain religious traditions. I explore this in the chapter about the family in the tenement house, when a divorced woman falls in love with a man but cannot marry him because he is a kohen, a descendant of the ancient priestly class.
To me what's exciting about Jewish tradition is the constant engagement and confrontation with it. That's why I took the Book of Job as the main text of my novel. Job believes in God, believes in justice, believes that righteousness will be rewarded--and all these beliefs fly in his face. What's exciting and interesting to me about Job is that he doesn't just accept injustice or abandon his beliefs. He protests to God, "Why did you do this to me?" And there has to be a "you" in order to say, "Why did you do this to me?"
What's the significance of your book's title, In the Image?
I was always bothered by that idea in Genesis that man is made in the image of God, because one big thing was left out--we're not eternal. You could say the soul's eternal, but that's hardly much comfort. Then I thought, maybe that remnant of eternity within us is the impulse to record and save things, to keep journals and diaries, to take notes and pictures. Even though we can't live forever, we want to preserve the memories of what's meaningful in our lives, to keep them as long as we can. It's the closest we can come to being in the image.
What's it like being a novelist?
My husband will come home from work and over dinner he'll talk about the people he was working with during the day, and I'll talk about the people that I was working with during the day. His people are real and mine aren't, but to me, they're my colleagues.
Copyright © 2003, Union of American Hebrew Congregations