Image Conscious

Buy the book.

Buy the book.

In the Image (W. W. Norton & Co.), the most innovative Jewish novel in a year dominated by Jewish debutante novelists with big — or at least clever — concepts, began as a puzzle. Dara Horn, the book’s author, wanted to know if it was possible to write a Yiddish novel in English, made Jewish not by oy veys and herring but by the theological and literary underpinnings of a contemporary story pinned to the past by biblical allusion. Yiddish writers — atheists, anarchists, socialists, communists — used the Bible because that’s what they had. Educated in yeshivas, they used holy words to tear down temples, and the raw materials of Judaism — its stories, its structures, even its authority — to create Yiddishkayt, a secular universe given birth by religion.

Horn, 25, is not an atheist. “My religion is the path through which I understand the world,” she told the me during a recent interview at the apartment across from Lincoln Center that she shares with her husband, Brendan Schulman, a lawyer she met at Harvard. And she’s certainly not a socialist, although her world does include the radical ideas of Yiddish writers. But just as they looked for revolution in centuries-old stories, Horn has sought preservation — a kind of philosophical conservatism might be more accurate — in their century-old writings.

A second-year graduate student studying Yiddish and modern Hebrew literature at Harvard, Horn wrote In the Image at the other Cambridge, where she’d gone on a on a yearlong fellowship after her undergraduate years (also at Harvard, where her mentor was and is the Yiddish scholar Ruth Wisse). She lived in a garret in an 18th-century home where she whiled away lonely nights wondering if the books she read for her studies could be made anew.

Others have tilled the same field and composed maudlin poetry af yidish or resolved to start all-Yiddish volleyball leagues. Horn opted for something subtler. Since she had time on her hands — Cambridge is “kind of easy,” she said — she decided to keep herself sharp by writing a novel at night. “Plus,” she said, “I don’t drink beer, which is what people do in England when they go out, so I had plenty of time to write.”

Reared by a dentist father and teacher mother in Short Hills, the New Jersey suburb made famous by Brenda Patimkin, the poor little rich Jewish girl in Philip Roth’s short story Good-bye, Columbus, Horn has pale blue eyes and rosy skin lightly veiled with freckles. Her speech is a mixture of nervousness and confidence, quick but for the punctuation of disclaimers, and yet accompanied by a strong, steady gaze. “I’m very normal,” she said. “Not some kind of crazy poet. My family is very happy.”

They have reason to be. In the Image is the big hit on the Jewish book circuit this fall, a favorite of readers concerned with “continuity” and partial to stories of nice young professional people falling in love and respecting their elders. But a clue to the novel’s ambition comes in its third chapter, when “forgivably naive” Naomi Landsmann drags her grandfather Bill to a Holocaust movie. “These movies always started with a music box,” writes Horn, “in a class with organ-grinders, clowns, carousels, and calliopes — all those forcibly happy, vaguely European things that children are supposed to love, but which really exist only to make adults feel sorry for children, who have no choice to die or grow up.”

As it happens, Naomi dies; to keep her memory alive, Bill befriends Naomi’s friend Leora, the novel’s heroine, upon whom he foists Jewish history lessons. In another departure from the conventions of sentimental fiction, Leora doesn’t embrace Bill’s dogma, but flees from it. She catches herself an all-American boy who knows nothing of the world of his fathers, only to get jilted when the boy grows a beard and becomes a ba’al teshuva, a born-again Jew.

Bad enough. But here the story, like Leora, flees from the trajectory of a coming-of-age tale by skipping back to Bill’s past, as a boy in Amsterdam, where his father has taken him in flight from the Nazis. Young Bill — Wilhelm — loathes Amsterdam’s “crooked little streets [and] crooked little buildings with hidden dead ends at every turn.” He dreams of America, his eyes wandering across the Atlantic on a map “right to left, as if reading a sentence out of the Hebrew Bible.”

Which means — what? That America is the promised land? The end of a (death) sentence that began in Europe, or further back, by the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down and wept? That no text, not even a simple map, is wholly profane? Yes. “America,” Horn said, “is where you can become what you want to be.” Wilhelm becomes Bill; Leora’s soccer-playing boyfriend, Jason, becomes diamond-cutting Yehuda. And yes, it is the end of a sentence if not all sentences, the place where a blank slide, a missing picture — hers and Bill’s memories of Naomi, her confusion over the gaps of logic so prevalent in the contemporary world — is finally revealed to Leora as an empty canvas, waiting for her.

How is it revealed? Through the machinations of plot, of course, but also sentence by sentence. Employing the technique of Yiddish writers, Horn has made a novel that is as much collage as it is new fabric, with every third word a reference to Scripture. But whereas in Yiddish the biblical allusions were obvious because they were in Hebrew, in English they hide within prose that with a few lyrical exceptions is mostly straightforward and serviceable, if not always taut. For instance, when Leora sees an old woman who “sits alone, desolate, like a widow,” Horn is citing Lamentations; when Yehuda’s wife is described as possessed of a “density of valor,” it’s a nod to Proverbs. Paging through the novel with Horn along to illuminate her own text, nearly every sentence was revealed as borrowed: mostly from the Hebrew Bible, but also from Shakespeare, Emma Lazarus, the prayers that accompany the tying of tefillin. “I don’t believe anything is ever lost,” Horn said.

Early on in the novel, a man in a nursing home tells Yehuda, then still known as Jason, that at the bottom of New York Harbor sit countless tefillin, thrown overboard by immigrants eager to leave everything about their old lives behind. Horn has the grace and confidence to leave this story where it lies, a seed in secular Jason’s mind, for 100 pages; then the tefillin resurface in a junk shop, where Leora finds them while researching a story about, appropriately enough, a “missing link” skull that also turned up in the shop. Dry bones, indeed.

As it happens, both stories are true — an ancient skull did come to light in a junk shop, and tefillin were tossed into the harbor. “Everything’s down there,” said Horn, her eyes wide at the thought. “There are reefs made of old subway cars.” In a fantastical chapter reminiscent of Bruno Schulz, Horn sends Leora down into the city beneath the city, where everything that was thrown away, on purpose or out of ignorance, still exists: butter churns, phrenology manuals, dodos, “yesterday’s political thrillers,” registers of marriages that never happened.

Even the book that In the Image might have been is down there. Or, the book it might still be: Horn’s underworld suggests that no story is ever finished, its alternative endings remaining just beneath the surface of consciousness, waiting to be salvaged, to be inverted. Yiddish writers attempted to build an enlightenment society by breaking up religion for spare parts — and succeeded in more respects than we English-speaking secularists realize. Now Horn has scavenged the ruins of religion, and of the Old Country it belonged to, in order to transform the world of those writers’ great-grandsons and -granddaughters.

Which means, as much as Horn disavows it, that In the Image is a book with a serious agenda. “I was trying to break up secularism,” Horn said. “I believe in the failure of reason. But that doesn’t mean people have no responsibility for who they are. Things happen — you know, the Holocaust, cruel parents, things like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. We can’t control the circumstances — those are God’s — but people are responsible for who they become.” Or, as Horn put it, “happiness [is] not something one finds, but makes.”

This notion, frightening in its sympathy for pure strength as a virtue, likely would have found a receptive audience among Germans of another generation. It will likely find an enthusiastic following among Jewish readers of the present day, as American in their ideas as their grandparents were once German. But just as there is a city beneath a city in Horn’s novel, there are ideas beneath ideas.

In the Image weaves in and out of the lives of Bill, Leora, Jason-Yehuda, Leah — Bill’s grandmother, an immigrant who returned to Europe — and Nadav, Bill’s father, a hateful man who commits suicide rather than engage with America. Nothing is ever easy for anyone, and beneath the love story, the coming-of-age story, the coming-to-America story, there’s a cold implication that such hardships are as it should be. Without giving away the plot, it’s safe to say that the book ends with a retelling of Job in which Leora, Jason-Yehuda, and Bill’s long-dead grandmother each play the role of one of Job’s friends, offering Job — Bill — a different reason to accept fate. Beautifully rendered — in verse, no less — the alternatives are representative of the shape of Jewish literature in America. Leora offers intellectual relativism, the Jewishness of the Upper West Side; the ba’al teshuva proposes ahistorical devotion, the Christian-like religiosity of the new Jewish puritans; Leah offers cynical resignation, the existential hopelessness of war-wracked Europe.

Guess who gets the last word? Yes, the Lord. “There has to be a ‘you’ to say, ‘Why did you do this to me?'” Horn explained.

Her novel is a peculiarly American revision of religious tradition, insistent on the divine “You” and unforgiving of the “me” who retreats into relativism, unreflective religion or cynicism. Even as In the Image wraps Judaism in the American ideology of rugged individualism, it preserves an unassimilable core of Jewishness: The truth that while Jewish practice evolves in a dozen different directions, worshiping Him/Her/It will never be simple. Our God isn’t easy.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).