Horn of Plenty: Short Hills Writer Dara Horn Explores Jewish Culture

A Jewish scholar and a Harvard PhD., novelist Dara Horn is also a happy suburban mom.

Dara Horn's son Ronen, 1, toddles into the living room, where the award-winning novelist writes.
Photos by Tom Sperduto

When Dara Horn was 14, she won a trip to Poland and Israel by acing a buzzer-beating College Bowl-type competition about Israeli history. When she returned, she wrote an essay for Hadassah magazine about visiting the sites of Nazi concentration camps. Her story was nominated for a prestigious National Magazine Award.

At the prize luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria in 1993, she recalls, “I was the only one there with braces.” She didn’t win, but two judges took her aside and confided, “You know, you beat Norman Mailer,” whose essay apparently did not make the finals.

Horn, 36, has always been an uncommonly precocious writer. Growing up in Short Hills, she and her three siblings wrote and performed satirical plays for the family’s Passover seders (Oscar Night at the Exodus). During her junior year at Harvard, she wrote an article for American Heritage on Civil War Boston that prompted a call from an editor proposing she expand it into a book. Horn demurred; she still had papers and exams to complete.

After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in comparative literature in 1999, Horn left Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a fellowship at Cambridge University, England, for a master’s in Hebrew literature. Long fluent in the language, she found the program “not very taxing,” she admits. “I was so lonely, so bored. Suddenly, I just had all this time on my hands. I had never had that, my whole life.”

Others might have embarked on a protracted pub crawl, but Horn decided to try her hand at fiction. Her maiden effort was a novel, In the Image, which W.W. Norton published in 2002, when Horn was 25.

“It turned out to be remarkable,” says Gary Morris, Horn’s agent. “It didn’t seem the work of a fledgling novelist finding her voice. She was very much in control of the effects of fiction. She has the ability to weave well-researched history into a fictional story that is both emotionally moving and philosophically engaging.”

In the Image won a National Jewish Book Award, an Edward Lewis Wallant Award and the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize. It linked the story of a young Jewish woman growing up in suburban New Jersey with that of her best friend’s grandfather, an Austrian Jew who had fled the Nazis. When the best friend dies, the young woman stops speaking and, for a time, lives through images, including those the grandfather has made of Jewish sites around the world.

In part a reimagining of the Book of Job, In the Image, Horn has said, suggests that people’s lives are shaped less by matters beyond their control than by their own choices.

Horn’s next novel, The World to Come (2006), won another National Jewish Book Award. That novel and All Other Nights (2009) earned her comparisons to Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and the Czech writer Milan Kundera. In 2007, the literary journal Granta placed Horn on its list of Best Young American Novelists.

The publication this month of Horn’s fourth novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, is sure to renew praise for her literary talent and thoughtful exploration of Jewish themes. But centered on Josie—a brilliant, beautiful and aloof young software guru who is kidnapped in Egypt while consulting for the Library of Alexandria—A Guide for the Perplexed becomes a fast-paced thriller that may put Horn on the fiction bestseller list for the first time. (Her 2012 nonfiction Kindle Single, The Rescuer, on the strange life of Varian Fry, a 1931 Harvard grad who saved many leading European intellectuals and artists from the Holocaust, was briefly an e-book bestseller.)

Sibling rivalry, too, drives the plot of A Guide for the Perplexed. Josie’s older sister, Judith, never the prodigy or favored child, works for Josie, but resents her. As in her first two novels, Horn interweaves contemporary characters and earlier time periods. Here—as Josie adapts her omniscient, life-tracking software, called Genizah, a twist on today’s social media platforms, to help her captor cope with the death of his son—Horn drops back to the 1890s to follow the real-life rabbi and scholar Solomon Schechter as he explores a secret repository, or genizah, in an Egyptian synagogue. Schechter famously unearthed a trove of documents detailing almost a millenium of Jewish daily life.

“Life online today is a fantasy,” Horn says. “People present themselves in a certain way that doesn’t necessarily correlate to who they actually are…. As a child, I had this dream of recording everything. Of course, now social media has turned my dream into a nightmare. Every idiotic thing you do is recorded forever.”

Jewish concepts of time, justice and moral choice inform Horn’s fiction. In the Bible, she says, “it’s not just that the past is important—the past is the present. There’s a conflation, a compression of time.”
A kind of conflation greets Horn almost daily. She and her husband, Brendan Schulman, a civil litigator, and their four children (ages 8, 6, 4 and 1) reside in a semi-Colonial house in Short Hills, less than a mile from her childhood home.

“The weird thing about living here is that it’s like a tesseract, a wrinkle in time,” she says, speaking with her customary rat-a-tat speed and precision. “That part of my life when I didn’t live here is elided, and it’s like nothing’s changed. In the supermarket, they’re still playing Billy Joel. It’s this surreal thing.”

In her first-floor master bedroom, Horn has a desk piled with books for a course she taught last spring at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People: Divine Justice in Jewish Literature.” The title reflects a recurrent theme of her scholarly writing and teaching as well as her fiction. The title of A Guide for the Perplexed, used ironically in the novel, comes from a famous 12th-century Maimonides tract that sought to reconcile faith and reason, fate and free will.

The house is filled with mementos of Horn’s travels to about 50 countries, beginning in childhood. In the dining room stands a massive carved-wood zodiac screen from China, sculptures from Zambia, a silver menorah and prayer book, and a miniature set of apothecary shelves.

The bright modern kitchen has a bookcase stocked with children’s books. Like her own mother, Horn reads to her children at every meal. When Horn and her brother and two sisters were small, Susan Horn, an English teacher with a PhD. in Jewish studies from NYU, toted home armloads of books from the Millburn library to regale them with “during meals…continuously, from the high chair on,” Susan says. Horn’s daughter, Maya, 8, is a budding poet whose ode to hummingbirds, comparing their tiny eggs to jelly beans, is tacked up in her parents’ bedroom. The manuscript of Susan Horn’s unpublished first novel lies on Horn’s bedside table, awaiting her feedback.

Dara Horn’s mother met her father, Matthew, a dentist who studied Chinese history at Temple University, in 1966 through Operation Match, which Horn describes as “the world’s first computer dating service.”
“My parents raised us as a creative collective,” the novelist says. “They gave us these assignments to do. We would come home from school, and they would say, ‘Why don’t you guys write a play, and we’ll perform it after dinner?’”

The collective has thrived. Horn’s older sister, Jordana Horn Gordon, a freelance writer (with a law degree), lives in Short Hills. Pregnant with her fifth child, she is working on her first novel. Younger sister Ariel, 33, an English teacher and novelist, resides in nearby Livingston with her husband and two children. Brother Zachary, 35, an Emmy award-winning animator, lives in Westchester County, New York, with his wife and daughter. His gifts were visual rather than verbal; while the three sisters wrote in their journals, he sketched in his.

Jordana, 40, describes Horn as “extremely smart, someone who lives on a different plane from most people,” seeing “significance in places where other people don’t.” Horn, she says, is also the “classic absent-minded professor. I’ll say, ‘It’s important for shoes not to have holes. Why don’t we go shopping and get you a new pair?’”

“We were a family of dorks,” Horn concedes happily. At Millburn High School, she co-captained her Quiz Bowl team to win the state championship; breezed through AP classes, and helped edit the school newspaper, literary magazine and French-language magazine. To no one’s surprise, she ended up at Harvard, where in her first year she organized and helped write a musical about freshman year. Freshmen ever since have put on their own musicals.

At 19, at Harvard’s Hillel House for Jewish students, Horn met her future husband, Schulman, a 22-year-old Harvard Law student, who grew up in Canada and graduated from Yale.

“He asked me out on a date,” Horn recalls, “and I remember being very taken aback, because by 1997, formal dating was quite passé among college students. I wasn’t so interested in him for the first two dates, but went along to be polite. On the third date, I asked him what he liked to do for fun, figuring he’d say something about music or sports, both of which I have no interest in. I was quite surprised when he answered, ‘I build and fly radio-controlled model planes.’

“Sixteen years later,” she continues, “about 15 of these planes now fill my garage. I’m not interested in planes any more than I’m interested in sports, but I was really intrigued by the idea of someone my age…having such a deep interest in something totally unrelated to one’s own life and career—especially a hobby so unusual that it offered no social capital. [It] seemed to me the opposite of arrogance.

“Here was a person,” she sums up, “who saw technology as wondrous, who wasn’t cynical or self-absorbed, who got excited about something no one else I knew cared about, who built things you could see, things that worked. It was very beautiful to me, in a very unexpected way.”

In writing A Guide for the Perplexed, Horn says, her husband’s technical expertise—not as a model maker but as a civil litigator—proved invaluable. He deals with “electronic discovery,” sifting evidence out of mountains of digital data.

Horn and Schulman married in 2000. After completing her first novel, she started work on a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature at Harvard, finishing it—along with her second novel— while teaching those subjects at Sarah Lawrence College.

“There is an idea,” she explains, “originating mainly from Fiddler on the Roof, but from other sources, too, that 19th century Jewish life in small-town Eastern Europe was troubled by poverty and anti-Semitism…met with a special sensibility featuring ‘laughter through tears.’”

That view, Horn says, “is pure nostalgia.” Yiddish literature actually reveals “an astoundingly corrupt and decaying society where religious faith had calcified…where communities…taxed as a group by non-Jewish authorities…sometimes resorted to extortion and other unpleasant tactics to pony up the massive sums required of them…where ‘freethinkers’ were often as shunned and rejected as they would be in any small town in Afghanistan today….

“I’ve found,” she concludes, “that the most salient feature of Yiddish literature isn’t its humor… but rather its earnestness, its willingness to lay emotion bare.”

Horn’s fiction updates and extends that tradition. Her mind is always spinning, something her husband recognizes. In the shower, he hung a waterproof notepad, a gift for her not-infrequent moments when inspiration can’t wait.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.

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