The ProsenPeople

2,000 Year Old Mom

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 | Permalink

Dara Horn, author of Eternal Life, writes for JBC's Visiting Scribe series on how her new novel corrects the dearth of female characters in stories about immortality.


When I told people I was writing a novel about a woman who’s been alive for two thousand years, many of my older friends and relatives instantly replied, “Oh, like Mel Brooks! You know, The 2,000 Year Old Man?”

Despite being about thirty years too young to have listened to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner on LPs, I have indeed heard their 2,000 Year Old Man routine—the now-classic Borscht Belt-style shtick about an old Jewish guy whose 2,000 years of life have led him to conclude that the best thing ever invented is Saran wrap. (Bah-dum-chchhh.) The routine is over fifty years old and still pretty funny. But you know what would be just as funny, or possibly funnier? The 2,000 Year Old Mom.

That’s pretty much what my new book, Eternal Life, is—the story of a Jewish woman who can’t die. You might say that Mel Brooks got there first. Of course, you also might say that the author of the Epic of Gilgamesh got there first. Stories about immortality or the quest for it are as old as literature. But when I thought of those stories of immortal characters, from Gilgamesh through to Mel Brooks, I noticed something very strange: almost none of them are about fertile women. My main character, Rachel, has also been around for 2,000 years. But unlike the 2,000 Year Old Man, she’s been pretty busy. She’s been married about forty-five times and raised hundreds upon hundreds of children, and she’s had it up to here with eternal life. She’s been driven so crazy that in the 21st century, she winds up in a psychiatrist’s office. (She’s of course already tried the rebbes, the barber-surgeons, the alchemists, the sages and the high priests.) When the psychiatrist asks her whether she ever has thoughts of killing herself, she says, “All the time, but it’s just a fantasy.” The psychiatrist is relieved.

That doesn’t seem to be a fantasy of the remarkably untroubled 2,000 Year Old Man. But then he didn’t spend multiple centuries pregnant and nursing, or dealing with hundreds of teenage sons and daughters telling him he was an idiot who had ruined their lives. He probably didn’t spend centuries cooking dinners and doing laundry—all while simultaneously running a family business or holding down a full-time job (since only ten of those 2,000 years took place in the 1950s). He didn’t wake up every day at dawn and go to bed every night past midnight while maintaining everyone else’s lives, like the woman in the poem "Eshet Chayil" whose candle doesn’t go out at night—and he also didn’t go through all that while listening to every single stranger say to him, nostalgically, “Enjoy them, it goes by so fast!” That’s not the life of the 2,000 Year Old Man. It’s the life of the 2,000 Year Old Mom.

I wasn’t thinking of Mel Brooks when I wrote this book, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we both created characters two millennia old. It’s the age of the Jewish exile, the vast expanse of time between the destruction of the second temple and the emergence of the state of Israel, the stretch of not-quite-forever during which Jews, based on nearly every historical parallel and precedent in the history of humanity, really should have gone extinct. As one dear friend—a renowned scholar of Jewish literature—told me, “It’s as if you set out to write a novel about Jewish history from the point of view of the Jewish mother, which is far more frightening than the point of view of God.” Raising children is frightening and full of absurdity. In that sense, it closely resembles Jewish history—and both are equally miraculous.

So what would she say on her outmoded comedy LP, this 2,000 Year Old Mom? She might well praise the invention of Saran Wrap. But she might also agree with her mortal counterparts that it really does go by so fast. To be honest, she barely remembers the first 1,500 years. You know, she’s got a lot going on, and she really doesn’t have time to sit around talking about this. She’ll talk to you later. Much later.

Dara Horn is the acclaimed author of five novels, including two National Jewish Book Award winners. A scholar of Yiddish and Hebrew literature, she has taught at Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College and City University of New York, and has lectured at over 200 universities and cultural institutions throughout North America, Australia and Israel. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Image credit:贝莉儿 NG/Unsplash

Interview: Dara Horn

Tuesday, September 17, 2013 | Permalink
by Miriam Bradman Abrahams 
 

Speaking with Dara Horn on the phone felt like conversing with one of my brightest, most enthusiastic friends. Since I was the first person to interview her regarding her new book, I was her "sounding board" as she excitedly discussed A Guide for the Perplexed. She will travel the country during Jewish Book Month for JBC.

Miriam Bradman Abrahams: How did you come up with the idea for your new book?

Dara Horn: I had been asked to write fiction inspired by a specific abstract artwork for an exhibit at Yeshiva University Museum which showed contemporary art inspired by the book of Genesis. I wrote a piece called "How Did It Begin" about two sisters who destroy each other, taking my ideas about family and personal identity from the story of Joseph.

MBA: There are references in the book not only to the stories of Joseph being thrown into the pit by his brothers and sold into slavery in Egypt, but also to Tamar's seduction of Judah in order to maintain the family, and Rachel and Leah's sibling rivalry. You have also woven episodes from the lives of historical figures in this contemporary fiction. The dynamics in the relationships of the Rambam with his brother David, Solomon Schechter with his twin brother, Srulik, the twin Victorian adventurers Agnes Smith and Margaret Lewis, live alongside the invented modern day sisters Josie and Judith. Why are there so many sisters and brothers in the novel?

DH: I have always been interested in sibling relationships, both biblical and personal. I think siblings share a past but not a future. However, the past shared is so different based on individual memory. For example, Schechter and his brother make life decisions based on their different interpretations of their father's insightful advice. Josie and Judith remember opposing experiences growing up with their mother. By the way, my own sibling relationships have been wonderful!

The novel also came out of my interest in the Genizah, the repository of hundreds of thousands of stored documents written in Hebrew from 870-1880. I had the opportunity to view some of them during the year I studied in Cambridge and was especially interested in documents which inadvertently recorded the daily existence of the people of Fustat. I have kept journals since I was a child and am fascinated with the idea of recording and preserving things.

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Dara Horn's Single

Friday, January 20, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Like the music world, authors can now put out digital "singles" online, and latest author to jump on the trend is National Jewish Book Award winner Dara Horn (In the Image, The World to Come, All Other Nights). We recently received this email:

As of today, my newest work, "The Rescuer," is available online. It's what I like to think of as a "mini book"-- a 50-page nonfiction essay I wrote for Tablet Magazine (www.tabletmag.com), which is being sold as a "Kindle Single" on Amazon. (No, you don't need a Kindle to read it-- any computer will do!) 

"The Rescuer" is about Varian Fry, a 32 year old American Harvard graduate who saved about 2,000 celebrities and their families from Nazi-occupied France, including Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and many other world-famous people in an unparalleled effort to save Western civilization... after which he was promptly forgotten. The reasons why no one has heard of this man today are more disturbing than I ever would have guessed. 

"The Rescuer" is on sale now for $1.99. Alternatively, you could use that money to buy a bag of potato chips. (Or why not buy both, for the princely sum of $3.98?) 

You can read an excerpt of the essay, and listen to a podcast interview of me, here in Tablet: http://www.tabletmag.com/arts-and-culture/books/88130/the-rescuer/ 

 Or if you are ready to take the leap with your $1.99, you can buy it here: http://amzn.to/znT3BI 

I would be thrilled if you would share this with anyone you know who might be interested in history, or in the fate of civilization, or in why we value what we do. (It's something to think about while enjoying your potato chips.) 

2009 Forward 50

Thursday, November 12, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Forward 50 has just been released. Authors listed under Media & Cultureinclude:

To read the full Forward 50, please click here.