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.