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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.