Jewish Spy vs. Jewish Spy

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Dara Horn’s page-turner is a parable of the moral divide between those who value family first and those dedicated, at any cost, to social and racial justice for all.

Featured Book: All Other Nights (Expected release March 2009)

How is tonight different from all other nights? For Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish soldier in the Union Army, it is a question his commanders have answered for him: on Passover 1862, he is ordered to murder his own uncle, who is plotting to assassinate President Lincoln. After that night, will Jacob ever speak for himself? The answer comes when his commanders send him on another mission—this time not to murder a spy, but to marry one. A page-turner rich with the history of nineteenth-century Jewish Americans (Northern and Southern), this book is layered with meanings and is a parable of the moral divide that still haunts us: between those who value family first and those dedicated, at any cost, to social and racial justice for all.

Why did you want to tell the story of a Jewish woman in your book? Is it something you set out to do as a mission or were you just writing from what you know?

My newest novel, coming out in March, is called All Other Nights, and it is about Jewish spies during the American Civil War. The two main characters are Jacob Rappaport, a Jewish man from the North, who is a Union spy, and Eugenia Levy, a Jewish woman from the South, who is a Confederate spy. Jacob’s commanders send him on a mission to marry Eugenia, whose family Jacob knew prior to the war, in order for him to report on her activities. Suffice it to say that this marriage doesn’t turn out the way anyone expected.

The novel’s female lead was inspired in part by an actual person named Eugenia Levy Phillips, a nineteenth-century Southern Jewish woman who really did serve as a Confederate spy. She was imprisoned twice by Union forces, once for espionage and once for insubordination against the occupying Union army. What intrigued me about her was that her husband, Philip Phillips (I couldn’t make this up), a Jewish congressman from Alabama prior to the war, was actually a moderate who was opposed to the South’s secession from the Union, while his wife was obviously a fire-breathing Rebel. Yet, they raised nine children together, and her husband used his political influence to help free her from prison. I was fascinated by the idea of how a marriage can transcend a historical moment and, in the larger sense, how Jewish identity can often transcend a historical moment, as well.

I was also interested in how women of the time took advantage of men’s expectations of them in order to achieve things that men couldn’t have accomplished as easily. In researching espionage of the period, I was surprised by how many times women served as agents on both sides; they could collect information very effectively because men rarely suspected them. The pressure of other people’s expectations of us—and of how much we do in our lives, often detrimentally, because we hope to prove ourselves somehow, to fulfill or surpass those expectations—becomes an essential element of the plot in All Other Nights, especially because nineteenth-century Jews lived their whole lives in negotiation with the expectations of others. What was most interesting to me was that this anxiety about what others will think really never goes away, no matter how modern we become.

Do you consider your book a “Jewish” book or is it a book in which the lead happens to be Jewish?

My book is called All Other Nights because the story begins with an assassination attempt at a Passover seder (in a Jewish household in New Orleans, where the meal is served by slaves). Themes from Jewish sources—particularly the exodus from Egypt, as reflected in the freeing of the slaves at the time of the Civil War—are essential to the structure of the novel. The book can be read on several levels, and there are many references in the novel to the Hebrew Bible and to Jewish liturgical texts that readers familiar with these sources will instantly recognize.

But the book is also very much grounded in Jewish American history and involves many aspects of that history that aren’t widely known. American Jews at the time were as divided as the rest of the country over issues of slavery and secession, and as devoted to their place of residence (North or South) as their neighbors were. But for American Jews, the question of loyalty was heightened by the fact that their neighbors always expected them to prove their American identity, which produced all sorts of paradoxes. Despite the South’s institutionalized racism, for instance, the Confederate Secretary of State was Jewish: Judah Benjamin. Benjamin had served prior to the war as a U.S. senator from Louisiana, and, in addition to his Confederate cabinet post, he also became one of the Confederacy’s spymasters and the Confederate president’s closest confidant; he was also loathed far more than any of his peers and frequently abused in the press. He is an important character in this book. But in the supposedly more enlightened North, it was the Union general Ulysses S. Grant who expelled the Jews from areas he conquered in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee—a shameful incident in American history, which is also explored in the novel.

What inspired you to write your book in the first place? What excited you about the idea?

When my first novel came out in 2002, I was invited to speak about it at a Jewish community center in New Orleans. I had some time to kill before the event and, as I wandered around the neighborhood, I came across a Jewish cemetery. I was surprised to see how many graves there were from the early 1800s. When I read more about it, I discovered that New Orleans in the nineteenth century had the largest American Jewish community after New York.

I began reading about Jewish communities during the Civil War and discovered a wealth of material, and what most intrigued me was how these communities responded to the war. Generally they did so with a passionate patriotism, regardless of which side they lived on. But as a national community, their response was a bit unusual. Many American religious denominations split at the time of the Civil War, which is why to this day there are “Southern” Baptists or “Southern” Methodists.

But, while there were already national Jewish organizations in America by then, such as B’nai Brith, none of them split during the Civil War. One could claim this was due to the Jewish community’s size (about 130,000 Jews lived in America in 1860), but I also think there was a more profound reason. Today it is common for Americans to have relatives around the country, but in the nineteenth century, this was fairly rare—except among American Jews, who, because they were more often running businesses than running farms, were more likely to live more mobile lives and to have relatives and business contacts in other parts of the country. This made them somewhat more likely than other Americans to appreciate the other side’s point of view. It was this tension between the need to prove one’s loyalty to one’s home and a sense of closeness to people on the other side that I found fascinating—and also timely.

I believe that every historical novel is really about the time in which it’s written, and that is very true for this book. This story appealed to me because of how polarized America is now—the sense that one has to choose a side, and that whatever side one chooses is the only way to be a real American. So much of this divide goes back to the Civil War: the “red states” and “blue states” tend to follow the Mason-Dixon Line and its legacies. And this polarization exists in American Jewish life today, too.

Jewish civilization has long held two competing strains within it. There is a “progressive,” or even revolutionary, strain that one finds in the Hebrew prophets and in the radical quality of ethical monotheism itself, which teaches the importance of pursuing social justice at all costs and the need to stand up for certain beliefs in the face of all obstacles. And there is also a “conservative” strain that one finds in biblical and rabbinic law, which teaches the importance of valuing family, protecting property, and maintaining tradition above all else. What fascinated me was that these two competing sets of values also exist in American civilization, from the time of the Civil War until today. In this novel, I hoped to present a possibility of reconciliation between these two ideas.

What do you hope that Jewish women readers will take away from your book? Is it different than what you hope all readers will take away?

Jewish women are perhaps more attuned than others to one of the major themes in this book: the drama of other people’s expectations and the high costs of not meeting them. But I would imagine that that experience is all too familiar to everyone.

Do you have a favorite book with a Jewish lead, fiction or nonfiction, and why that book?

In my other life, I’m an academic with a doctorate in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, so this is a tough question for me. For starters, I always recommend Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, which is nothing at all like Fiddler on the Roof (Tevye doesn’t live in a shtetl, for example). It’s really a serialized novel about a long string of catastrophes (a financial meltdown, a relative’s premature death, an unplanned pregnancy, and a suicide, to begin with) and the limited resources one man has to confront them. Jewish literature is often heralded for its “laughter through tears,” but although it’s a comedy, this book, like much of Jewish literature, is actually a compelling demonstration of the inadequacy of humor in facing horror.

What kind of books would you like to see written for Jewish readers (or readers who are just interested in Judaism)? Are there voids or topics you’d like to see tackled?

Are you asking me to give away my ideas?

When, in general or specifically, do you feel most Jewish in your life?

There are times in my life when I feel more religious than other times, or more aware of a divine presence in the world. But if you are asking when I feel most “Jewish,” in the sense of most connected to a specific ancient and ongoing tradition, then I would have to say this happens while writing. Judaism is a very text-based tradition and as a writer I have the privilege of not working alone, but rather in a vertical community of writers going back through time—many of whom, in dramatically different ways, use their writing to explore how one wrestles with one’s obligations to the past and future, and to God and man.

What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it? Anything you want to say about it?

All Other Nights will be published in March. While the ink dries on that book, I’m starting to think of ideas for the next one. Call me in two years.

What question do you wish journalists would ask you, and how would you answer it?

One question I wish journalists wouldn’t ask is about the relationship between one’s personal life and one’s writing. For me, and for many young women writers, this question invariably takes the form of “How do you find time to write with young children at home?” (I have a three-year-old and a one-year-old, with a third child on the way.) I think this question suggests an underestimation of women’s abilities, because I’ve never heard anyone ask my husband how he finds time for his job with young children at home. I feel lucky to have a career where I can follow my imagination wherever it leads and still return home early enough to read them Curious George. All Other Nights is dedicated to my children. Unfortunately, they much prefer Curious George.

About the Author

Dara Horn
Dara Horn, author of the award-winning novels The World to Come and In the Image, is one of Granta magazine’s “Best Young American Novelists.” Born in New Jersey in 1977, she received her doctorate from Harvard University in Hebrew and Yiddish literature in 2006. She lives with her husband and children in New York City. Visit www.darahorn.com.

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