Dara Horn might just be the only parent to ever get a pink $2 bill as a Mother's Day gift. This, however, was no ordinary note; it was Confederate currency, festooned with the likeness of Judah Benjamin, the South's secretary of state, who also happened to be Jewish.
The recent gift was a fitting one for the New Jersey native and mother of three. Her latest novel, All Other Nights, concerns Jewish life during the Civil War and features Benjamin and a number of other Jewish characters — living on either side of the Mason-Dixon line — confronting the war between the states.
The book is this year's selection for Philadelphia's "One Book, One Jewish Community" program, and the group will hold its kick-off event with the author on Sunday, Oct. 18, at Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell. More than 200 people have registered for the event, and organizers said that they expected possibly twice that number to show up. The "One Book" program, which has been in existence for three years, is run by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership and is funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. A year's worth of events has been scheduled around Horn's novel — lectures, discussions and author appearances. A listing can be found at www.jewishphilly.org/onebook.
The novel, explained Horn, arose out of a visit a few years ago to a Jewish cemetery in New Orleans dating back to the Civil War. Yet it also came out of a desire, as a writer, not to repeat what she has done in previous works. While her first two efforts dealt with the past — World War I and Soviet Jewish history, respectively — both jumped around in time and were told from a number of perspectives.
All Other Nights — the title is drawn from the "Four Questions" as part of the Passover seder — is the tale of Jacob Rappaport, who joins the Union army to escape an arranged marriage. The protagonist is quickly called upon to murder his uncle, before falling in love with another member of the tribe, who may just be the leader of a Confederate spy ring.
With this book, said Horn, "I wanted to write a plot-driven story about one character in one period of time," as well as "develop one storyline all the way through."
That linear structure allowed her to incorporate a number of elements in the part-historical-fiction, part-romance and part-spy novel — all of which are informed by Horn's love of (and Harvard doctorate in) Hebrew and Yiddish literature.
Surprise in the Stacks
With all that schooling under her belt, Horn is quick to admit that she's "no stranger to the library, but I was a stranger to this particular period in American history."
Though she'd done research in the past on the Civil War during an internship spent atAmerican Heritage magazine, as well as for an abandoned nonfiction book on the subject, one element of her recent research surprised her.
Said Horn: "Not only is everything in English — I could read a book in a day instead of a month! — but it's tremendously accessible."
She pointed out that government documentation from both sides of the war can be bought on CD-ROMs for about $20. But because the information is so much more widely known than the finer points of Yiddish literature, there's greater potential for people to pinpoint errors.
"I'm a big nerd, and I'm very careful about my research in all my novels," she said, adding that the study involved for All Other Nights was "almost like getting another doctorate!"
One of her goals, she said, was to inspire readers to think differently about American Jewish history and its relation to the much longer story of Jews in European countries.
While her book is by no means the first about the role of Jews in the Civil War, it does mark a local first: "One Book, One Jewish Community" program director Debbie Leon noted that this represents the first time that organizers selected both a novel and a female writer.
Leon pointed out that they were looking to do something different from the autobiography and memoir of past years. "We wanted fiction, if we could find it," she said, but it was also important that this year's book "have a different kind of appeal and, hopefully, attract new people."
It seems to have worked. She said the expected audience for the kick-off is younger than in the past — a trend she hopes continues all year long.
Since some scenes take place in Philadelphia, Horn is planning to visit the city a number of times throughout the 12-month program. For the inaugural event, the writer said that she'll be discussing the nature of freedom — in both U.S. and Jewish history. And, of course, she'll be bringing with her that pink Confederate $2 bill.
Horn also noted the fact that readers keep her work fresh: "You write one book, but the readers are reading a different book than you wrote," she said, adding that "often, they're reading a better book than the one you wrote!"
Not surprisingly, her preoccupation with the ins and outs of Jewish literature is one of the elements that endeared her to program organizers, who strive to "engender conversation and excitement around Jewish literature," according to Leon.
All Other Nights, she said, "has merit for the kind of conversations we'd like to see grow forth from this program." Its writer, she added, "appreciates her role not just as an author, but as a Jewish educator."