Dara Horn: What Do Southerners and Jews Have in Common? Reenactment!

Roundup: Talking About History

[Dara Horn is a novelist whose third book, All Other Nights (Norton 2009), has just been released in paperback.]

I went into a ladies’ room last fall and saw a ghost. I had just arrived at a synagogue in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to give a lecture on All Other Nights, my novel about Jewish spies during the Civil War. As I hurried to the restroom before greeting my hosts, I opened the door and stopped short. In the mirror, next to my 21st-century reflection, was a woman wearing a 19th-century corset and petticoats, struggling to pull a calico dress over her hoop skirts.

But she was no ghost. The organizers of my appearance had decided to surprise me by hiring Civil War reenactors to entertain the crowd. In addition to the woman from the restroom, I was introduced to two uniformed men “from the 7th South Carolina Infantry,” along with a 14-year old drummer boy. They had constructed an officers’ tent in the synagogue’s social hall to display their pigs’-hair toothbrushes and period weaponry, including gunpowder packs, revolvers, and muskets.

Like anyone with a passionate interest in something beyond daily life, Civil War reenactors strike many people as obsessive-compulsives, motivated by some obscure commitment that the rest of us know we ought to humor in public—even if we privately believe that they’re nuts. I laughed at their get-ups when I saw them in Harrisburg—then I went home and built a sukkah in my backyard. Maybe such passions ought not seem so strange to me, I realized, given that Jews practically invented historical reenactment....

More fascinating still is the immediacy of the reenactment tradition. Far from being costume dramas of the distant past, historical reenactments in both Jewish culture and among Civil War devotees were already taking place during the lifetimes of people who had lived through the events being reenacted—people, that is, who ought not to have needed to be reminded of these events. In the Torah, the Israelites are commanded to reenact the night before the exodus from Egypt—not the joyous experience of the exodus itself, but rather the “night of watching” before the exodus, the terrifying experience of waiting for the angel of death to pass over their homes—beginning in the year after it occurred. Likewise, Civil War battle reenactments began with the Confederate veterans, who started congregating annually around the end of the 19th century to relive the most traumatic moments of their lives. And while Civil War reenactment may lack the spiritual complexity and purpose of Jewish ritual, it is nonetheless more than a hobby for many. It is, often, a way for participants to honor families, moved by a visceral connection to fathers and grandfathers for whom the reality behind the theater was that much closer to the lives they lived.

This parallel between Jewish ritual and Civil War reenactment reveals a deep, unexpected similarity in Jewish and Southern culture that distinguishes both from mainstream American public life. Jewish and Southern cultures are both post-traumatic civilizations—they are both built upon a sense of overwhelming obligation to the past....

This does not mean that Jews and Southerners have reached the same conclusions about their losses. The unease that many Americans feel when seeing a Confederate flag comes from the fair suspicion that Southern devotion to the past, far from being a sophisticated replaying of trauma, is more akin to fantasy fulfillment—or a deliberate ignoring of the fact that the antebellum South was built on a foundation that can only be described as evil. There is no Southern equivalent of Lamentations, no public grieving for past sins. Yet if Southern culture does not blame itself enough, Jewish culture blames itself too much. And the only reliable eyewitnesses are ghosts....

comments powered by Disqus