Novelist Jonathan Rabb said he had no idea Jews lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line before he moved from New York eight years ago to become a writing professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
But when he and his wife, Andra, arrived, they were immediately embraced by a community that dates back almost to the founding of Georgia.
“These are Southern Jews, and they are still so devoted to tradition,” Rabb said in an interview in advance of his appearance at the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center on Monday, Nov. 7.
He had been in Savannah less than a week when he answered a phone call from a number he didn’t recognize. Bubba Rosenthal was on the line, inviting the Rabb family to a synagogue event in a Southern event so thick, Rabb said, that “it took me 30 seconds to return to planet Earth.”
The plan was to stay for a year before returning to the North, but Rabb and his wife and two children haven’t left yet.
The community is fairly unified now, Rabb said, but it has a history of deep divisions between Conservative and Reform. That community divide helps form the setting for Rabb’s new novel, “Among the Living.”
It’s the story of a 31-year-old Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, Yitzhak Goldah, who arrives in Savannah in 1947 to live with the only relative he has left, shoe store owner Abe Jesler, and his wife, Pearl, who are members at the Conservative shul, Agudath Achim. Pearl is dismayed when Yitzhak, whom she and Abe decide should go by Ike in America, begins spending time with a war widow, Eva De la Parra, who attends Reform Congregation Mickve Israel.
To get the details of those community tensions right, Rabb needed the help of his Savannah neighbors. With his recent Berlin trilogy of mysteries taking place between the world wars, no one wanted to talk to him about the setting, Rabb said. He didn’t have that problem in Savannah.
Community members were proud to talk about their city’s history, good and bad. Rabb told of a 93-year-old man who insisted he join him and his 90-year-old wife for lunch to talk about Jewish Savannah. Rabb showed up with a legal pad full of questions, and after asking the first one, he didn’t speak for the next three hours.
Still, Rabb said he didn’t feel extra pressure. “There wasn’t this sense of ‘You better get this right.’ They were just overjoyed that someone wanted to bring that moment to life.”
Rabb uses that flexibility and understanding in the book. For one thing, he has Ike arrive a few years earlier than survivors actually got to Savannah. He also makes up one of the best scenes in “Among the Living,” one that proves pivotal.
The Conservative congregation decides to do Tashlich off a pier at the ocean, only to find that on this particularly beautiful Rosh Hashanah, the Reform temple had the same idea. Mickve Israel members are already there when Ike, the Jaslers and the other AA members arrive. The idea is floated to have all the Jews share the pier, but instead the Conservative crowd charges onto the beach, most of them vainly trying to cast their sins far enough into the water so that they don’t roll back amid the waves.
Rabb said he needed a dramatic water scene, and he couldn’t resist having fun with an oceanfront standoff, even though it’s not something that actually happened.
The inspiration for a survivor’s story was personal for Rabb. He said he had a cousin who survived the camps, and it was obvious when they met that something had shattered inside him.
“I needed to find a way to tap into what that experience had been,” Rabb said. Savannah provided the answer: having a character dehumanized by the Nazis settle in the Jim Crow South, where he would live on the other side of the racial power divide.
That scenario shows the roots of the black-Jewish alliance during the civil rights movement, Rabb said.
He wasn’t planning to incorporate a love story — his wife had complained that he never used such plot lines — but Rabb found that he needed the relationship with Eva to open Ike up and, as the title indicates, bring him back among the living.
While Ike, a newspaper writer who goes to work for Eva’s father, is the book’s central character, and Abe and a few other men and boys drive an important subplot involving shoe smuggling and organized crime, the most powerful characters in the book are women: Pearl, Eva, and Malke, a survivor who arrives midway through the book and claims to be Ike’s fiancée.
The pain and resilience Rabb conveys through Eva and Malke when they meet drive one of the most powerful moments in the book and testify to the writer’s skill.
Rabb, a writing instructor who never had any formal training in writing himself, said “Among the Living” was a struggle to complete. He spent 2½ years writing it and at one point took a hiatus of about five months to write a graphic novel and get away from the world of 1947.
The work took so long that a global refugee crisis emerged and became a major political issue while he was completing a refugee’s story. Rabb said lessons can be drawn from the postwar Jewish refugees, but he hopes readers stay in the novel’s moment and experience the book’s time and place.
This novel wound up being his shortest book at 82,000 words, compared with about 140,000 for his other novels. Because that brevity reflects a willingness to “get in late and get out early” — providing as little background and as little closure as possible to complete the story, an approach used by one of his literary heroes, Graham Greene — “I’m really happy about that,” Rabb said.
Like a Greene novel, “Among the Living” seems to do so much in so few words, all on a human scale that somehow elevates the everyday activities and emotions of life to epic heights.