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Savannah Book Festival: Jonathan Rabb tackles Savannah in latest novel

  • Jonathan Rabb

Savannah Book Festival: Jonathan Rabb tackles Savannah in latest novel

08 Feb 2017

There are two stories in the history of the world: Stranger comes to town, or someone leaves on a quest,” Jonathan Rabb said. “That’s all we have! The Greeks created it. In the English speaking language, Shakespeare perfected it and the rest of us are just cheating or stealing.”

Rabb came to Savannah as a stranger and then embarked on a quest he never thought he would make.

In his latest novel, “Among the Living,” Rabb explores the world of 1947 Savannah through the eyes of a foreigner in much the same way he ventured into the city himself. It is his first novel to be fully based in the United States.

Rabb, a creative writing professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, completed his shortest novel to date in the span of three years after moving to Savannah.

Drawing on stories from his own family members, plus a host of historical research, Rabb penned the tale of Yitzhak “Ike” Goldah, a Holocaust surviver who moves to Savannah post-World War II to live with his only remaining relatives.

What Goldah finds is similar to what Rabb found when he first moved here: a thriving, deeply entrenched Jewish community. However, in contrast to Rabb’s experience, during the post-war time period, the Jewish community was starkly divided.

“When we moved here, I never thought I’d write about the United States,” Rabb said. “But you come to Savannah, and you have this — there’s this wonderful European creepiness that’s just under the surface here. I wanted to do something, but I had to find my way in.

“I realized that if I brought someone who was foreign to Savannah, in the same way that I was, we’d figure it out together,” Rabb continued. “Of course, in 1947 Savannah you get two things that are going on: you have a rift in the Jewish community between reformative and conservative and it’s the height of Jim Crow. I wanted to confront that.”

Rabb is first generation Jewish American, the son of a Czechoslovakian immigrant. Several members of his family survived the Holocaust, but some did not. Rabb had a deep well of personal experience to pull from to help create his protagonist.

As a historical fiction writer, though, and the progeny of several historians, he could not overlook the African American experience in Savannah at the time in which his novel takes place.

Further augmenting Goldah’s American experience is his interaction with a black family who works for his own family members, the Jeslers. The complicated relationship of Jews and blacks in those days has been thoroughly noted in historical archives and academia, giving Rabb a foundation on which to build his story.

In an essay by Clive Webb on the subject, published by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford, Webb outlines the complexities of the Jewish/black relationship during Jim Crow: “Although many Jewish merchants endeavored to treat their black customers with greater dignity and respect than did other whites, their actions were constrained by broader social forces.”

Rabb looked to one of his favorite writers, Primo Levi, for inspiration on how to approach the characters of his book. Levy wrote his true story of surviving the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in 1947’s “Survival in Auschwitz.” Levy’s ability to write without judgment deeply inspired Rabb’s approach to the characters in “Among the Living.”

Worried that he would write about the African-American community of the time in a condescending or stereotypical manner, Rabb enlisted the help of several writers of color for guidance. Having befriended “Precious” screenwriter Jeffery Fletcher, Rabb sent the manuscript his way.

“I needed these peoples who had stronger connections in terms of the writing, not in terms of living. I simply said, am I out of my depth here? Am I getting this right? Or am I doing the very thing I didn’t want to do? Luckily they came back, and a couple of other people as well, and said this works. It seems real.

“There’s this huge debate now,” Rabb continued. “Are you allowed to write about anything that you yourself don’t have connection to? We write fiction! I invent worlds. Just because I have a way in, doesn’t mean I can’t explore the entirety of that world. You have to do it so it’s not a device. So you’re not projecting onto it.”

Rabb creates a fascinating juxtaposition in “Among the Living” by using a rare, yet true, archetype — the African American war hero — in a character named Raymond. Goldah comes to America as a victim and is treated as a hero, while Raymond comes home as a hero, but is treated like less than a man.

“I needed a place that would support that,” Rabb said of the characters’ dispositions. “The Savannah that I built supports that.”

Any writer or artist who visits Savannah for the first time will almost immediately recognize that the city is its own character. Rabb attached to the character of Savannah and cites the strange wonder of the city as the catalyst for finally writing about America.

“I had to say to people, the Savannah I am creating, you will recognize,” Rabb said. “I take no liberties. I come from a long line of historians. So if I screwed up the history or got it wrong, I wouldn’t be able to go home.

“At the same time, if I look at place as character, I have to develop it as any other character,” he said.


Book: “Among the Living”

When: 4 p.m. Feb. 18

Where: Baptist Church Sanctuary, Chippewa Square