Author Jonathan Rabb has written a novel about the emotional fractures between Jews holding different ideologies and white/black prejudice in the post- World War II South. “Among the Living” is a tightly packed, fast-paced, dramatic narrative jammed with social commentary.
In 1947, Yitshak Goldah, a 31-year-old Holocaust survivor, travels from Czechoslovakia to Savannah, Georgia, with a small suitcase, a hat and the clothes on his back. His only surviving relative is his American cousin Abe Jesler who is married to Pearl.
The Jewish couple graciously opens their home to the immigrant and employs him at their shoe store. The Jeslers’ friends welcome Goldah into their sophisticated social lives. He is astounded by the kind treatment he receives in Savannah compared to the violent handling he had suffered in Europe.
The Czech refugee realizes he cannot remain dependent on the Jeslers forever and must make his own way in his adopted country. The genteel locals are luridly persistent in seeking details about the indignities and trauma he suffered in wartime. Goldah, however, wants to put all that behind him and not be defined by the horrors of World War II. This tension leads him to seek a wider circle of friends.
Discord grows in the story as Goldah becomes romantically involved with Eva, a widow who is a member of the Reform Temple in Savannah. This relationship creates a rift with the Jeslers who belong to the Conservative Synagogue. The turmoil resulting from these conflicting religious beliefs further disrupts Goldah’s integration into Savannah society.
Then there is the Jim Crow aspect of the story, portrayed in the Jeslers’ relationship with their black employees Calvin and Raymond. Calvin sets Goldah straight about black/white tensions after his son is viciously attacked: “They tried to kill you, all a you, all at once. I seen that. But here they kill us one at a time and that’s a difference.” Goldah begins to realize that the gentility he encounters in Savannah is a mere veneer covering boiling religious and racial issues.
What is appealing about the novel is that it takes two subjects usually dealt with separately —the Holocaust and the Jim Crow era—and blends them together in a way that provides a fresh perspective.
“Among the Living” is an involved love story set in the midst of a series of broken relationships and hypocrisies. It is a vivid depiction of mid-20th century Savannah society. It also skillfully portrays how traumatized people can still heal and move on with life even in the midst of social inequality and prejudice.
Jonathan Rabb is an American novelist, essayist and writer. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University, and is currently a professor in the writing department at the Savannah College of Art and design. Other Press is the publisher of this 303-page novel.