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Micah Reader in April 2018 by Brenda Levenson
Jonathan Rabb’s 2016 novel, Among the Living, is allegedly an ambitious undertaking. It deals with racial identity, religious expression, cultural assimilation and romance in Savannah, Georgia in the mid-1940s. A charitable soul in our group noted that the story is basically about the “ethnic split” between Sephardic Jews who arrived in the South of the United States two hundred years ago, and Eastern European Jews who came much later. The former tend to belong to the Reform synagogue, the latter to the Conservative congregation in town.
The novel is contrived, giving the feeling that the writer has a superficial knowledge of the subjects he is covering. Yitzhak Goldah, also renamed Ike, is the main character of the story. A Holocaust survivor he was born in Czechoslovakia and arrives in Savannah to stay with distant cousins he has never met, Abe Jesler and his wife Pearl. Ike, multilingual and a journalist in his previous life, is eventually offered a job with the local newspaper, owned by Arthur Weiss whose daughter Eva becomes the object of the “romance” part of the novel. If the author seems confused by much of what he writes, so were the readers. Guessing parts of the book that were unclear, some in our group offered clarifications when needed, on account of what was viewed as “a disconnect” throughout the text that was deemed “predictable…. No surprise there, all ends well.” Memories of Terezin, the Potemkin village of concentration camps, added more confusion to the story.
Some of our readers thought that placing a Holocaust survivor in a city such as Savannah was a good choice, establishing a parallel of sort between the Nazi view that Jews were an inferior race, with that of Southern Whites’ similar opinion of black people. At the hands of a better writer, Among the Living could have been an interesting novel, focusing more on the division between groups.
Among the Living received more criticism than praise, which did not deter our readers to have an animated discussion selecting aspects of the novel that could have been better developed. Concentration camp experiences were among the subjects of our conversation as was racism, as some of the black characters in the book fought in the army in WWII but continued to be referred to as “boys.” We were reminded that segregation in the United States Armed Forces did not end until 1947 under President Truman. Alas, to this day Martin Luther King may have seen “the top of the mountain,” but his dream of total integration has yet to be fulfilled.