Friday, August 26, 2016

Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: June 10, 2016

In late summer 1947, thirty-one-year-old Yitzhak Goldah, a camp survivor, arrives in Savannah to live with his only remaining relatives. They are Abe and Pearl Jesler, older, childless, and an integral part of the thriving Jewish community that has been in Georgia since the founding of the colony. There, Yitzhak discovers a fractured world, where Reform and Conservative Jews live separate lives--distinctions, to him, that are meaningless given what he has been through. He further complicates things when, much to the Jeslers' dismay, he falls in love with Eva, a young widow within the Reform community. When a woman from Yitzhak's past suddenly appears--one who is even more shattered than he is--Yitzhak must choose between a dark and tortured familiarity and the promise of a bright new life. Set amid the backdrop of America's postwar south, Among the Living grapples with questions of identity and belonging, and steps beyond the Jewish experience as it situates Yitzhak's story during the last gasp of the Jim Crow era. Yitzhak begins to find echoes of his own experience in the lives of the black family who work for the Jeslers--an affinity he does not share with the Jeslers themselves. This realization both surprises and convinces Yitzhak that his choices are not as clear-cut as he might have thought.

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Jonathan Rabb’s Among the Living is a difficult book to review. The material is poignant, but it is also deeply sobering and I find the combination difficult to describe. I appreciate the perspective the novel affords, but it should be understood that the narrative is a bittersweet and introspective tale that challenges the perceptions of both the characters of the novel and those who read it.

I’d love to say I fell in love with Rabb’s characters, but his themes took center stage as I made my way through Yitzhak’s story. Holocaust lit tends to treat Jews as a single entity and I was captivated by the contrast Rabb created between these pages. His approach felt more authentic and I think he delved into some really interesting concepts in portraying Yitzhak’s post war experiences and emotional recovery.

The book is slow paced and isn’t an easy read. I don’t think it has enough action and movement to appeal to mainstream readers, but I found it quite satisfying and would definitely recommend it to those looking for something a little different.

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He was drifting — he knew it — lungs burning, desperation and hope draining from him with every stroke. He had never called out to God in the past, never once, not even at the edge of his own death — not to beg, not to thank — but now he thought: You must answer. Who are You if this is the moment You choose to remain silent?
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1 comment:

norman ravitch said...

I was more interested in the history of the Jewish community in Savannah and less in the reactions of Jews to a Holocaust survivor and less in the squabbles between various religious factions. I found most of this uninteresting. I also found the description of the lower middle class commercial milieu of most of these Jews criticized from the non-commercial and academic stance of the author. His Jews seem authentic but they are not the only kind of Jews who existed and they should not be treated in this somewhat disdainful and superior way. There is some Jewish snobism here I think. I did like Pearl's dismissal of the rabbi as, well you know, a rabbi. Most rabbis in my experience are rather self-righteous and superior and far less educated than they think they are; I am not a fan of clergy.

All in all the book disappointed me. I don't know whether there are books about other Jewish communities in the South. I know only about Driving Miss Daisy. Rabb always tries to be faithful to history, that is his chief claim to fame.