Author Jonathan Rabb has had two very different careers — although both involve much creativity.
The American, whose Berlin Trilogy — Rosa, Shadow and Light and The Second Son— has received critical acclaim, moved to New York City after graduating to pursue a career in acting and singing. “I was something of a performer and had been interested in the theatre from a young age,” Jonathan told the Jewish Telegraph from his home in Savannah, Georgia.
Jonathan, who was brought up in Princeton, New Jersey, read political theory at Yale. Moving to New York City, he performed in a number of off- Broadway shows, as well as working in musical theatre. But the lure of the academic world proved to be too irresistible and he went on to read political theory as a graduate at Columbia University, in New York. He decided to write a novel in 1996 when he was 32. The Overseer was released two years later. Jonathan said: “Both that book, and my second one, The Book of Q, are contemporary thrillers revolving around historical artefacts.”
Indeed, his Berlin Trilogy begins in November, 1918, in Rosa, when a socialist revolution is sweeping across Germany. Five women from the slums are found murdered, all with identical markings on their back. When the sixth turns out to be the Jewish socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, the case turns political.
Jonathan said: “History is often about big ideas and big events, but it is more interesting for me to use people who lived through it with history as a backdrop. “I was drawn towards Rosa because it is rare, in history, to find a city in the middle of an identity crisis such as Berlin.
“Rosa was an extraordinary figure, but sadly most Americans have no idea who she was, which I find bizarre and unfathomable.”
Perhaps Jonathan was born to write about history as he has the subject in his genes. His grandfather, Czech-born Oscar Rabinowitz, was one of the founders of the Zionist movement in his native country, while his English-born father Theodore K Rabb is a retired history professor. His mother’s father also taught history at City College, in New York.
Jonathan’s final instalment in the trilogy, The Second Son, focuses on one of his principal characters, Chief Inspector Nikolai Hoffner. His son, Georg, is missing in Spain and is swept up in the sudden outbreak of the country’s Civil War.
Jonathan explained: “Many people’s idea of the Spanish Civil War begins and ends with Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Gary Cooper and the not-very- Spanish Ingrid Bergman. “It is pure machismo fantasy. I wanted to focus on that moment in time, when the Republican side thought they had a chance of winning, which would have taken Spain in a completely different direction. “I did a lot of research, using academia, books and newspapers, as well as reading novels such as George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, a superb piece of work. “I had to get a feel for the place, so made visits to Madrid and Barcelona. “I needed to be true to history.”
Jonathan and wife Andra Reeve-Rabb, a former casting director at American channel CBS, and their twin children had been living in New York before moving to Savannah almost three years ago. He recalled: “We had family here, took a visit and fell in love with the place.” And good fortune came along when The University for Creative Careers approached him about teaching on their creative writing programme. Andra works in the university’s performing arts college.
Jonathan’s next project is based around the 1947 Jewish community of Savannah.
Review by Simon Yaffe
© Jewish Telegraph 2011