Mary Glickman’s novels embrace complexity of the Jewish South

“Marching to Zion,” the latest novel by Mary Glickman, came about after a reader’s observation.

The reader told her that in her first two novels, “Home in the Morning” and “One More River,” she had “constructed a narrative of the Southern Jewish Experience as it intersects with the African American Experience over the course of the 20th century.” The new novel, she said, fills a gap in the narrative line. It will be released on Nov. 12.

“Home in the Morning” is set in the South of the 1960s, with four main characters — Jackson Sassaport, a Jewish lawyer who is a Mississippi native; his Boston-born wife, Stella; his black boyhood sweetheart, Katherine Marie; and her husband, Li’l Bokay, who was also Sassaport’s first friend. He attempts to balance competing desires, working his way through the civil rights movement while trying not to stand out in the segregated South, his Southern ways versus his Yankee wife’s perspectives, and his black friends. But one night in 1960 forces him to confront all of his obligations.

All of the characters are fictional constructs, with one exception — Rabbi Perry Nussbaum, the controversial rabbi of Beth Israel in Jackson, whose home was bombed by the Klan in 1967 because of his civil rights activities.

Last year, “One More River” continued exploring the themes, with the story of Mickey Moe Levy — Sassaport’s cousin — who has to prove his worth to the disapproving parents of his girlfriend, Laura Anne Needleman, in 1962. His father, Bernard Levy, had been a mysterious figure in Guilford, Miss., before his death during World War II.

He embarks on an odyssey in the backwoods of Mississippi and Tennessee, exploring his father’s murky past against the backdrop of the Great Flood of 1927, which she said was “in some ways as transformative of the South as the Civil Rights Era.”

Last year, the book was selected for the “One Book One Community” initiative in Chicago, where one book is selected during Jewish Book Month for the entire Chicago Jewish community to read and explore together.

“Marching to Zion” is set in St. Louis in the 1920s and 1930s, where Mags Preacher, a black girl, wants to become a beautician. She meets Magnus Bailey, a black man who is in love with Minerva, the adopted daughter of the Jewish owner of the funeral home where they both work.

Aurora Mae Stanton from “One More River” reappears in this novel.

Glickman, who grew up Catholic in Boston, “fell in love at first sight” while visiting the South 30 years ago. “I loved the natural beauty of the South, its architecture, its culture of civility,” she said. She and her husband lived in Charleston, S.C. for a year in the late 1980s, somewhat by accident.

They were on a sabbatical in Spain when the dollar tanked. “We realized we could stay in Spain for another six months before running out of money or we could try living in South Carolina for a year. I hated leaving Spain, but from day one in South Carolina I knew we’d made the right choice,” she said.

She got a job mucking stalls at an equestrian center “and made some of the best friends of my life.” They returned to Boston after the sabbatical ended, but she kept returning South and in 2008 made the move permanent.

As a child in a strict Irish-Polish Catholic family, she was attracted to Jewish texts instead of Christian ones. “The good sisters who taught me would say that faith was a gift and by the time I was an adolescent I realized I had not been given the gift.” She explored many beliefs but kept coming back to Judaism. She converted when her husband proposed, though she had been wanting to do so for several years before then.

The great Jewish writers and Ashkenazic liturgical melodies stirred her soul, which she said was looking to find its way home to the Jewish world.

Glickman said her books are a way to address the “disconnect” between Southern and Northern attitudes about the South. “I’ve found that most Northerners view the South as a Hollywood stereotype, which is a denial of the complex layers and variety of Southern experience.”

Having been in Charleston where she found “an ease of relations between the races… in a way I didn’t find up North,” she was upset when a Boston Globe op-ed appeared years ago denigrating the approach to race at a Charleston museum. Given Boston’s checkered history, “it rankled to be lectured” that way.

A huge percentage of Northerners who came South during the civil rights era were Jews, whose aim was “to travel South, perhaps be arrested, perhaps beaten, even killed but once their protests were complete, they went en mass back to the safety of the North. Meanwhile, they’d stirred up enmity against Southern Jews who until that time were getting along pretty well.”

She felt a good way to illustrate the tension in her first novel was to have a Southern Jewish man married to a Northern Jewish woman.

Then, “you can’t write about the South without writing about race.” It turns out that her African-American characters were “some of the novel’s most beloved by readers.” She also realized that “the African American experience and the Jewish experience naturally resonate along the issues of slavery, of liberation, and in the sufferance of brutal racist acts,” and wanted to further investigate that in her newest book.

In working on the novels, she has absorbed many books about the Jewish community of the era, and taken advantage of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston.

Two years ago, Glickman was a featured author during the People of the Book festival at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center. She praised Debbie Pesses, saying “In this culture of visual media, it’s rare to find someone as devoted to the printed word as Debbie is, and of course, she’s the very model of Southern hospitality.”

She returned to New Orleans the next spring for LimmudFest and explored “the differences between the distinct graces of New Orleans and those of Charleston.”

Now, Glickman considers herself a “100 percent reconstructed Yankee.

“You don’t get to be truly Southern just by living here,” she said. “To be honest, that may be one of the reasons I love it so.