Former Temple Emanu-El Rabbi Jonathan Miller writes first novel

Jonathan Miller. (Photo/Amy Saab)

Jonathan Miller is no stranger to writing.

By his count, Miller wrote 45 sermons, 30 eulogies, 20 invocations, 60 class sessions, 35 scripture lessons and 18 articles each of his 40 years in the rabbinate, 26 which were as rabbi at Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El before he retired in 2017.

He compiled his eulogies in a book called “Legacy, a Rabbi and Community Remember Their Loved Ones,” but Miller’s first foray into fiction writing, “Take My Dog: A Southern Detour Through the Apocalypse,” is available now.

“I enjoy writing, and I decided to take the plunge,” he says of becoming a first-time novelist. “In retirement, I had nothing to lose.”

The spark for the novel came before his retirement, in 2016, when a man from Mississippi called him, worried about who would take care of his dog after the Rapture, the event some Christians believe will lead to all Christians leaving Earth and going to heaven.

“He was searching out a Jew to take care of his dog, and I guess I was a good person to call,” Miller recalls. “The caller was concerned lest his dog fall into the hands of an atheist.”

Miller says “right then and there” he knew he had to write about that phone call.

It’s the opening scene of “Take My Dog,” about a rabbi from the fictional small town of Cumberland, Alabama, who takes a similar phone call, which launches a story that involves Alabama, Mississippi, the Rapture and, of course, a dog.

“I wrote quickly, which was a joy,” Miller says about the process. “And my wife heard me laugh out loud as I was banging on the keyboard. Writing was so much fun. Editing, on the other hand … is the hard work.”

Miller’s literary inspirations explain the eclectic tone of “Take My Dog,” a darkly comic novel with serious topics and, Miller says, a dose of humor.

“Moses, David, Solomon and the great rabbis of the past” inspire him, Miller says. “Rabbis are engaged with sacred text in creative ways – always searching for a new angle, a new insight, a play with words and meanings. And, of course, Stephen King – readers will find some of that in my book.”

Though he lives in Maryland now to be close to his three children – one is a rabbi, as was Miller’s father ­– he misses Birmingham, which he called home for nearly three decades.

“The South has two contact sports to be proud of, college football and religion, and I learned to enjoy them both,” Miller says. “For me, the South was always a foreign country, and I enjoyed being an outside observer. That’s what rabbis do. We participate and observe other people’s lives. … Southerners do not realize how remarkable their culture and their way of life appear to those poor Yankees from the north whose lives lack the color of Southern charm and mystery.”

He does return to Birmingham from time to time, including for a book signing at Temple Emanu-El earlier this year.

“I miss my synagogue and my community and Birmingham, too,” Miller says. “Even though it has been some years since I left the pulpit, I feel that it is home when I am fortunate enough to come down to visit.”

He says folks he knew in Birmingham might be surprised by the comic tone of his novel.

“I hope so,” he says. “I really do. I really hope they say, ‘My gosh, he is funny. What was he acting so serious all those decades?'”

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