The last few months I’ve been dipping into the Rabbi Small murder mysteries, which are written by author and professor of English Harry Kemelman (1908–1996). The series is in the Amateur Sleuth sub-genre. In this case the amateur who is constantly solving murders is a Jewish rabbi.
The Tony Hillerman books (Leaphorn and Chee) are filled with Navajo background. The Jonathan Gash books (Lovejoy) are filled with antiques background. The Lawrence Block books (Bernie the burglar) are filled with burglary background. In all cases, this background enriches the reading and can be educational (the Hillerman books especially).
Harry Kemelman’s books are enriched by all the Jewish background.
Actually, the Bernie the Burglar books snuck onto that list (as burglars do). Bloch doesn’t include many details; lock picking, for instance, is just a fait accompli. The only really information is: wear gloves and be quiet.
I might instead have listed the Perry Mason books by Erle Stanley Gardner, which educate about trial procedure. Among other things, I learned about leading questions and probative evidence from those books. Any fiction with accurate information can be educational, but some authors (such as Kemelman) deliberately seek to educate as well as tell stories.
So his books tend to have three levels; they’re…
- …amateur sleuth murder mysteries.
- …Jewish slice-of-life stories.
- …treatises on Jewish law and custom.
The slice-of-life element revolves mainly around synagogue life and business — the conflicts between the congregation, who often trade tradition for modern goals not well aligned with Jewish law and custom, and the rabbi, who is the specially trained expert regarding those laws and customs.
The Hebrew word rabbi (רבי) means spiritual teacher. Equivalents in other languages seem to carry a flavor of master as well as teacher, but the Hebrew and Yiddish versions don’t appear to. (Based on the Wiktionary entries.)
If that’s an accurate perception, it makes sense. A rabbi is a teacher, a leader by example, and they act as a judge of Jewish law and custom when needed. In ancient times rabbis were hired by an entire town mainly to act as judge and mediator. Unlike priests, ministers, or pastors in Christian religions, a rabbi is not in any sense between the congregation and God. They aren’t required for leading prayers or services; any Jewish male of age can do that.
This puts Kemelman’s rabbi, David Small, in the position of having no power (other than the willingness to walk out if he feels the congregation has crossed a line). Most of the tension in the books comes from the conflict between the congregation and the rabbi. There is often some group with a scheme that serves themselves, but which doesn’t follow Jewish custom.
Each book I’ve read so far has the same Special Forward by Kemelman. It explains the creation of Rabbi Small. He talks about members of a synagogue in the small town his family moved to:
They knew about religion in general from reading or from the movies they had seen, but little or nothing of the tenets of Judaism. Typical was the reaction of the young lawyer who had asked the rabbi they had engaged to bless the Cadillac he had just bought. He was surprised and hurt when the rabbi refused and said he did not bless things. The friends in the synagogue whom he told of the rabbi’s refusal felt much the same way.
Which suggests the kinds of daily conflicts his rabbi Small encounters. Kemelman concludes:
I was fascinated by the disaccord between the thinking of the rabbi and that of the congregation, and the problems it gave rise to. So I wrote a book about it. My editor, Arthur Fields, thought the book too low-keyed and suggested jokingly that I could brighten it up by introducing some of the exciting elements in the detective stories that I had written. […] Thus was born Rabbi David Small.
Rabbi Small always explains why he can’t do this or that thing, or go along with some big plans the congregation has, and that’s Kemelman providing a treatise on Jewish law and custom.
Here is a list of the Rabbi Small books:
- Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964)
- Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966)
- Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969)
- Monday the Rabbi Took Off (1972)
- Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red (1973)
- Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet (1976)
- Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (1978)
- Conversations with Rabbi Small (1981)
- Someday the Rabbi Will Leave (1985)
- One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (1987)
- The Day the Rabbi Resigned (1992)
- That Day the Rabbi Left Town (1996)
Kemelman died in 1996, so there won’t be any more. These were never hugely popular books. Only the first one rates its own Wiki page.
As Sue Grafton did with her Kinsey Millhone Alphabet books, Kemelman created a limiting factor in his titles. Grafton had the whole alphabet (and died between “Y” and “Z”), but Kemelman only gave himself seven days (no doubt a reference to Genesis). He broke convention with #8, but found a way to reference days in the last four.
They’re enjoyable enough reads, but I don’t consider the series one of my favorites. Several times the murderer has been easy to spot early on (if not right away). The books’ value to me comes from the Jewish background information, which I find fascinating. It’s a very pragmatic and practical religion; more a way of life than a way of worship and with some very sensible beliefs.
In the book I just read (Tuesday), the rabbi talks about Christian theology, which seeks to explain the whole God-Son-Mother-Holy Spirit-Heaven-Hell-Angels structure. In comparison, Jews don’t even have a theology in that sense. They feel God is beyond any human ken. One is free to study God, but it’s like trying to build a perpetual motion machine. There’s just no point; it can’t be done. The Jews neither need nor seek an explanation of God.
Another point Kemelman makes repeatedly involves the Jewish response to the observed fact that good often perishes while evil prevails. Hindus answer this with a wheel of life and reincarnation; Christians with Heaven and Hell. The Jews don’t believe in Divine Justice. They take their cue from the book of Job — life can suck; deal with it; good is its own reward.
Some might also enjoy the humanity of the slice of life bits, many of which have various members of the congregation misinterpreting Small’s actions because they keep looking for the hidden motives of a man who, unlike them, has none. (Kemelman isn’t writing for humor, but some of it is definitely tongue-in-cheek.)
Any reader with scholarly inclinations will find a friend in Rabbi David Small. And in Judaism in general. The Jews revere learning for its own sake, too. They view it as especially human.
Ritual is a big aspect of any religion, certainly of any as ancient as Judaism.
I’m fascinated that many Jewish traditions, customs, or laws (which, for the Jews, are largely the same thing), exist solely to remind the Jews they are the chosen people. (Rabbi Small points out that being chosen once does not imply being forever blessed. Being good is a daily chore.)
Ritual can be just a sign or reminder of membership, but it also has a connection with regular practices. For example, our daily grooming and exercise rituals (brush and workout regularly). We also have food health rituals (no cutting lettuce on the same board used to cut raw chicken; don’t leave the milk out).
And let us not forget the warming wonderful ritual of holidays. Ritual can also be grounding, a reference point in an ever-changing difficult world.
On the other hand, ritual can be the enemy of thought and creativity. Rituals, especially daily ones, tend to performance by rote; they lose meaning. Think how grade school students mouth the Pledge of Allegiance. I recall how perfunctory and quick our family dinner prayer was.
I take to heart the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
Indeed, and there may be some connection between a love of ritual for ritual sake and a conservative viewpoint.
(One of my weaknesses is that I can’t stand ritual because I loath repetition. If something vanishes a document I’m editing, be it email, code, post, or whatever, I usually have to do something else rather than re-type what I just typed. Even when I take a walk, I make it a loop, not a line out and back.)
§ § §
I also read the first five (out of ten) books in the Patricia Fisher Cruise series by Steve Higgs (who is too new and/or too obscure to have a Wiki page). There is apparently another ten-book series, the Patricia Fisher Mystery series, and I think it says something they were all published in the 2019–2021 time frame (all but one in the first two years).
The series starts with Patricia Fisher, 50, an overweight “nobody” who accidentally — by getting the date wrong — catches her husband sleeping with her best friend.
So Patricia packs a few suitcases, empties the joint bank account, and heads to the port where all the cruise ships are. She tries to book passage on the first one she sees — the one leaving almost immediately — but the only room available is (if memory serves) the Windsor Suite, the most expensive suite on the ship, the one usually reserved for heads of state or princes of nations.
She spends everything she has on a round-the-world cruise in a suite fit for a queen. It even comes with a personal butler, Jerome, who’s from Jamaica but affects a British accent. He’s also trained in the martial arts, which comes in handy a few times.
Patricia, determined to lose some weight (viewing it as a reason the husband strayed), becomes friends with the ship’s fitness director, Barbie. Who, no kidding, looks pretty much exactly like her namesake. Higgs describes her impossibly large firm breasts and incredibly narrow waist in every book.
She quickly catches the eye of the handsome (single) captain, and by book four or five they’re an item. For Patricia, it becomes a voyage of self-discovery and self-recovery, plus she becomes famous as she solves important murder mysteries in each book. Very quickly she’s being approached as a mystery solving expert.
In the first book she stumbles upon and solves a 30-year-old mystery involving a huge stolen sapphire (“big as a man’s fist”). Next she gets caught up in a thing involving gangsters from Miami. In book three it’s a murder of the star of an action film being shot onboard. The fourth book involves gangsters in Tokyo and drug smuggling. The last book I read, which was actually I-kid-you-not titled Doctor Death, involved a terrorist plot to use the ships crew and passengers to secretly test a viral weapon intended for a local civil war.
If you’re sensing any disdain in this account, well,… yeah, guilty as charged.
These are what I call “beach books” — something trivial and easy breezy to read in a highly distracting environment where one anticipates many interruptions. They’re shallow, fast, and harmless. Easy to put down, trivial to resume whenever.
In this case, between Barbie and Jerome, they’re very Hollywood — very cinema ready. The whole cruise concept just begs for a streaming series.
It got a bit much for me during book four, and I had a hard time finishing book five (I skimmed a lot of it). After that I was done. A definite Meh! rating.
Stay cruising, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.