Read April 2021
Recommended for fans of cozy-type mystery
★ ★ ★
After a slow start, the Rabbi came through. A red herring or two, a couple of likable characters, and a not-incompetent police chief made for some interesting stops along the way.
It begins with a group of Jewish men, waiting for the tenth so that they can start morning prayers.
“The rabbi… strolled up and down the center aisle, not impatiently, but like a man who has arrived early at the railroad station. Snatches of conversation reached him: talk about business, about family and children, about vacation plans, about the chances of the Red Sox. It was hardly the proper conversation for men waiting to pray, he thought, and then immediately rebuked himself. Was it not also a sin to be too devout? Was not man expected to enjoy the good things of this life? the pleasure of family? of work–and of resting from work? He was still very young, not quite thirty, and introspective, so that he could not help raising questions, and then questioning the questions.”
Interestingly, despite being the titular character, we don’t spend as much time as I expected with the rabbi. Instead, the third person limited narration is shared. We spend a few scenes with Mr. Wasserman, “the elderly president of the congregation,” as he tends to the question of whether or not they will renew the rabbi’s contract for another year. There’s also a couple of chapters from the very-much-alive Elspeth Bleech, who unfortunately will not be alive much longer, as well as a couple centering on the temperamental Al Becker, car dealership owner, and Stanley Doble, chief maintenance man for the temple.
Even more interesting is that it takes so long to get to the actual murder (spoiler: chapter something, for those with bad memories). Definitely a different pace than what I’m accustomed to. Between the viewpoints that act almost like character studies and the pacing, it felt a little be more like an exploration of life in a small town.
What really sets it apart is the focus on Jewish culture, in the ethnic, cultural and religious senses. Though the rabbi is young, he finds he’s often in the role of instructing much older members of his congregation. In fact, early on in the story, there’s a dispute among two members and Wasserman encourages them to bring it to the rabbi. The rabbi suggests a Din Torah, which is a hearing, or judgement, on the case, using the Talmud as a reference for the principles of damage and responsibility. It becomes an interesting little example of the dynamics of how the rabbi works and the dynamics of the members of the synagogue.
Unsurprisingly, issues of ethnical and religious perception by the community at large continue to be raised throughout the story. For a 1965 book, it remains rather sedate, but shows the degree to which communities are often intolerant of the ‘Other,’ particularly when it reminds them of their own failures.
There’s a few easy plot points–I won’t list, for risk of spoilers, but I thought them tolerable. I was surprised at the murderer, so good on Kemelman for that.
I remember seeing these books when I was a kid, in the paperback carousel at the library. Since the Rabbi series has been around since1964, I can’t say for certain if I ever read any of the books. But with an e-deal on a four-box set (I don’t even know what that means), I had a feeling it would be worth it. I’m glad that I have three more in store.