BOOK REVIEW: “The Rabbi Small Books”

By Contributor Gwenyfar Rohler

Review of “The Rabbi Small Books” by Harry Kemelman

Harry Kemelman’s “The Rabbi Small Books” are a series of mystery novels he wrote from 1964 to 1996.

They include “Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet,” “Tuesday the Rabbi Saw

Cover of "Wednesday The Rabbi Got Wet"

Cover of "Wednesday The Rabbi Got Wet". Image via Wikipedia.

Red,” and “One Day the Rabbi Will Leave,” among others.

The rabbi in question is Rabbi David Small, the rabbi of the combined Orthodox, Conservative and Reform synagogue in a tiny New England town.

His best friend is the Irish Catholic chief of police, Hugh Lanigan. Together, they solve the mysteries that surface in the small town of Barnard’s Crossing, meanwhile touching on the deeper mysteries of life.

Unlike an Agatha Christie novel with a specific crime that the sleuth is dedicated to solving, these books revolve around a small town doing what a small town does: people buy groceries, play bridge, go out to dinner and gossip. Somewhere along the line, the thing that Sally said to Sarah turns out to be not what anyone thought it was.

The mystery begins to emerge, and the obvious solution is just too obvious, at least to Rabbi Small. A lifetime spent studying Talmud sharpens the mind. So as small town gossip swirls and life continues, Rabbi Small and Chief Lanigan work out the problem by trying to find a different solution.

Not surprisingly, with a rabbi as a sleuth and protagonist, the books provide an opportunity to discuss and introduce Jewish life and culture to a mainstream audience. One of the more useful choices Kemelman made as an author was for Barnard’s Crossing to have a combined Reform, Orthodox and Conservative congregation. This offers the opportunity to discuss the differences and similarities in different Jewish denominations.

Contrary to the perceptions of many outside of the Jewish community, there are many different forms of Jewish practice. (Aside: In high school, when our English class read Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” someone raised their hand to ask a very reasonable question, “What does Hassidic mean?” I was stunned that our English teacher responded: “It doesn’t matter. All Jews are the same.” Well, actually, no.)

So, for example, the congregation’s kitchen is kosher, but many Reform Jews (and some Conservative Jews) don’t keep kosher. So in the course of events, the use of the kitchen comes up, and this provides an opportunity to discuss not only kosher but the differences that make up the Jewish experience.

First Rabbi Small novel, which was the basis f...

First Rabbi Small novel, which was the basis for the TV film and series, Lanigan's Rabbi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not surprisingly, the books written in the early 1960s such as “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late” published in 1964, when Kemelman was younger, show a more liberal, and closer to Reform aspect of Judaism than the books written toward the end of his life. “That Day the Rabbi Left Town,” published in 1996, reflects a more rigid and Orthodox view.

For true mystery lovers, these books are a real delight. Kemelman passed away in the 1990’s, before cell phones became ubiquitous and the forensics shows were all over television.

Rabbi Small lives in a world where people have to use their minds and wait to communicate with someone. No fancy labs or computer equipment magically find the answer. It all happens within the confines of the narrative, and the characters do not have any information to utilize that the readers do not.

For an educational, but entertaining, escape from modern technology that explores some of life’s deeper mysteries on a day-to-day level, check out Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small Books.

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