Teacher Teacher Teach Me More

That Day the Rabbi Left Town
Harry Kemelman

More than once in this space I’ve mentioned my teen-aged employment in the local library.

I was always on an alternate path, so alternate I couldn’t even get a typical part-time job. Civil service and exempt from the minimum wage law. In high school. Clearly, I was going places although it really was one of the better jobs I’ve had.

I’ve also mentioned the library’s abundance of crime fiction, a category so vast it warranted two aisles of hard-cover volumes. By the time I was introduced to that trove I was familiar with crime; The Hardy Boys played a large role in my youthful reading. But conceive of it as an adult genre? Sorry, that made no sense. I probably thought lesser of the patrons who made a beeline for that part of the building.

One thing that distinguished those shelves from the others was the presence of series. Publishers of these books took a lot of lessons from the world of fast-moving consumer goods. Packaging counted, especially an instantly recognizable cover layout.

A lot of effort went into titles. Seemingly, a premium was put on any approach that naturally proliferated. You still see these practices today, titles based on letters and numbers with endless variations on simple cover schemes abound. It all serves a purpose, to help the reader find (and purchase) the latest offering.

Packaged just like flavors of Cheerios.

Among the series I found myself shelving, the Rabbi Small books featured prominently. We even had multiple copies of each title.  I suppose that reflected a truth brought over the county line from the New York City boroughs: every ethnic group seems to need its own hero. My town had two synagogues and two Catholic churches. I’m sure there must have been a vaguely Catholic shamus lurking on the shelves, too.

Until Apple Books offered this title for 99 cents, I’d resisted the lure of Kemelman’s corpus. That was more the result of sloth than willfulness. It’s not as though I’d circumscribed crime fiction so as to exclude Jewish authors and tecs. Jake LeVine, Andrew Bergman‘s delicious noir knock-off, was as Jewish as his creator.

There is nothing noir about Rabbi David Small, who in this volume is retiring from his post with a congregation located in the fictional hamlet of Barnard’s Crossing, a town on Boston‘s North Shore. The rabbi is almost non-descript. Perhaps that’s by design. As these things go, about 4% of Massachusetts‘ population is Jewish. That’s roughly in the middle between New York, where nearly 1 in 10 residents is Jewish, and North Dakota, where Jewish residents are as rare as white elephants. (There were 400 in the state in 2020.)

Marblehead, Mass., a neat North Shore town.
Click the photo for a travelog item that  mentions Rabbi Small
Courtesy Jewish Week

Maybe the rabbi and his congregation are just trying to fit in. New England‘s commitment to maintaining its regional sub-culture is evident. So all the things amplified in, say, early Phillip Roth novels–the hondling1, the big machers, the crazy-character-filled mishpuchehs–are toned down here, like January in New Hampshire.

To illustrate just what that means, the imminent arrival of a new rabbi has the congregants in a twist. It’s more than the loss of a familiar face. The rabbi and his wife are a known quantity, members of the community enmeshed in the social life from after-service coffee to holiday dinners. In a close-knit community, they’re family.

The new rabbi, Dana Selig,  presents challenges. It’s not just that he’s young. It’s his behavior. He runs. For exercise. That can’t be a good look for a learned man. He dresses casually in the off-hours. And his wife! She’s a lawyer! With an office! How will that work? It’s not that a rebbitzen has official duties so much as there are expectations of her.

That’s before the dead man shows up at the foot of the driveway of the house the Seligs are renting.

Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Kemelman is vague but I sort of see the Smalls living on a street like this one.

Meanwhile Rabbi Small is settling into the next chapter of his life. He’s teaching a class at Windmere College of Liberal Arts, in Boston. The Smalls are maintaining their home in Barnard’s Crossing, but they have also taken an apartment in town to reduce the pressures of the commute and enjoy a bit of urban stimulation.

That dead man I mentioned above? He just happens to be a faculty member at the same school. Ultimately, by application of vaguely Talmudic reasoning, the Rabbi identifies the killer of the dead professor.

Two things struck at me as I read this story. The first was the perspective. Without doing any real counting, my guess is that the first-person and omniscient viewpoints occur equally in crime tales. And yet even when the narration is in the third person as in, say, a Carl Hiaasen novel, the impression is nearly the same as if the main character was telling the tale.

Here the author feels much more removed. That may explain the other thing that stood out. There was a lot of explaining. And not about crime-solving either. One thing that makes crime fiction unique is that it breaks the cardinal rules of writers’ workshops. “Write what you know,” they say. “Show, don’t tell.”

These are freshmen at a Catholic college. But the school is in New England and a seminar room is a seminar room.

Most crime novelists do not commit murder. And all seem intent on explaining. They almost require a sidekick to share the details with.

Not Rabbi Small. His presence is quite, well, small, pun intended. And when explanation occurs it’s less about the crime or solving it and more about the differences between Jewish and Christain practice. That Rabbi Small is teaching a course entitled Judaic Thought leaves a lot of room for explication.

There are a number of scenes involving the temple board, the search committee and various congregants. For me, these were the best part of the book. If you’ve always wondered what lies behind the old joke “What do you get when you have two Jews on a desert island? Three synagogues!” you’ll relish these tidbits.

Showing, not telling, at its best.


1 . My go-to reference for real-world translations of Yiddish is the dictionary page at Bubbygram.com . I’m sure there are more formal references available. But Adrienne Guoff’s sensibility, to me, reflects the good-humored way I heard Yiddish used by friends and family-by-marriage, so I’m loyal.

 

 

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