SEPTEMBER 4, 2014
I BOUGHT MY FIRST Rabbi Small detective novel with a smirk. I had spotted the book, a slowly disintegrating paperback from 1967, in the mystery section of a used bookstore in New York. The very idea seemed too outrageous to believe — or pass up. Some soft-spoken nebbish would take on the underworld? The book’s title, Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, brought to mind a Jewish take on pulp or a lost Mel Brooks bit. Even better, the marketing copy on the cover gushed, the work was part of a series of best-selling mysteries featuring the same sleuthing rabbi.
But I was game. I was going on vacation soon, and the book struck me as the perfect distraction. According to the book’s back cover, I would marvel at the “new murder puzzle with detective Rabbi David Small.” Who could resist such a proposition?
Despite my incredulity, I found myself entertained. The book, which turned around the murder of a pharmacist on Yom Kippur (thus the rabbi’s hunger), was a solid whodunit. But it was Saturday’s animated — and occasionally irritating — portrayal of striving white-collar American Jews that made it more than just a beach read. Released from my skepticism, I was free to enjoy the story with genuine interest, and over the next few years I consumed most of the series. All the while I wondered how the gentle, pilpul-pushing Rabbi Small and his creator, Harry Kemelman, fit into this world of lowlifes, scandal, and double-dealing. I backtracked to the detective and crime masters: Chandler and Cain, and the archives of Black Mask, the genesis of the hard-boiled detective trope.
As it turns out, they fit in quite well. The chaotic universe Rabbi Small inhabits is a suburb full of doctors and dentists, not a big city on the brink, but life is no less fraught in leafy Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts, the fictional town where the series is set, than in Bay City or Los Angeles. In nearly every book the rabbi’s tenure is in limbo. Though thoughtful in temperament, Rabbi Small is unyieldingly committed to conservative Jewish tradition. His livelihood is constantly threatened by an impatient temple board that regards him as little more than a mouthpiece for local Jews. Ultimately, the rabbi’s quest to save his culture — and his job — in the face of his congregants’ machinations parallels his extracurricular task of solving murders.
This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rabbi Small’s first adventure, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. While by the 21st century the series may have aged into something of a camp literary throwback, it’s worth revisiting for two reasons. First, under the cover of entertainment, Kemelman introduced millions of non-Jewish Americans to ordinary middle-class Jewish life. The Rabbi Small series, as the books came to be known, were some of the country’s best-selling mysteries of their day. Second, the series provides an eye-opening snapshot of a particular time in Jewish-American history. The heyday of the series was the 1960s and 1970s, one of the most tumultuous eras in American history. Though they had largely ascended to the comfortable class by that point, Jews were not exempt from this turmoil. Outwardly, they were forced to stake out positions on civil rights, free speech, and gender relations. Internally, the chaos manifested itself in a battle between tradition and assimilation.
It was this conflict that occupied the mind of Harry Kemelman. Raised in Boston, as an adult he had moved out to the Yankee town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. He looked on with intense interest as his city began filling up with young Jewish families after World War II. According to Kemelman’s son, Arthur, Harry Kemelman was never himself involved in organizing a temple, but he “was a keen observer of the scene.” And he was fascinated by what he saw. “By the nature of things he was drawn into the arguments and discussions that swirled around various Jewish issues, particularly temple matters and disputes, since the temple was the focal point of organized Jewish life,” the younger Kemelman said of his father.
Friday was an immediate success. It earned Kemelman — who was 55 when it was published — an Edgar Award, the most prestigious prize in mystery fiction. A 1975 interview in Publishers Weekly revealed that five million Rabbi Small mysteries had been printed, and the series had been “translated into almost every language except Russian, Chinese, and, naturally, the various Arabic languages.” Modern estimates put the number of Rabbi Small books in print at seven million copies at their peak. By the time of his death in 1996, Kemelman had published 12 titles in the series.
Most Rabbi Small fans weren’t actually Jewish. In a 1995 interview with The Jewish Exponent, Kemelman guessed that non-Jews made up 90 percent of his readership. There were a few explanations for this, according to Charles Ardai, founder of the hard-boiled publishing house Hard Case Crime. For one, mystery fans tend to be particularly receptive to new and exotic protagonists. Also, Kemelman could write a good play-fair mystery, the term for the classic thriller in which “the reader follows around the sleuth and tries to figure out the solution before the detective does,” Ardai explains. Perhaps most importantly, Rabbi Small appeared during a spike in national interest in Jewish culture nurtured by Woody Allen and Philip Roth, among other identifiably Jewish entertainment heavyweights. The series “was fresh and new, and at the same time Jewish subjects were for the time being, in vogue,” Ardai concludes.
Rabbi Small had all sorts of intriguing things to reveal to his audience. Consider the following exchange in Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (1978). At this point, our Talmud-wielding protagonist is looking into the death of Ellsworth Jordon, an aristocratic and outspokenly anti-Semitic Barnard’s Crossing resident. The rabbi’s investigation brings him into contact with two of Jordon’s yacht club friends, a selectman named Albert Megrim and a retired Episcopalian rector named Dr. Springhurst. In typical expository fashion, Rabbi Small explains the mindset of his people:
A thought crossed [Megrim’s] mind, and he looked curiously at Rabbi Small. “I suppose from your point of view Jordon’s death was punishment from on high for his attitude toward your kind.”
“Oh no,” said the rabbi quickly. “I’d hate to think so.”
Megrim opened his eyes wide. “You would?”
“Naturally,” said the rabbi. “Because the corollary would be that either any wicked person who was alive and prosperous was not really wicked or that God was unaware of his actions.”
Dr. Springhurst chuckled. “Ah, then you believe as we do that the wicked are punished after death.”
“No-o, we don’t believe that either,” said the rabbi. “That would mean depriving men of free will. We feel that virtue is its own reward, and evil carries its own punishment.”
Kemelman’s instructional approach was not accidental. He was deeply influenced by G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown series, and in multiple interviews throughout his life he praised Chesterton for educating readers about Catholic doctrine through his plucky, crime-solving priest. “I got more insight into Catholicism from reading Father Brown than I got in most of my studies in comparative religion,” he told People magazine in a 1976 feature, which, in addition to exploring his “sneaky way of teaching Judaism,” confirms the height of his contemporary pop culture relevance.
Additionally, because Kemelman was working within the domain of genre fiction, he had a unique window of opportunity. His readers, not expecting or wanting a dry academic tome, had no need to brace themselves for a “serious” work of comparative religion. Effectively disarmed, they allowed Rabbi Small — Talmud teachings and all — to enter their minds and occupy their nightstands.
While the idea of a crime-fighting rabbi was undoubtedly novel when Friday the Rabbi Slept Late appeared, the concept of a sleuthing ethnic or outsider was not unprecedented. Charlie Chan, Gravedigger Jones, and Father Brown are the most famous historical examples; at this point, the ranks of unlikely crime fighters include cats and hairstylists. “If a priest can be a detective, why not a rabbi?” asks Otto Penzler, founder of the Mysterious Press imprint. “Anybody can help solve a crime. Anybody can run across a crime or dead body in mystery fiction and try to work to solve who did it and why it was done and so on.”
Rabbi Small wasn’t the first Jewish protagonist of a mystery, but he was — and remains — the most influential “affirming” Jewish detective, says Laurence Roth, author of Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories and a professor at Susquehanna University. By “affirming” Roth means “a Jewish detective who is obviously Jewish, is interested in maintaining or defending Jewish life and Jewish particularity in American context.” Roth fingers Alvan Judah, hero of the late 19th-century dime-store novel The Jew Detective; or, The Beautiful Convict as the first Hebraic sleuth in modern English fiction. Judah, however, was the creation of Prentiss Ingraham, a non-Jewish ex-Confederate colonel dubbed the “King of the Dime Novels.”
Creating an unabashed rabbi protagonist had its risks. By the time Kemelman fashioned his famous sleuth, literary depictions of rabbis were overwhelmingly pessimistic, says Wendy Zierler, a professor of modern Jewish literature and feminist studies at Hebrew Union College. Rabbis were often “the repository of a lot of spleen from modernizing Jews, who saw traditional Judaism as the root of all problems for Jews.” This was reflected in the works of Kemelman contemporaries Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud. The contrast between these three “serious” writers and Kemelman, then, is not just literary — it’s existential. Kemelman is loud and proud; these three are lukewarm at best, and ashamed at worst. Their characters, famously, are “alienated.” Rabbi Small, however, is alienated from the alienated. His position as a Jewish leader means he has to keep himself slightly apart from his own people.
Kemelman projects his criticisms of mainstream Jewish-American life early in Friday, and they continue through his final book, That Day the Rabbi Left Town, which was published more than 30 years later. Sections of the books simmer with disapproval. In Friday, there’s a scene where Jacob Wasserman, the elderly founder of Rabbi Small’s temple in Barnard’s Crossing, tries to wrangle the temple’s board of directors for an important vote. After surveying the “sleek, professional men and businessmen” assembled, he quickly realizes their priorities. “I could go on all morning,” Wasserman tells the group, bitterly, “but then you would never get to the golf course.” Though the series falls within the mystery template, its exploration of Kemelman’s own ordeal of civility renders them more philosophical than ordinary whodunits.
Additionally, Kemelman’s use of a rabbi protagonist empowered him to interrogate unconventional suspects, most notably the stock trope of the Jew. Through Rabbi Small, supposed Jewish cunning is turned on its head; historically seen as a sinister trait, “cleverness” is given new, possibly ironic meaning when employed to solve murders. The 1998 essay collection The Detective in American Fiction, Film, and Television notes that “in keeping with the rabbi’s methodology, the solutions to the mysteries in the best [Rabbi Small] novels depend upon more than ordinary detection.” To underscore the claim, the book points to Rabbi Small’s lament from Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969): “You would have seen it, too, if you weren’t conditioned to focus first and foremost on the outsider, the stranger.” Interestingly — and perhaps not accidentally — this is the exact same moral of Chesterton’s most famous Father Brown tale, “The Invisible Man.” In Chesterton’s short story, a murder goes unsolved until the quiet priest deduces the culprit: a simple postal carrier. Witnesses swear, with complete sincerity, that they never laid eyes on a murderer. They did, but it’s beyond their comprehension that someone so like them could commit such a heinous crime.
Yet the Rabbi Small books were also a unique product of their time and place. Having largely gained acceptance into middle-class America, by the mid-1960s American Jews were free to stop and look around. Where they found themselves, however, was not entirely comfortable. The American Dream was finally in reach. Now what?
For Kemelman, this was the million-dollar question. At this point of transition — the 1960s and 1970s — American Jews are “going to have all kinds of contradictory, ambiguous, and ambivalent kinds of responses,” says Laurence Roth, the Inspecting Jews author. That includes a fictional rabbi-sleuth searching for literal and metaphorical resolution. Navigating the past and future, however, can get messy. The hot-button issues Rabbi Small must reckon with include intermarriage, women’s lib, civil rights, the Arab-Israeli conflict, upward mobility, temple politics, local politics, the academy, Jewish-Gentile relations, and anti-Semitism. There will be no rest for this weary Jewish detective.
Seen through modern eyes, the rabbi’s one-man culture wars did not always end well. This is illustrated somewhat by the rabbi’s ambivalence on civil rights activism, but much more starkly in his encounters with women, as in Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out. In addition to the murder of Jordon, the wealthy anti-Semite, the book is driven by the conflict over women’s participation in temple services. Backed into a corner by his weak-willed, trend-chasing board, Rabbi Small is forced to take a stand:
It seems to me that this particular change is part of the present ferment of the Women’s Lib movement, and as happens in the initial stages of any movement, you get all kinds of exaggerated reactions. A men’s club must admit women, or it’s sexist. You mustn’t say ‘Chairman,’ you now have to say ‘Chairperson.’ […] Look here, we are an institution going back several thousand years. Are we to change because there has been a sudden shift in fashion? Would you have us change the traditional Kol Nidre chant because the musical fashion is rock and roll?
It’s not just religious issues. The way the series’ constructs its female characters is, as Laurence Roth puts it, “highly problematic.” Rabbi Small’s wife, Miriam, is continually depicted as the stereotypical Jewish nag, always badgering her husband to put on a jacket, smooth his shirt, or take some sort of protective measure against colds. By the time the first two chapters of Thursday are through, she has cleared the dishes or fetched coffee nearly half a dozen times. There’s also Mrs. Mandell, a scheming old yenta (this is putting it charitably), and Gittel, Rabbi Small’s well-meaning but excruciatingly overbearing aunt featured in One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (1987).
The rabbi’s shortcomings, however, may actually make the series more enduring. He was, after all, a reaction to the zeitgeist and the chaos of the age, and it’s this conflict that makes the series such a valuable American artifact. If Rabbi Small hadn’t clung so tightly to his deeply held beliefs, there wouldn’t have been a congregation to go up against, or a showdown with the churning, mysterious postwar world. A generation on, his investigations still resonate. A soft-spoken nebbish could do worse.