As Rabbi David Small’s 5-year contract winds down at the synagogue in Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts, some members of the congregation are plotting to remove him; others are whispering about starting a new temple of their own across the street. When the rabbi gets an invitation to perform Passover services at a local university, he’s eager to get away from the bickering and spend a few days on campus. But instead of peace and enlightenment, he finds a murder wrapped up in drug deals and racial tensions.
From tuned-out hippies to political zealots, the college is full of potential suspects. Once again it’s up to the rabbi to draw on his deductive skills to solve the case—and avoid getting sucked into the bitter culture war—before the killer strikes again.
About the Author
Aside from being an award-winning novelist, Kemelman, originally from Boston, was also an English professor.
Harry Kemelman (1908–1996) was best known for his popular rabbinical mystery series featuring the amateur sleuth Rabbi David Small. Kemelman wrote twelve novels in the series, the first of which, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. This book was also adapted as an NBC made-for-TV movie, and the Rabbi Small Mysteries were the inspiration for the NBC television show Lanigan’s Rabbi. Kemelman’s novels garnered praise for their unique combination of mystery and Judaism, and with Rabbi Small, the author created a protagonist who played a part-time detective with wit and charm. Kemelman also wrote a series of short stories about Nicky Welt, a college professor who used logic to solve crimes, which were published in a collection entitled The Nine Mile Walk.
Aside from being an award-winning novelist, Kemelman, originally from Boston, was also an English professor.
Read an Excerpt
Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home
A Rabbi Small Mystery
By Harry Kemelman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Ann Kemelman
All rights reserved.
"Now, that's what I call praying, Rabbi," said Harvey Andelman. "We finished five minutes" — a glance at his watch — "no, seven minutes ahead of schedule."
The rabbi, Rabbi David Small, smiled as he continued to roll up his phylacteries. He was young, in his mid-thirties; although in good health, he was pale and thin and carried his head slightly forward, as though peering near-sightedly at a book. He had indeed gone through the service at breakneck speed and felt a little sheepish about it. "You see, I'm going on a trip —"
"Sure, and you want to make an early start — naturally." It seemed perfectly reasonable to Andelman, who had a market in Salem and was always trying to speed up the morning prayers so that he could get to his place of business in good time. He was in torment on those days when they had to wait around to secure the ten men needed for the minyan; and as soon as he spotted the tenth man, he would wave him on as he might a runner nearing the tape, calling, "C'mon, c'mon, let's get going." But now, luxuriating in his unexpected five, no, seven minutes of grace, he waited for the rabbi to put away his phylacteries and prayer shawl. "When Wasserman leads, or the cantor, you'd think it was Yom Kippur, that they got all day. And come to think of it, I guess they have. But the rest of us, we got jobs and businesses to go to. Well, be seeing you, Rabbi," he said, loping off to his car.
Because he felt guilty about having hurried the prayers, Rabbi Small slowed down his pace to a stroll as he went along the corridor that led to his study. For the first time in a long while he noted the bare white cinder-block outer wall divided halfway up to no purpose by a strip of black plastic; the similarly divided yellow-glazed brick inner wall; the rubber tile floor, gleaming from a recent waxing, on which only the circled imprint of the floor polisher gave some semblance of design. It had the sterile feel of a hospital corridor.
When he had first come to Barnard's Crossing six years ago, the temple had been brand-spanking-new, and its modernity had a gay sparkle. But now it was beginning to show signs of age. There were scuff marks along the wall, and at one point near the ceiling there was a yellow stain where a pipe joint had let go. The rabbi could not help feeling that the older temples, with their carved paneling in mahogany or walnut, tended to age more gracefully.
As he neared his study he heard his phone ringing and hurried to answer it. He assumed it was Miriam with a last-minute request to pick up something — a bottle of milk, some rolls — at the grocery, but it was a man's voice, the tone accusing.
"Rabbi? Ben Gorfinkle. I called your house, and your wife said you were at the temple."
"The morning services —"
"Of course," said the temple president, as though conceding it was a legitimate excuse. "You know, Rabbi, the damnedest thing happened this morning. We were chewing the fat over a second cup of coffee, and Sarah mentioned that you were going to Binkerton."
"I told you several weeks ago that I was going," the rabbi remarked.
"Oh, I knew you were going to hold Sabbath services for some Hillel group, but I didn't realize you were going to Mass State at Binkerton. It just goes to show you what a small world it is. My Stuart is there."
"Oh, really? I didn't know that."
"Look, I thought maybe you'd say hello for us and —"
"But of course, Mr. Gorfinkle."
"I'm sure he'll come to your service, but just in case he gets tied up, maybe if you took his phone number —"
"Of course. Just a minute — let me get a piece of paper." He jotted down the number.
"It's a dormitory, so if he's not there, you can leave a message."
"If you call him when you get in, maybe he could show you around the campus."
"That's an idea." He was aware of a voice in the background, and Gorfinkle said, "Just a minute, Rabbi." Then after an interval of muffled sounds through the covered receiver, "Of course, he may have a class in the afternoon or have some studying to do."
The rabbi smiled to himself. Mrs. Gorfinkle must have pointed out that their son might not like the idea of being saddled with the rabbi and his family for the afternoon. "That's all right. We'll probably be pretty tired after our trip and will want to rest up."
"Well, it's a thought, anyway. When are you coming back, Rabbi?"
"Saturday night, right after Havdalah."
"Really?" Gorfinkle sounded surprised. "I thought Stuart said —" He sounded his hearty self again. "Well, anyway, it just occurred to me —"
"Yes?" The rabbi felt sure that he was now to hear the real reason for the call.
"If you've got room in your car, if it's not crowding you or inconveniencing you in any way — you see, Stuart will be coming home for Passover, and they've got a week's vacation —"
"That I could give him a lift back?"
"Only if it wouldn't be any trouble to you."
"I'd be very happy to, Mr. Gorfinkle."
He had no sooner hung up when there was a rap on the door, and without waiting to be invited, in came Morton Brooks, the principal of the religious school. He was a bouncy, youngish man of forty, with a kind of theatrical flamboyance about him.
"Thank God I caught you before you left. When I got the call, I came right over."
"Arlene Feldberg broke out with measles! The doctor was over last night, but Mrs. Feldberg didn't think to notify me until this morning." He sounded betrayed.
Brooks nervously fingered the long strands of hair that he had carefully combed to cover an incipient bald spot. "You know Arlene Feldberg, the little girl from the first grade who's supposed to say the Four Questions in English at the seder."
"Oh, Harry Feldberg's child. Well, that's all right." The rabbi was considerably relieved. For a moment he had thought the principal was concerned about a possible epidemic. "The Haggadahs we're using have the English translation on the opposite page. Or I suppose the little boy — what's his name?"
"I'm sure Geoffrey can give the translation after he reads it in the Hebrew."
"You mean he doesn't know what the Hebrew means?"
"Of course he knows," said Brooks indignantly, "but there's a big difference between reading and being able to recite it without adequate rehearsal. But even if there were time to coach him properly, it's still impossible. In fact, it would be adding insult to injury to let him have both parts. The Feldbergs would never forgive me, and they'd talk about it to their friends, and they include the Paffs and the Edelsteins. I assure you, Rabbi, we'd never hear the end of it."
"I see. And Geoffrey is a —"
"Blumenthal, of course — friends of the Gorfinkles, the Epsteins, and the Brennermans. They're cousins of the Brennermans, in fact."
"Oh, come, Morton. Isn't that rather silly?"
"Not at all," said the principal gravely. "Believe me, Rabbi, this is my third school, and I know how these things work. If you don't mind my saying so, I think you would be wise to pay a little more attention to the politics in the congregation. Oh, you attend the board meetings regularly, but the important developments take place in the school. That's where it really shows up."
"In the religious school?" The rabbi made no attempt to hide his amusement.
"Of course. The High Holidays are once a year. And the lesser holidays, if they fall during the middle of the week, we don't get more than seventy-five attending services, like on Friday nights. But the school — the kids go three times a week, and they report anything that happens the minute they get home. You know how we Jews feel about our kids. Any little slight or fancied unfairness, you'd think from the way the parents carry on it was a pogrom."
The rabbi smiled. "So what do you want to do about the present — er, crisis?"
"Well, it's a problem. Most of the members, as you know, hold their own seders at home, so we don't have too many children from the first grade who are coming to the temple seder. And the Paff group, who tend to be a little older, have fewer children in the first grade, anyway. But they have better representation in the upper grades. So I thought about that bit about the four kinds of sons. You know, the wise, the foolish, the simple, the wicked son."
"I know," said the rabbi dryly.
"Yes, of course, Rabbi. Well, I was thinking how would it be if we could act it out, see. You'd say the introductory paragraph, and then the lights would go dark, and we'd have a spotlight focused right in front on the head table." With tiny steps, he approached the rabbi's desk, his hands moving to outline the cone of light from the spot. "Then we could have the sons come on one at a time, see. The wise son, say, might come in wearing glasses and reading a book or maybe fiddling with a slide rule. Then he'd suddenly look up and ask his question. Only, the way I see it, we'd modernize it and have him say something like, 'Golly, this is groovy, Dad. How come the Lord our God asked us to do all these things?' And the way I visualized the wicked son, he'd be dressed in a black leather jacket and one of those peaked caps and sun goggles, or maybe we could have him dressed as a hippie — you know, barefoot with beads and long hair and faded blue jeans." He slouched, his head lolling to one side, and he spoke out of one side of his mouth, as though there were a cigarette dangling there. "'Hey, how come you cats snazzied up your pad like this? Crazy, man, crazy.' Do you get the idea?"
"And how would this help your particular situation?"
"Well, we have a wider choice among the older children. I had the Edelstein boy tabbed for the part of the wicked son. And being all dressed up, the only one in costume, you might say, it would go a long way —"
"Have you thought of a rock and roll band for the chants?"
Brooks looked at him. "Now there's an idea, Rabbi."
"No, Morton. No," he said firmly. "We'll stick to a traditional seder if you don't mind. And let the Blumenthals and Feldbergs just make the best of it." He rose and edged to the door. "I really have to run now."
"Well, think about it over the weekend, won't you, Rabbi?" Brooks pleaded.
"I'll give it all my free time," said the rabbi with unwonted sarcasm.
But Brooks was not to be put off. "No, seriously, Rabbi, what's wrong with livening up the ceremony so's to capture the interest of the kids? Everybody's doing it now — the Catholics, everybody. They've even held jazz masses. After all, the seder's a celebration. Why shouldn't they have a good time?"
The rabbi stopped at the door. "Because, Morton, the Passover seder is something more than a celebration. It's a ritual in which every step is spelled out — and for a purpose. The whole point of a ritual is that it should be repeated exactly every time it is performed for it to have the proper effect. And now if you don't mind, I really am in something of a hurry."
Outside, he stopped for a moment to make sure the windows of his study were closed in case it should rain over the weekend. The exterior of the building was also showing signs of wear, he saw. The stainless steel columns, which Christian Sorenson, the architect, had said were intended to suggest "the purity of the religion and its resistance to the decay and erosion of time," had taken on a dull yellowish tinge — the effect of the salt air, no doubt. And the long walls of glazed white brick that jutted out from either side of the tall boxlike building and sloped away in gentle curves — "like a pair of open and embracing arms calling on people to come and worship" — were chipped here and there and showed black spaces like missing teeth.
In the parking lot the rabbi was delayed once again. Mr. Wasserman, the first president of the congregation, hailed him as he was getting into his car. Wasserman, now in his seventies, was thin and frail after his recent illness, and the hand he put on the rabbi's arm showed blue veins through transparent skin. He spoke softly, his speech not so much accented as showing special care to be correct.
"You'll be back for the board meeting Sunday, won't you, Rabbi?"
"Oh, certainly. We're planning to start back Saturday right after Havdalah, say six o'clock, and we should be home by nine — ten at the latest."
The rabbi paused in the act of getting in behind the wheel. "Are you expecting something important to come up at the meeting?"
"Expecting? I'm always expecting, almost any day, but especially on Sundays when the board meets. This Sunday it could be something serious."
"Why this Sunday?"
Wasserman held up a finger. "Because next Sunday is the first seder, so there won't be a meeting." He held up a second finger. "The next Sunday is again the holiday, so again won't be a meeting. So if Gorfinkle is planning something serious, this Sunday would be a good day, because there wouldn't be another meeting for three weeks." He held up three fingers.
"And if he decides to do something serious, as you put it, how could I stop it?"
"You're the rabbi. That means you're not on one side or the other. You're like neutral, so you can say things that the rest of us can't."
"You're thinking of the committee changes that the president will make?" He settled into the car. "He'll make them sooner or later, anyway."
Wasserman shook his head. "But it will cause trouble, and better later than sooner. You're a rabbi, but I'm an old man. A lot that I've seen, maybe you only know from reading about it. It's like in marriage. If an open break doesn't develop, it can be cured. After all, there are couples who quarrel almost from the day they get married. If one of them doesn't pack up and move out and go see a lawyer yet, there's a good chance the marriage will last."
"Isn't that being a little —" He looked at the old man; he was obviously troubled, so he changed his tack. "After all, Mr. Wasserman, it's only a board meeting."
Mr. Wasserman looked at him steadily. "Try to be there, Rabbi."
As he drove home to pick up Miriam and Jonathan, he found himself resenting the role he was expected to play. He was a rabbi — by tradition a scholar and a teacher; why should he be mixed up with matters of faction and politics? Even Jacob Wasserman, whom he respected and regarded as one of his few real friends in the Jewish community — the one man who should have an understanding of the traditional role of the rabbi — even he was involving him in the tawdry politics of the temple. It was almost as though they resented his taking a couple of days off.
It had all started a month ago when Rabbi Robert Dorfman, Hillel director and religious advisor to the Jewish students of Mass State, Western Division, at Binkerton, and his wife, Nancy, had driven east to visit her folks in Lynn. They had dropped in on the Smalls in Barnard's Crossing, because it was close by and the two men had been at the seminary together. In the course of conversation Bob Dorfman mentioned that he had applied for a pulpit in New Jersey.
"They've invited me to come down and conduct Friday and Saturday services."
"It is, but I wish they had chosen some other date. That's the weekend before our spring vacation."
"And the Hillel people won't let you off for that weekend?" Rabbi Small sounded surprised.
"Oh, there's no trouble that way. It's just that with the Passover coming during the vacation, I feel that I ought to conduct that going-away service."
"Why not ask the New Jersey people for a postponement or an alternate date?"
Rabbi Dorfman shook his head. "You know how it is. They may be having a bunch of candidates for a whole series of Sabbaths."
"You're pretty keen on this?"
"Oh, yes," said Dorfman. "Hillel work is all right, and working with college kids is important, but I'd like to get a regular congregation." He laughed self-consciously. "I'd like to make a speech of benediction at a Bar Mitzvah once in a while. I suppose it's the messianic delusion that we all suffer from a little or we wouldn't get into this business in the first place, but I have the feeling that what I can say at that time might strike the youngster just right. I'd like to be present at a brith —"
Excerpted from Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home by Harry Kemelman. Copyright © 2002 Ann Kemelman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was enjoyable. The mystery was pretty easy, but I like it for all the little insights into Jewish ethics and culture. Rabbi Small is my kind of guy. Little bits of wisdom amongst tons of common sense.
The silly politics described in the Rabbi Small series may be endemic in some congregations but stereotyping in general irks me making it hard for me to enjoy the plot.
Wasn't expecting to like this - given to me by my mother-in-law - but enjoyed the story. The insights into Jewish religious practice were illuminating for a gentile :)
i liked the mystery in this one and comments on social issues like civil rights and drugs.
Enjoyed the mystery greatly