A pharmaceutical mishap draws Rabbi Small into a murder investigation in this New York Times bestseller
New Age thinking has come to Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts. The recently elected president of Rabbi David Small’s synagogue is intent on using temple money to build a meditation retreat. The congregation is practicing yoga, buying crystals, and reciting chants. When a troubled young man returns to the town after spending time in a controversial Hasidic cult, the rabbi expects him to be another New Ager. But things take a grisly turn away from new-fangled mantras of peace and love when something terribly old fashioned happens: murder.
An elderly patient dies after being given the wrong medication by the local pharmacist, who coincidentally is also the Hasidic man’s father. When the dead man’s family suggests the mix-up was intentional, both the druggist and his son become suspects and it’s up to Rabbi Small to investigate by drawing on some Old Testament wisdom in a village of New Age fads.
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
Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet
A Rabbi Small Mystery
By Harry Kemelman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Ann Kemelman
All rights reserved.
"I suppose you're happy about the outcome of the election."
Rabbi David Small turned and saw that it was Joshua Tizzik, a thin little man with a long nose and a mouth twisted in a perpetual sneer, who had fallen in step with him.
The evening service had just ended, and Rabbi Small was strolling back to his car in the parking lot, savoring the balmy air of the October Indian summer. The rabbi was thin and pale and walked with a scholarly stoop although still under forty. He fixed nearsighted eyes on Tizzik and said, "If you mean that the election of Chester Kaplan and his friends signifies a renewed interest in the temple's religious function as opposed to its social function, then of course I am. If, on the other hand, you're suggesting that I had anything to do with it, then you're mistaken. I never meddle in temple politics."
"Oh, I'm not saying you campaigned for him, but don't try to tell me you're not happy he won."
"All right," the rabbi said good-humoredly, "I won't." He had found over the years that it was pointless to argue with the perpetually dissatisfied Mr. Tizzik.
"And don't kid yourself about any religious revival, Rabbi. Organization and ordinary politics did it. For over a year now, Chet Kaplan has been holding these At Homes every Wednesday evening —"
"I've never been to one."
"No?" Tizzik was frankly incredulous. "Well, take a small town like Barnard's Crossing. What can you do of an evening? There's the Friday night service at the temple, and you know half the people come just because it's a place to pass the time. Saturday nights, maybe you go out to dinner or a movie. And that's pretty much it. So when Kaplan started these At Homes, it was something to do, a place where you could meet people. You'd have a cup of coffee or a glass of beer and a couple of doughnuts —"
"But what do you do there, Mr. Tizzik?"
"Talk — mostly about the temple because it's a common interest. We discuss religion. Everybody is an expert on that. Sometimes, Kaplan will have somebody come to give a little lecture. He's got a friend from New Hampshire, Rabbi Mezzik —" He laughed. "I told him once we ought to start a vaudeville team, Mezzik and Tizzik. Well, this Rabbi Mezzik, he goes in for meditation. He talks on Judaism and other religions like Christianity and Buddhism and how they relate to our religion."
"And then Chester Kaplan tops it off with a political speech?"
"Oh no, nothing crude like that. But he has this group that are into this meditation business with him, the guys that were on his slate for board of directors. They're like an inner circle. Sometimes, I understand, they go upcountry to a camp they rent for a couple of days, and have all kinds of discussions. And pray, for all I know, because this Rabbi Mezzik, he's involved in it. But then the rest, those who came because it was something to do, well most felt where their host was running for president, they ought to give him their vote. Then just before the election, the inner-circle guys, they phoned everybody who had ever attended a meeting. They got the names from a guest book Chet has you sign."
Rabbi Small nodded. "Yes, I can see where that might be effective. But let me suggest another possibility. As in all small towns, there's only one synagogue here in Barnard's Crossing because the Jewish community isn't big enough to support more than one. So it was established as a Conservative temple in order that the Orthodox on one side and the Reform Jews on the other can both feel not too uncomfortable. It's a compromise. My guess is that the Conservatives have a clear majority, but there are shades of opinion among them running from almost Orthodox to almost Reform. Most years it has been two men from the middle, two Conservatives, who were running against each other. This year, the other candidate, Mr. Golding, was definitely of the Reform wing. So the Orthodox and the near-Orthodox and most of the straight Conservatives voted for Mr. Kaplan. It was probably as simple as that."
When they reached the rabbi's car, a sudden thought occurred to him. "Whom did you vote for, Mr. Tizzik?"
Tizzik smiled deprecatingly. "Look, Rabbi, I drank his beer and I ate his doughnuts. So what could I do? I voted for Kaplan. At least, I know that when I come to say Kaddish like tonight, Chet Kaplan will be there, and if necessary he can lead the prayers."CHAPTER 2
Since it was Akiva Rokeach's first conference with the rebbe, Baruch, the gabbe, felt he should instruct him on how he was to behave. "You understand, Akiva, that with the rebbe one doesn't argue," he said severely. "Reb Mendel is a zaddik, that is to say a holy man, like a saint." Baruch was a small, stout man, balding, with grizzled hair pushed back from a high forehead where a prominent blue vein pulsated noticeably when he was angry. He held the last half-inch of an unfiltered cigarette between nicotine-stained thumb and forefinger, took a final puff, and then regretfully dropped it in an ashtray where it continued to smolder. He was a nervous, irritable man, but as the gabbe, or secretary and general factotum to the rebbe, he was important. Only through him could one get in to see the rebbe. "Even when the rebbe seems to make a mistake," he continued, "as when you think he has misquoted during his discourse on the Law, you do not point it out or contradict him. Instead, you should ponder the reason why Reb Mendel deliberately misquoted." He paused to light another cigarette. "Most of all, when he renders a verdict, you accept it without protest."
"I understand," said Akiva Rokeach humbly.
The vein in the gabbe's forehead throbbed at the interruption. "For he has the Insight, you understand, and it is not to be expected that his thought will be like yours."
This time Akiva merely inclined his head in acquiescence. Although he had been associated with the group for more than half a year, it would be the first time he would be seeing Reb Mendel in his study alone, and he did not want to jeopardize the opportunity by irritating the gabbe.
Baruch looked at the young man standing before him in frank disapproval — of his long hair, of his unruly blond beard, of his patched blue jeans stuffed into heavy boots. "You have a kvitl?" he demanded sourly, and when Akiva did not seem to understand, he translated impatiently, "A request, a written request. You don't expect the rebbe to wait while you explain, do you?"
"Oh, oh yes. I have it here."
"And a pidyon?"
Akiva drew out a five-dollar bill from his wallet and presented it a token in advance of his gratitude to the rebbe for the privilege of talking with him in private. Baruch glanced at it and made a notation in his book.
"Wait here and I will see if the rebbe can see you now." He knocked on the door of the study, waited a moment and then entered, closing the door carefully behind him. He returned shortly and motioned the young man to enter.
Akiva had never been so close to Reb Mendel before. At the fatbrengen, the festive gatherings, as the newest member of the group, he had to remain on the fringe. And when the zaddik expounded Torah and philosophy after the third meal on the Sabbath, he had been at the extreme foot of the communal table, separated from him by almost the length of the hall.
Now Reb Mendel sat tall in his thronelike chair behind a large carved walnut desk. He was thirty? forty? forty-five? It was hard to tell. The large spade beard was beginning to gray, but the hand that occasionally stroked it was that of a young man.
"Ah, our young Viking," Reb Mendel murmured, and nodded to a chair beside the desk.
"I beg your pardon, Rebbe, I didn't hear —"
Reb Mendel smiled. "Nothing. A little private joke. You wish to live here for a week?"
"I have a week's vacation," said Akiva. "I thought I could best spend it here in prayer and meditation."
With only a flick of his eyes, the rebbe glanced at the card Baruch had placed on his desk. "You have been with us only seven months," he said. "You do not have the training or the background yet which would make it worthwhile. You have had no previous religious education, not even the little that most Jewish boys get in preparing for their Bar Mitzvah."
Akiva inclined his head. "My parents are not religious. My father is an agnostic and I was brought up in agnosticism. I was not sent to the religious school like the other boys in the neighborhood and we did not belong to the temple."
"Your parents live here in Philadelphia?"
"No, I come from Massachusetts, from a small town north of Boston called Barnard's Crossing."
"And when did you last see them?"
Akiva colored. "Well, I haven't seen them for some time, but I talk with them on the phone every now and then, especially with my mother."
"With your father you quarreled." It was not a question; it was stated flatly as though he knew. "Tell me about it."
"My father has a drugstore, and when I graduated from pharmacy college and passed my licensing exam, I went to work for him. We never really got along." "But that was not why you left — and never returned."
Akiva nodded readily, even eagerly, to show he had no intention of keeping anything back. "There was this place I used to go to, it was a kind of nightclub. They had a back room where there was gambling —"
"Yes, they had girls, too. Well, I was a little short on my bill there one night, and I gave them an IOU for fifty dollars. Then somebody, not the proprietor — he claimed he bought it from the proprietor — came to see me at the store, only it had been hiked to a hundred and fifty."
"You asked your father for the money?"
"Well, no. He wouldn't have understood. He's very like square. He would have gone to the police."
"So you took the money out of the cash register?" the rebbe suggested.
Akiva nodded without embarrassment. That was what was so wonderful about the group. One could be completely honest with them. "It was no sweat. You see, I opened in the morning and I closed at night, so I totaled. Mostly I'd take the figures at night, but if I was in a hurry I'd leave them for the morning. But one morning I overslept, and my father opened. Of course I was planning to replace the money in a couple of weeks."
"But your father caught on before you had a chance to."
"That's right. There was an awful row and I split."
"Where'd you go?"
"I just wandered around the country. I was in California for a while. And then I worked my way back to Philly."
"Because I'd gone to the College of Pharmacy here, so I knew the city."
"And what did you do while you wandered around the country? And how long has it been since you left home?"
"About three years. Most of the time I worked. I'd take a job in a drugstore — pharmacy jobs weren't hard to get — and I'd work for a while and then I'd move on to another place."
"Because you were not at ease with yourself," said Reb Mendel flatly.
"No, I —" He remembered that one must not contradict the rebbe. "Yes. But I also wanted to try out different lifestyles. I was into yoga for a while, and Zen." He took courage. "I understand you, too ..."
Reb Mendel smiled, a broad sunny smile that showed even white teeth, and for a moment he seemed very young, no older than Akiva. "While doing my doctorate in anthropology, I lived among the American Indians for a while, studying their religion. Later, I spent some time in India, studying Eastern thought and Transcendental Meditation. But ultimately one must find the equivalents in one's own culture. One must go home. I did. And so must you, Akiva."
"But if I stay here, if only for the rest of the week —"
Reb Mendel shook his head. "You do not know enough to profit from it. I am informed that in the time you have been with us, you have learned to read your prayers in Hebrew ... haltingly. But of course you don't understand what you're reading. When we talk here, we talk in English to be sure, but also in Yiddish and occasionally Hebrew, neither of which you understand. You would be wasting your time. You have a few days left of your vacation, so I tell you to use them to go home."
The young man made no effort to conceal his disappointment, and Reb Mendel's expression softened. "Don't you see," he said kindly, "the quarrel with your father impedes your spiritual progress. So long as you have something in your past which disturbs and interferes with your concentration, you will never know the tranquillity that is necessary for the ecstasy we strive for."
"It wasn't only that," Akiva pleaded. "We never really got along. He had old-fashioned ideas — even about running the store. Lots of stuff he wouldn't carry because he'd say it wasn't in keeping with the dignity of a pharmacy. Even the way you filled prescriptions, it had to be just so. Like where every pharmacy in town used plastic tubes for putting up pills, he still used glass bottles because he said the tubes weren't air-tight, although there are only a few pills like nitroglycerin that deteriorate in the air."
"And this was a hardship?"
"No, but it's old-fashioned. The bottles cost more and instead of just sliding the label in like you do with tubes, you got to paste them on. I'm just giving that as an example. Like we used to stay open later than the other stores in town because he felt it was the responsibility of a pharmacy to the community. Sometimes, doctors would call up in the middle of the night and I might have to go to the store to compound the medicine and maybe even deliver it."
"And over this you quarreled? It was a good deed, a mitzvah. You were helping a sick person."
"We didn't fight over that. I'm just trying to give you an idea of how he felt about the store." He smiled wanly. "That's how I happened to oversleep that morning. If it was a mitzvah, I sure didn't get any reward for it."
"One doesn't perform a mitzvah in the hope of reward. If one does, then it is no longer a mitzvah but a business transaction that you are trying to make with The Almighty. And one does not always recognize the reward when it comes." He thoughtfully stroked his beard.
"Yeah, I suppose," Akiva agreed moodily, staring down at his hands. Then he looked up and tried once again. "He didn't pay me what he'd have to pay a regular pharmacist, and I worked longer hours. That was because I was his son. He'd say, 'The store is yours. In a few years I'll step aside and you'll take over the way I did from my father.' Like it was a family tradition," he added bitterly, "like a bank or a railroad or some big corporation. But it was only a small neighborhood drugstore. And if it was mine, how come he raised such a stink when I took some of what was mine?"
"This family tradition, you have no feeling for?"
The young man shook his head. "To me it's just a job. If I go home, he'll start in about carrying on the tradition and I'll just fight with him again."
Reb Mendel nodded his head slowly as he considered. Finally, he spoke, in tones that would brook no further argument. "This disagreement with your father, it bothers you. It is not something you can forget. And for that reason it is a psychological and spiritual infection that must be cured or it will spread and bring about your spiritual decay. Go home, Akiva. Go home."CHAPTER 3
As Rabbi Small entered the basement chapel of the temple where the weekday services were held, he automatically made a head count, and then on the chance that one or more of the men might have stepped out for a cigarette, he asked hopefully, "Do we have ten? Are we a minyan?"
"No, Rabbi. You're the ninth, but Chet Kaplan should be along any minute."
It occurred to the rabbi that the religious renaissance Kaplan claimed for the congregation had so far not made it easier to gather a minyan. There was no problem evenings, but evidently the religious fervor was not yet strong enough to induce them to get up half an hour earlier to make the morning service.
Excerpted from Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet by Harry Kemelman. Copyright © 2003 Ann Kemelman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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