That Day the Rabbi Left Town

Way back in the Before Times—in 1964, when I was still in high school—local author Harry Kemelman wrote Friday the Rabbi Slept Latethus inaugurating a series of a dozen cozy-style mysteries featuring Rabbi David Small of a Conservative synagogue in Barnard’s Crossing, a barely fictionalized Marblehead.

Over the course of the next 30 years I read that novel and then the next ten, but somehow I had missed the last one, That Day the Rabbi Left Town, which was published in 1996. Now that I’ve read it, I’m certainly glad that I did.

Like most series, there are certain characters, themes, and locales that persist from volume to volume. When a series is of the cozy variety, you expect those three features to predominate, much more than plot and suspense. That’s certainly the case here. The earlier novels in the series tend to emphasize the internal politics of the synagogue board, conflicts within the congregation, and issues concerning the rabbi—always seasoned with a good dash of information about Jewish traditions and customs. Rabbi Small’s close friendship with local police chief Hugh Lanigan provides at least one opportunity per novel to compare and contrast Jewish and Christian ideas. Long before we reach That Day the Rabbi Left Town we find that the balance has shifted—not so much politics but a lot about Judaism. The rabbi has retired (as you can guess from the title) and is now teaching at a small college in the Back Bay. I can’t figure out whether it’s supposed to represent a specific real college, and if so which one, but Small’s seminar on Judaic Philosophy gives Kemelman all the opportunities he might want to expound on Jewish ideas. I was particularly struck by Rabbi Small’s remarks to a young Catholic woman who has a Jewish husband:

“I suspect he’s a practicing Jew although not an observant one. His thinking is quite different from yours. You said you felt you had sinned when you had an evil thought and that you would list it among your sins when you went to Confession, and do penance for it. He didn’t feel he had sinned unless he had actually done something wrong to a person; it would never occur to him that he could gain forgiveness through prayer or penance, but only from the person he had wronged.”

What, you may ask, struck me about this passage? Well, you may recall my post from three months ago in which I described my surprise that a good friend of mine with a secular Jewish background similar to my own would have such a different view from mine on the subject of intention versus action. Somehow I ended up with what Kemelman/Small considers to be the Jewish view, and she didn’t.

I should point out that this novel does have a bit of an old-fashioned feel to it, sometimes seeming more like 1956 than 1996: comments like “He’s one of the new men in the department,” and a character who has to explain to a cop that “Things are different nowadays. Wives work, and she has her own interests. I’m a lawyer and my wife is a teacher…” Or maybe I’m just remembering 1996 with rose-colored glasses, though I don’t think so. The ending of the novel, in any case, is timeless. I don’t mean the usual penultimate conclusion, where we find out whodunnit; I mean the last two pages, which resolve a mystery of academic politics that has been hanging over the whole book.

Anyway, I definitely recommend this novel, whether you’ve read the rest of the series or not. You’ll enjoy it and will learn something. What more could you want?

Categories: Books