Rachel Sharona Lewis, “The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire” (2021) – This was a pretty fun crime novel about a mystery-solving rabbi! Inspired by a mystery series from the mid-20th century starring a rabbi, we have Vivian Green, who just started at Providence’s Beth Abraham congregation (I think it’s Conservative but not certain). It’s a fairly typical staid Jewish congregation, losing members out of an aging demographic, unsure what to do about it all. Vivian wants her congregants to get more involved in local social justice causes. Her boss, senior rabbi Joseph, supports her in theory but much less so in practice. For instance, it looks like most of the congregation will back the establishment Dem candidate in the next election for mayor, despite there being alternatives in the form of a smart, vaguely Warren-esque policy lady and a firebrand young Dominican-American man out to fight police injustice.
And then some of the temple burns down! No one is hurt but everyone is scared. Among other things, it encourages the congregation to withdraw further into the defensive shell that Vivian (and, one suspects, the author) sees as the characteristic issue in American Jewish life today. Assuming anti-semites are out to get them — knowing, in fact, that some are, despite a lack of evidence that they had anything to do with the fire — the congregation gets closer to the police. This is the same police that brutalized the son of the temple groundskeeper, and who Rabbi Joseph refused to say anything about when they did. The groundskeeper, pretty much the only black person involved with the Beth Abraham community in any capacity, was also the last person seen at the site of the blaze before it went up. To pay for the damage, the congregation eyes selling off some of its real estate to luxury developers, making even worse the gentrification issues that, in turn, enable further police abuses.
It’s a mess! Vivian tries to figure out what’s going on while also fulfilling her clerical duties, and as someone who has known a fair number of people in similar roles, Lewis accurately depicts the endless round of the conscientious mediator between mundane and divine. In the course of trying to figure stuff out, Vivian does have time for the occasional brunch with fellow lady clerics (a Unitarian and an Episcopalian, if anyone is keeping score), and strikes up a romance with the lady who runs the establishment candidate’s establishment-ass, “smart growth” mayoral campaign. Eventually, her poking around gets noticed, and she has to deal with some tense situations before any kind of resolution comes together.
It’s pretty good! Especially considering this is a first novel. The pacing and plotting works well, and while the book wears its politics on its sleeve, it’s never didactic. I will say that for me, one of the most important elements of any crime fiction is compelling villains, and in this one, the villains are not very well fleshed out. I wonder if the author preferred to dwell with more savory characters- other than a few out and out bad guys, most of the characters, even when they’re wrong, are very much human, acting out of credible motivations, and are very much distinguishable. The bad guys here act out of the most credible, as in believable if you know anything about the world, motives imaginable, but don’t have a ton of character or distinguishing features to them. But maybe we can get more of that on Vivian’s next outing, which I hope Lewis will write soon! ****