Lifelong friends Ben Schwartz and Abe Reich have fallen out, and as their disagreement becomes more entrenched both are less willing to budge. When the enmity threatens to disrupt the congregation, Jacob Wasserman turns to their rabbi, David Small, to intervene. Not everyone’s choice for rabbi, Small is young and more focused on Talmudic scholarship than assimilation and glad-handing. He decides to hold a Din Torah, akin to a rabbinic hearing, to resolve the problem, and turns to the general principles derived from centuries of analysis and debate of cases in the Talmud. Though he successfully resolves the matter, the board of directors is reluctant to renew Small’s appointment.
When the body of a murdered gentile woman is found on the temple grounds, suspicion is first cast on the rabbi – he was in his study around the time of the murder, and the victim’s handbag was found in his car. But Barnard’s Crossing police chief Hugh Lanigan quickly eliminates Small as a suspect. Against a background of in-fighting, fears of anti-Semitic ill-feeling, and debate over his usefulness to his congregation, the new rabbi tries to uncover the truth about the life and death of a young nanny.
The first in a highly successful series, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late is an engaging and very readable novel that combines Jewish culture and lore with a mystery. Unavoidably dated – it was originally published in 1964 – I was less surprised by the different emphasis on material possessions than by the level of ignorance about Judaism Small’s congregation has. In his introduction the late author explains that the novel arose out of his interest in the gap between the expectations of culturally Jewish second- and third-generation Americans and their new rabbi. This disconnect between experiences of Judaism as upbringing and ritual on the one hand, and adherence to and study of Jewish tenets on the other, was fascinating. I also enjoyed the contrast between life on the cusp of the twenty-first century’s second decade and small town America on the verge of the revolutionary sixties. There’s something about the sensibilities imbuing this novel that have a greater resonance on that level than a film, television series or retrospectively sited novel.
I seem lately to be coming across a seam of similar themes, and could not help but contrast this novel with the recently seen A Serious Man – also set in an early sixties American small town Jewish community. I found the comfort of religion in the novel, the tightness of the plot and the multi-dimensionality of the characters far more accessible and interesting than the dystopic film (however strongly acted and beautifully shot), and thoroughly enjoyed the use of discussions between Small and Lanigan as plot devices for contrasting Judaism with Christianity.
I did enjoy this kinder, gentler – despite the murder – novel and look forward to reading more. Sadly my library does not have the next two novels in Kemelman’s series, but I hope my parents do, and have vague memories of seeing the novels in the family library when I was younger. Watch this spot - Alex