‘The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire’
If a crime-fighting rabbi who uses midrash to solve mysteries sounds familiar, perhaps you remember Friday the Rabbi Slept Late and the subsequent 11 Rabbi Small books by Harry Kemelman from the 1960s and 1970s. Rachel Sharona Lewis was inspired to write her debut novel, The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire, after discovering the mysteries at a used-book sale. Both Kemelman’s rabbi, David Small, and Lewis’s rabbi, Vivian Green, worry about Jewish continuity and tradition and must contend with shul politics. But Vivian might have even more on her mind: a contentious mayoral primary in Providence, R.I., home of her fictional congregation, Beth Abraham; gentrification that is pricing folks out of Beth Abraham’s neighborhood; and questions of systemic racism in her town. Vivian—the young, queer, recently hired assistant rabbi at Beth Abraham—is also in search of connection, and love.
The whodunit begins with a fire that starts in the congregation’s kitchen during Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat services. Nobody dies—this is not a murder mystery—but the synagogue is seriously damaged. Was it an accident or arson? If arson, was it an antisemitic hate crime?
The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire (the title, perhaps, also a play on the thriller, The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson) has a large cast of characters: the congregation’s traditional senior rabbi, Joseph Glass; shul president Harry Mermelstein; and wealthy real-estate developer Will Gould, who offers to repair the synagogue’s fire-damaged building even as he puts forward his plans to develop condos on an adjacent plot of land owned by the synagogue. Rabbi Joseph and Harry are grateful for Gould’s offer, while Vivian and board member Vera Cohen wish to put the synagogue’s vacant lot to better use for senior and affordable housing.
Then there is Raymond Weeks, the synagogue’s long-time Black custodian who is accused of starting the blaze, and his teenage son, Mac, who’s had a run in with the police for riding through a red light on his bicycle. Finally, there’s Karla Dixon, mayoral campaign worker and Vivian’s new love interest.
First-time novelist Lewis deftly weaves together the many plot lines and personalities. Her characters, though simply drawn, are nevertheless multidimensional. Old-fashioned Rabbi Joseph, who supports Will’s financial offer and even threatens to have Vivian fired after she challenges the deal, is not a bad person—he tries to follow Jewish teachings and to do right, even as he sometimes gets it wrong.
In another nod to the Rabbi Small novels and other midcentury mystery classics, Lewis’s book has a simple storytelling style, with weighty issues handled with a light touch and problems neatly resolved with no loose threads at the end. And while characters share the occasional kiss, we don’t see more.
However, 21st-century concerns arise. There are frequent references to the tragic 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Vivian must help her congregants balance fears of rising antisemitism with their responsibility to the broader community.
In her Shavuot sermon after the fire, Vivian shares the midrash that recounts how God forced the Israelites to accept the Torah by dangling Mount Sinai over their heads, seeing in the uncomfortable midrash the seed of a lesson on collective responsibility and action. “What if our ancestors—and our own spirits, because the rabbis tell us that the soul of every Jew throughout history was present that day—what if they accepted the Torah only in partnership with God?” she says to her congregation. “What if the Torah itself is a symbol, the very foundation, of shared power?”
“We can choose,” she says, “to hold the mountain up together.”
Elizabeth Edelglass is a fiction writer, poet, and book reviewer living in Connecticut.