‘The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire’ Book Club Guide
“Shabbat shalom!” she whispered, kneeling down when she reached them. “I’m Rabbi Vivian. It’s so nice to have you with us tonight. Do you need anything? Can I help you find the page?” she offered. Vivian hoped her calm and nonchalant approach would preclude any interpretations of smothering.
“Um, I didn’t want to interrupt, but I think the synagogue is on fire,” the woman said. —from The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire
Set in Providence, R.I., Rachel Sharona Lewis’s debut novel, The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire—an homage to the Rabbi Small mysteries by Harry Kemelman—introduces readers to a compelling new character in the clerical-sleuth genre: Vivian Green. The young, queer assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Abraham, a Conservative congregation, investigates the strange happenings at her synagogue as she wrestles with Jewish tradition, contemporary issues—from antisemitism to racism to intergenerational conflicts—and local politics.
Join us on Thursday, February 17, at 7 p.m. ET, as Hadassah Magazine Executive Editor Lisa Hostein interviews Lewis about her contemporary take on a mystery-solving rabbi and how her book explores themes impacting American synagogues today. Register here.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have one, now’s the time to start! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire after the virtual event. To facilitate those discussions, we present the following discussion guide.
- Why did author Rachel Sharona Lewis start her book with a congregant dropping a Torah scroll? How does it set the stage for the action in the rest of the book and introduce the characters and synagogue community? Has there ever been a Torah dropped in your community? If so, what was your synagogue’s reaction?
- In her acknowledgment, Lewis writes about her discovery of Harry Kemelman’s classic mystery series set in a Jewish community in New England in the 1960s and 1970s and how she decided to create a gender-swapped version of Kemelman’s amateur sleuth, Rabbi David Small. For those who have read Kemelman’s books, discuss the similarities and differences between Rabbi Vivian Green and Rabbi Small, including the methods they use to solve whodunits. How do the two rabbis reflect the concerns and ideals of their respective generations?
- “You don’t look like a rabbi,” Karla said upon meeting Vivian for the first time. What do you think Karla meant by that? Discuss the assumptions that Beth Abraham had in hiring Vivian. In your experience, does Vivian typify or upend expectations of contemporary Jewish clergy? What do you think about Karla and Vivian’s discussion about fried chicken and Vivian’s comments on “Jewish legal gymnastics for the modern age”?
- How is Vivian’s identity as a young queer woman rabbi described in the book? How do these various identities impact her interactions with her community as well as her social life and her views of Jewish tradition and rabbinic authority?
- If you were to ask Vivian about the most crucial issues impacting Jewish communities and synagogues today, how do you think she would answer? If you could ask Rabbi Joseph Glass, what would he say? What about other congregants, such as Harry Mermelstein, Vera Cohen or Will Gould? Do you think their answers would change after the events described in the book? What do you think are the most crucial issues impacting synagogues today?
- The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire centers around the experiences of clergy in leading a community and congregation, and sermons are an important part of that reality. Discuss the impact of the sermons, including Joseph’s reflections on the Four Sons in the Passover seder and Vivian’s use of a midrash on the acceptance of the Torah at Mount Sinai. How do these sermons reflect the clash in the book between progressive/liberal ideals and more traditional views, between Jewish practice and modern values?
- Vivian and her female clergy friends experience casual misogyny and sexism in their congregations. How do the women describe and handle these situations? Do you agree with the way Vivian assesses and deals with the incidents? Have you ever seen or heard about similar incidents in your congregation?
- Lewis writes that Vivian went to Beth Abraham because she felt that it had potential as “a mid-sized congregation in a mid-sized city at a time of great-sized change.” Do you relate to Lewis’s descriptions of institutional Judaism and the congregational meetings, committees and internal politics? What do you think about Vivian’s desire to shift the dynamics at Beth Abraham and the ways she attempts to create change? What are some of the struggles and barriers that Vivian experiences in those attempts?
- The book weaves together fear of antisemitism and questions of systemic racism against Black people. What do you think of the author’s depiction of intergenerational trauma and Jewish responses to antisemitism? Discuss her depictions of racism within the Jewish community as well as their interaction with a non-Jew who is part of the synagogue staff.
- The book explores Jewish insularity as well as responsibility to the general populace. Discuss Vivian’s thoughts around interfaith outreach and bridge building to all Providence citizens. What do you think about the Beth Abraham Jewish community’s interactions and relationships with politicians and the police?