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April 16, 2014

Jewish Mysteries

All this week it’s Passover, the holiday that celebrates the Jews’ release from slavery in ancient Egypt – and, by extension (and literary license) from all bonds that restrain, restrict, and tie us down. Modern interpretations of the story often focus on what might be called internal bonds – the bondage of addiction, for example, or of destructive habits of thought – and the struggle to break free of them. But there’s precious little discussion about what happens after freedom comes calling. It’s as though freedom – slavery, begone! – is something like the equivalent of marriage in old-fashioned novels: The point at which the story and struggle are over and an amorphous pink happiness begins.

The truth, of course, is that every story is different, and the happy truth is that some Jews have put their freedom to good use by becoming mystery writers. (And wasn’t that a long way into the point of this post!). I’m not thinking right now of writers who happen to be Jewish, but of writers who have put Jewish themes front and center in their plots and their characters’ personalities. Marissa Piesman certainly comes to mind – Nina Fischman, with her chubby thighs, her lovingly nagging mother, and her somewhat tortured relationship with bacon, is a classic Nice Jewish Girl, Manhattan division. Her compulsion to solve crimes (as demonstrated in the yummy Unorthodox Practices and Heading Uptown) stems not from some grimly silent sense of honor (trust me, NJG’s don’t do grimly silent) but from the slightly depressing conviction that she’s a whole lot smarter than the cops on hand, and that if she leaves things up to them she’ll never make it to her class in Conversational Yiddish. I’ve just convinced myself: I need to reread these books: The weather’s gray, and I could use a giggle.

Of course, not all Jewish themes are giggly. On our list, I think most immediately of The Library Paradox, which called “One of the Nine Mysteries Every Thinking Woman Should Read.” Protagonist Vanessa Weatherburn is not remotely Jewish and not quite a nice girl: Her passion for mathematics puts her slightly to the left of “respectable” in the restrictive Victorian world. But what really raises eyebrows is her insistence on poking into the question of who might have murdered a famously anti-Semitic professor – a murder that, broken down to its variables, bears an odd resemblance to a classic problem in mathematical logic, a problem known as (drumroll, please) The Library Paradox. The math theme in the book is fascinating, and equally fascinating is the window on London’s 19th-century Jewish community.

Say “Jewish mysteries” to most readers, and I guarantee that the majority of them will name one of two series: The “Rabbi” series, by Harry Kemelman, and/or the “Rina Lazarus” series, by Faye Kellerman. I like both (though I find the Kellerman series most interesting in the early books, where there is still a lot of tension between Rina, an ultra-Orthodox widow, and the larger world of Los Angeles that she is forced to confront). But two of my favorite Jewish mysteries are less well known: Zaddik, by David Rosenbaum, and The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimmler.

It’s a testimony both to my inexcusable arrogance and to the genuine excellence of the book that when I first read Zaddik, in the early 1990s, I called the editor and said “Do you know how good this is?” Though it appears at first to be a standard – if very well written – tale of a hard-boiled PI, Zaddik takes an abrupt and interesting left turn after about the first third, when the reader is whisked out of 20th-century Brooklyn and into a 19th-century Polish ghetto, where the PI’s long-dead ancestor is a famous rabbi. Not only do the two stories connect, but the two characters do as well: The rabbi and the sleuth both need something the other has. There is an ordinary mystery at the center of the plot, concerning a stolen diamond, but the real question is whether these two struggling, imperfect people can somehow reach across time to heal wounds. It’s a knockout.

I first read Zaddik after my bookstore did the launch of Rosenbaum’s second novel, Sasha’s Trick. And similarly, I first read The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon when we held the launch party. (Bookstore Wisdom: Yes, you CAN fete books you haven’t read – and we’ve all done it, no matter what we tell you – but it ain’t easy. Or pretty. Or fun.) Historical fiction doesn’t tend to be my genre, so when I say I like something set in the past (see The Library Paradox, above), that’s a pretty fair indication that it’s awfully good. Just so The Last Kabbalist, which is set in the early 16th century, during a period of horrendous, state-approved violence against the Jews of Portugal. As with Zaddik, there is a classic mystery plot at hand, concerning the murder of a great Jewish mystic. But again, as with Zaddik, the sleuth must reach well beyond the world of clues and evidence – here, into the realm of Jewish mysticism – to both solve the crime and sew up some of the terrible slash it has made in the fabric of society.

There are lots more books that fit the definition, but I’ve gone on long enough. For now, happy Pesach. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.



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