Welcome, mystery writer and rabbi, Ilene Schneider. I met Ilene on a mystery writers' loop where I've enjoyed her posts on mystery writing for years. Last summer when I needed research help regarding first century rabbis I turned to ilene. She was wonderfully generous in her help. (You should have fun finding your bits of wisdom when An Unholy Communion comes to light, Ilene.) For now I wanted to share her clerical mysteries from another perspective with my readers. Welcome, Ilene!
First, her bio: Rabbi Ilene Schneider, Ed.D., one of the first women rabbis ordained in the U.S., hasn’t decided what she wants to be when she grows up. She is currently Coordinator of Jewish Hospice for Samaritan Hospice, Marlton, NJ, where she lives with her husband, Rabbi Gary Gans, and two “millennial” sons. Chanukah Guilt is the first Rabbi Aviva Cohen mystery. She has completed the second, Unleavened Dead, and is working on the third, Yom Killer. She is also the writer of Talk Dirty: Yiddish. Please visit her website/blog: http://rabbiauthor.com.
Clerical Mysteries: What and Why?
A short time go, author Donna Fletcher Crow sent me an email asking if I would be interested in exchanging blogs. Her suggestion was that we each write about clerical mysteries, as we both have published novels in that subgenre. Even though our superficial perspectives are different – her protagonist is a young American woman studying theology in a monastery in England with an eye toward ordination as an Anglican priest, while mine is a middle-aged woman who has been a rabbi for well over a quarter of a century – Donna said that our points of view may not be all that different. After you read my comments here, please visit http://rabbiauthor.com/2012/02/09/clerical-mysteries-what-and-why/
to read hers.
Murder mysteries have been part of Jewish tradition since God asked Cain where his brother was, and Cain’s reaction was, “Huh? Who? Oh, that shepherd guy. I dunno. What am I? His babysitter?” (Okay, that’s a very loose translation.)
Now fast forward a couple of thousand years. The first commercially successful Jewish-themed series in contemporary US mystery literature was the Rabbi David Small books by Harry Kemelman, beginning with Friday the Rabbi Slept Late in 1964 and ending 12 books later in 1996 with That Day the Rabbi Left Town. More recently, Faye Kellerman has made the best seller lists with her books featuring LA detective Peter Decker and his Orthodox wife Rina Lazarus, first introduced in 1986 in The Ritual Bath, and showing no signs of slowing down, with book #20, Gun Games, having just been published.
In 2007, my first Rabbi Aviva Cohen mystery, Chanukah Guilt
was published. The second in the
series, Unleavened Dead
, is “under serious consideration” by a publisher and, I hope, will appear in 2013. The third, Yom Killer
(with thanks to my son for the title), is very much a work-in-progress. At last count, I had rewritten the opening pages . . . well, I lost count. Maybe if I change my last name to something beginning with the letter “k,” I will become more prolific.
But I digress.
I’m often asked, “Why a rabbi?” Three answers: First, the ubiquitous they advise, “Write what you know,” and the rabbinate is what I know. Second, a rabbi is in a unique position to discover things kept hidden from others. And if she doesn’t know, she can ask. People are more likely to confide in their rabbi than in a police officer. And, third, from a purely mercenary motive, the Rabbi Aviva Cohen mystery series represent the first mysteries written by a woman rabbi about a woman rabbi; I’ve created my own niche market.
There are difficulties in writing a clerical mystery, particularly a Jewish one, which complicate the process. I have to fight contradictory impulses when describing Aviva’s life, her job, Jewish traditions and holidays, the details of which may not be familiar to the general audience. I need to find the balance between explaining enough while not explaining too much. I am worried that if I assume the readers are already familiar, for example, with the complexities of keeping a Kosher home, they be confused about why she has three sets of dish sponges (meat, dairy, and neither). But if I do explain about the separation of dairy and meat, will I be stopping the action and annoying the readers with too much detail that has nothing to do with the mystery? How do I elucidate without lecturing? I don’t want to insult my readers by thinking them ignorant of Jewish traditions, but I don’t want to bore them either.
My other problem is a more practical one. My husband is the rabbi of a synagogue. I have to be very careful not to give any characters the same names as congregants. Even more, I have to be careful not to copy physical characteristics, linguistic tics, personal details. I began my acknowledgements, placed at the beginning of Chanukah Guilt, with the caveat: “First, a reminder: this book is a work of fiction. The characters, the town of Walford, the plot all came from my imagination. None of the characters are based on anyone I know.” I have recently decided to solve the problem with a technique I have seen used at writing conferences. I am going to auction off character names as a fundraiser for the synagogue. The larger the donation, the more important the character. The prize, of course, will be to have the naming rights to the murderer.
I enjoy reading novels that take place in cultures or locations I don’t know well. But I would not be able to write one from the perspective of a Nepalese Sherpa who escorts climbers to the top of Everest. For that matter, it would be a stretch for me to have as a protagonist a young woman studying to become an Anglican priest. But I do know Judaism, the Jewish community, and the rabbinate, or, at least, my experiences of them. I am hoping to present to those readers, Jewish or not, a point of view they may be unfamiliar with, while entertaining them with a cozy mystery. Only you, dear reader, can tell if I’ve succeeded.
Donna Fletcher Crow, Novelist of British History, has written more than 50 books specializing in British Christianity. These books include: The Monastery Murders, clerical mysteries; Lord Danvers Investigates, Victorian true-crime; The Elizabeth and Richard series, literary suspense; and Glastonbury, The Novel of Christian England. She loves research and sharing you-are-there experiences with her readers.