Rabbi Lawrence W. Raphael
This introduction is inspired by the
following traditional folk saying: "Why were human beings created? Because God
loves to hear stories."
Mystery stories, mystery novels are one of the most
popular types of fiction published today. Some of you may know that there are
more than 10,000 mystery titles in print at any one time. Other than romance
novels more mystery and crime novels are sold than any other fiction genre. The
New York Times has one-half of their list in both paper and hardback that are
mysteries. Also, in The New York Times, Marilyn Stasio devotes a bi-weekly column
to crime and mystery novels.
Why this popularity? Several reasons I believe - I
will share with you a couple of them as I speak today. The first comes from a
book written by a Belgian sociologist, Ernest Mendel, titled Delightful Murder: A
Social History of the Crime Story (University of Minnesota, 1984). He quotes the
thinker and social philosopher Walter Benjamin who made these comments 75 years
ago: "In a brilliant flash of intuition, Walter Benjamin once observed that a
traveler reading a detective story on a train is temporarily suppressing one
anxiety with another. Travelers fear the uncertainties of travel, of reaching
their destinations, of what will happen when they get there. They temporarily
suppress (and thus forget) that fear by getting involved in innocent fears about
crime and criminals that, they well know, are unrelated to their personal
My own travels in this genre of mystery fiction began seriously in 1972
when I was a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of
Religion. Shortly after being initiated into this genre, my wife Terrie suggested
that I combine my passion for mysteries with my interests in Jewish studies. So
my hunt for a good mystery now revolved around seeking Jewish mysteries that
featured Jewish characters. That journey was primarily responsible for this book.
It was easy to find the mysteries of Harry Kemelman that had begun to define this
sub-genre, but the real research began after I'd read all of his popular Rabbi
Rabbi David Small first appeared in Kemelman's Friday the Rabbi
Slept Late in 1964. Thirty-two years later, his last book was published, The Day
the Rabbi Left Town. It appeared shortly before his death and it featured the
now-retired Rabbi Small who had by now moved out of Barnard's Crossing (a Boston
Back-bay suburb). In all of these novels, Small solved cases using skills that
he'd honed in his talmudic studies; also in all of them, he had his pulpit in a
very accurately described suburban congregation.
Throughout the 1970's and the
early 1980's, my quest for Jewish detectives, police officers, and private eyes
netted a modest return. Since that time, there have been an increasing number of
mysteries with Jews who are detectives by profession or by accident, and whose
Jewishness may be peripheral or central to their lives and the plot. Since 1986,
in fact more than 150 of these Jewish mystery novels have been published. They
can be found in the bibliography I created which includes American mysteries
where the main protagonist is Jewish.
Here are a few things that I have learned
about mysteries and Jewish identity:
First, as the Jewish educator Steven
Steinbock has noted, there is something essentially Jewish about mystery fiction.
Like the story of Creation, a mystery begins with chaos and ends with everything
solved and in its place. The Bible also flows with whodunits. In its earliest
tales, God plays detective, such as when asking Eve how she came to eat the fruit
and when asking Cain about his brother. The mystery is all about right and wrong,
crime and punishment, justice and mercy.
Second, the detective novel is an
invention of the nineteenth century, when it sprang up nearly simultaneously in
England and America with the development of a rational system of laws. Couple the
basic human sense of curiosity, fondness for puzzles, and interest in violence
with the growing need for police forces to maintain order and prevent violence
during the social and economic changes of the nineteenth century and the result
was an ideal atmosphere for the beginning of the detective novel. Prior to that,
tales of outlaws appeared, but they were usually romanticized stories of
attractive rogues, or allegedly true accounts of villains who met bad ends and
whose punishments served as warnings to readers. These stories emphasized the
villain. Whether romanticized or demonized, the robber or murderer was always the
centerpiece of the story, not the person who caught the villain.
how these stories shifted focus to the detective, I am indebted to Natalie
Kaufman and Carol Kay, two scholars who have written about mystery fiction in
their book, G is for Grafton. They explain that the word "detective" did not
appear in the English language until 1842, when its first recorded use was in the
name of a new department of the Metropolitan Police Force in London: The
Detective Division. The word "detected" had been in existence as far back as the
fourteenth century, when it meant, "disclosed," "open," or "exposed."
the Medieval and Renaissance periods, crime was often solved by confession, which
was usually obtained by torture; or by the testimony of a witness or an
informant, also frequently obtained by torture. For centuries, self-confession
was the basic method of solving a crime.
Transformation of the adjective
"detected" into the noun "detective" indicates the nineteenth century's
recognition that there was a new method of solving crime. This new method
centered on the abilities of someone to think through the details of the crime
and rationally conclude the identity of the criminal. Exposure of the criminal
was done by the detective, not the criminal. This new method, which seems obvious
to us today, was a radical consequence of a great modern shift in popular
thinking about the way in which the world operated and how it could be
The shift had begun in the eighteenth century with the
Enlightenment and its reliance on rational thought instead of divine revelation
as a way to understand the universe. People came to believe that they were not
merely passive receptacles of divine knowledge, but were also capable of
This increased awareness meant that a single human being
could observe the natural world, postulate a theory to explain a phenomenon, and
prove that theory through experimentation and analysis. This methodology had many
antecedents, including the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza in the seventeenth
century. There were many other heroes along the way, but this scientific method
reached an important point with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin
of Species in 1859.
This phenomenon found it's way into the Jewish world with
the early reformers of Judaism in Germany and later the United States. They
understood that their senses and their rational understandings of the world
around them had some merit and some basis for dealing with the world of religious
Now it is time to turn to more contemporary events. In recent
years, the ever-increasing interest in mystery novels has witnessed an incredible
onslaught featuring a recurring character in novels. This has happened during a
period of time when there has been a growing sense of isolation and loneliness in
our lives. This loss of a sense of community is attributed to many forces.
way of understanding them is to refer to what I call the "Law of Unforeseen
Circumstances." For example, the widespread introduction of air-conditioning was
certainly welcome, but it moved entire families from the front porch or to the
fire escape, where they had talked with neighbors. Now they are sealed in the
privacy of their homes, or they use a computer as a way of being connected with
others. The loss of opportunity for human interaction is very real and quite
serious. We all need human contact in order to be emotionally healthy, and most
of us figure out some way to get it.
So, at the same time that bookstores are
packed with books with such titles as How to Be Your Own Best Friend or Making
Your Spouse Your Friend, we also devour mysteries, and we welcome the familiarity
of their characters. This warmth and connection with which readers talk about
their favorite detectives reveals the importance of these characters in their
lives. These characters meet a need for friendship and relationships in our
I want to make a claim for a parallel in our religious realm: one
result of the Jewish tradition of returning each year to the biblical characters
and their stories as we read the weekly parashah is that once again, we are able
to relate and connect with the real-life characters, with all their faults and
their mistakes, like our patriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob,
Leah and Rachel. We read them again and again as they come to life each year and
we see parts of ourselves in them each time in slightly different ways.
another reason for the popularity of mysteries is explained by using an example
from Kaufman and Kay about Sue Grafton's character, Kinsey Millhoune.
Grafton's ability to defeat the enemy in a terrifying final
confrontation encourages us to think that someone might actually be able to clean
up the mess we see all around us in the late twentieth century. At the same time,
the personal struggles she goes through in order to do that clean up reassure us
that our own fears and phobias are both normal and manageable. If Kinsey is
scared of getting an injection from a nurse, yet is also capable of running after
a murderer and tackling him to the ground, then maybe we can gather up our nerve
to ask the boss for a raise, or hold our teenagers to a curfew, or perform
whatever bit of daily living is a challenge for us. Things gone wrong can be
corrected, at least to some extent, and, equally important, they can be corrected
by someone who has foibles much like our own.
Much of the appeal of these
novels, then, lies in the dual appeal of escape from our daily lives and of
reassurance that we can cope with our daily lives. While most of us don't chase
scam artists into Mexico or become the target of a contract killer, we do know
the fears of being the next person to be downsized at the office, or being mugged
on downtown streets, or finding drug paraphernalia in our child's room. The best
of the mystery novels allow us to confront those fears by fictionalizing and
exaggerating the bogeyman into the worst possible situation - murder - and offering
the detective as the knight who slays the dragon for us. We get the thrill of the
big scare, but all in the safety of our comfortable chair (or wherever we like to
read), plus we have the reassurance that the dragon can be slain—and by someone
not all that different from us.
P. D. James, the popular and highly regarded
British mystery writer, concurs. She states: "I think there can be little
argument that the crime novel can be literature. After all, man has always
concerned himself with problems of moral choice, with the nature of good and
evil, and with that unique crime for which there can be no reparation to the
victim, murder. Our earliest myths are concerned with violent death, and with the
bringing of order out of disorder."
So, one of the key reasons for the
popularity of good mystery writers is their ability to give voice to our
contemporary feelings, while at the same time, giving us the reassurance of a
credible central figure who can hold back the darkness for one more day. The
hard-boiled private eye represents clarity and vigor, the immediacy of justice no
longer evident in the courts, an antidote to our confusion and our fearfulness.
In a country where violence is out of control, the private eye exemplifies order
and hope, with the continuing, unspoken assertion that the individual can still
make a difference. The private eye novel is still the classic struggle between
good and evil played out against the backdrop of our social interactions.
is how mystery writer Jody Jaffe (who is Jewish and has written, Horse of a
Different Killer among others) explains it to us:
But just like you don't buy
the first horse you look at, unless you're stupid like I am, you don't usually
catch your killer first time out. After finding two of them myself, I can attest
to that. What I've learned in my brief career as a fashion-writing detective of
sorts is that solving murders is a metaphor for living life; both are full of
curveballs, red herrings, wrong turns, missed opportunities, and, most of all,
foolish assumptions. But if you're lucky, you work hard, say your prayers, and
your karma's right, the guy in the white hat kicks butt.
So, we turn to the
Jewish stories and when we do so it might be useful to have a definition of what
a Jewish story is. They are Jewish stories because they fit into one or more of
the categories suggested by Dov Noy, the founder of the Israel Folktale Archive
in Haifa. According to Noy, there are four major qualities of Jewish stories. The
first is Jewish time, the second is Jewish place, the third is Jewish characters,
and, the last is a Jewish message or moral.
So, in addition to enjoying them as
mysteries, we read these stories because they are Jewish stories. In addition,
what can this literature illustrate about Jewish identity?
To the popular
division of mysteries into private eye, police procedural and armchair detective
can be added three sub-categories based on Jewish identity and the role of
Judaism in each mystery. To this end I have developed a division of mysteries
that is reflected in the bibliography that I have created.
First is the Assimilated Jewish Mystery (you can look at my
bibliography for a definition and a listing). While Jewish protagonists are in
dozens of mystery novels, they are often highly assimilated and sometimes
intermarried. Many of them express their identity thinly in cultural and ethnic
forms. That thread, however, which binds many Jews to their ancestors and to
their co-religionists, has not entirely disappeared. Sometimes, it may appear
very tenuous, other times it may be knotted and even quite twisted. But
nonetheless, it still connects the protagonist with other Jews and with Judaism.
Often the God of their ancestors has been abandoned, but the cooking of their
mothers has been remembered. And when the cooking of their mothers has been
forsaken, our protagonists invent alternative lives and stories that can be
tasted, smelled or hinted at in these pages. The wider body of this detective
literature is one more example of how we now celebrate and appreciate ethnic
differences in America.
The second category is the Acculturated Jewish Mystery.
In this category, the protagonist is acculturated and some aspect of the
character's or the plot's development is related to their sense of Jewishness.
These Jewish heroes and heroines of detective fiction mirror in many ways the 2.5
percent of the American population that Jews comprise. They behave in ways
similar to what we have learned about the contemporary American Jewish community.
Like other Jews, acculturation may have blurred distinctions between them and
their gentile neighbors, but a sense of people hood has not been entirely lost.
They often reflect that wide group of Jews who marry non-Jews (presently at the
rate of approximately 50 percent), whose commitment to Jewish education is
minimal, whose Jewish identity is often marginal and whose Jewish attachments are
peripheral. Yet they remain clearly Jewish, even if Judaism plays no role in
furthering the plot of these mysteries.
There is a third and smallest category
of novels that I call Affirmed Jewish Mysteries. In these books, the Jewish
characters are clearly identified as Jews and the Jewish religion or tradition
helps advance the plot. These mystery novels are those that are most often
commercially popular. There are a handful of Jewish mystery writers who have
merged their interest in solving a crime with their desire to illuminate some
aspect of Judaism and the Jewish community. Perhaps these books owe their
popularity to the interests of some Jews who are turning to some form of Jewish
tradition. For them, it is nice to have your exposure to tradition reinforced by
a fictionalized account of Jewish heroes.
This last category interests me the
most when it combines good writing with Jewish content. In a recent article that
just appeared in Moment magazine, the author Roger Kamentz writing about Jewish
fiction notes that: "Identifying writers as Jewish because of birth or religion,
[accidental] however, is something I object to. The writing must have a certain
inner quality to be defined as Jewish. Jewish writing can also be about Jews or
Judaism [sort of Jewish]. Real Jewish writing [real and authentically Jewish] is
both - Jewish inside and out - and it takes place everywhere, not just Manhattan or
Brooklyn. [October 1999]
Much can be learned from these books. Here is one
excerpt from Stuart Kaminsky's Lieberman's Folly. The context is that Abe
Lieberman has avoided being elected president of his Conservative Chicago shul
and Bess, his wife, has been given the honor. As Kaminksy writes,
were, as always, the major meditation of Abe Lieberman's week. He had, in his
life, gone through the usual range of emotions about religious services. For ten
years, through his twenties, he had been a silent atheist, boycotting the
services his father had made him attend as a boy. For another ten years, after he
was married, he had toyed with becoming a Buddhist, a secret Buddhist but a
Buddhist nonetheless. When Bess insisted that Lisa have religious training and
tradition, Leiberman had gone to services when he couldn't avoid it. The constant
thanks to God were at first an irritant. Then, on Yom Kippur, he had had an
insight. The services, he discovered, were a meditation, something he could get
lost in, not greatly different from Buddhist meditation. The Hebrew words of
praise, said by the congregation and the rabbi and sung by the cantor were a
Having made this discovery at that age of fifty, Lieberman had stopped
fighting his tradition, though he was still not sure about what he made of the
universe. But he was not only comfortable with services, he looked forward to
them, to being lost in prayer, to sharing the ritual with others. He wasn't sure
whether he attributed this to his age or wisdom. He did not choose or need to
explore the questions. That it was comforting was sufficient.
The phenomenon of
learning about other cultures through mystery literature is illustrated by the
popularity of Tony Hillerman, who has written best-selling mysteries that take
place in the Navajo reservations of Arizona and New Mexico; of Walter Mosley, who
writes about African Americans in Los Angeles; of William X. Kienzle and Andrew
Greeley, who both write about American Catholics; of Georges Simenon, who writes
about the French; and of Batya Gur, who writes about Israelis. Some Jewish
mystery writers use Judaism to provide information about and insights into a way
of life that is fascinating to many. The material concerning Jewish culture is
not merely used as background. It also provides insight into character, which in
turn demonstrates motive. A bonus for the reader is the ease with which such
material as Jewish ritual, observance, learning, and tradition contextualizes or
amplifies the story or plot and is used as the occasion for the occurrence of a
Presented in this small segment of the world of popular detective
fiction is a vast array of characters, plots, sub-plots and circumstances that
give us ourselves—contemporary American Jews.
So, in keeping with the folklore
quote at the beginning, now is the time to enjoy good Jewish stories.
Back to top