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The couple moved from Brighton to Marblehead in 1947. [...]

Harry supported his young family by managing the real estate, running the hardware store, and writing detective mysteries for the monthly Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. He also wrote novels, including one called The Building of a Temple. Recalls Anne [Kemelman, Harry's widow]:

"Harry was concerned that Jews in the suburbs didn't have the Jewish education he got growing up in a Yiddish-speaking household in Roxbury. They didn't appreciate their tradition, didn't understand the wisdom of the Talmud, which fascinated him. And he was appalled by the politics of suburban synagogue life. So he wrote a suburban Jewish novel, based loosely on the building of Temple Israel in Swampscott, where we belonged."

He sent it to famed New York agent Scott Meredith, who showed it to Arthur Field, a well-known editor who admired Harry's mysteries, including his most famous at the time: The Nine Mile Walk, a collection of short stories featuring an English professor named Nicholas Welt, who solves crimes by an ingenious process of inductive reasoning. The book had been well received, especially by critics. Wrote book reviewer Anthony Boucher in the New York Times: Nicky Welt "is among the brightest gems in the literature of pure armchair detectives."

Field went back to Harry with an idea: Why not combine your interest in Jewish law, which appeared in the Building of a Temple, with your interest in mysteries? Harry pondered the suggestion, remarking a few days later that the Temple Israel parking lot might be a good place to hide a body. A few mornings later he got up and said to Anne: "You know honey, I think I can easily do it. The Rabbi is a legal figure; people come to him for advice. I think I can add that to a mystery and make it work."

Thus was born Rabbi Small. First book out of the typewriter was the one the family calls "the Friday book." It was an instantaneous success. So when the editor Field asked: "So, what about Saturday?" Harry went to work on a sequel.
    -Rabbi Small Returns to Entice New Generation of Mystery Readers (MARK ARNOLD, Jewish Journal)

In a 21st century America where fundamentalist Christians are the fiercest advocates for Jews and Israel, the idea of a conservative rabbi expounding upon the tenets of Judaism as he helps the local police chief solve crimes seems somewhat unremarkable. But consider that this first Rabbi Small mystery was written in 1964--when we'd just been through the whole rigmarole about whether a Catholic could even be president--and you'll realize why they were so unorthodox. Of course, the irony is that Harry Kemelman wrote out of a concern that American Jews risked becoming too assimilated and losing their identity, a danger that's become only too real today, so that the books remain quite pertinent.

Rabbi David Small has a rather tentative relationship with the members of his temple in Barnard's Crossing, MA. He's a serious, bookish young man, not at all the kind of modernizing glad-hander many parishioners would prefer. Nor does he have any intention of compromising his Judaism to met them halfway, even as they consider whether to terminate him when his contract runs out. As he tells his wife:
Don't think I don't feel my failure here, Miriam. It bothers me, not merely failing at something that I set out to do, but knowing that the congregation needs me. They don't know it yet, but I know it. Without me, or someone like me, you know what happens to these congregations? As religious institutions, that is, as Jewish religious institutions, they dry up. I don't mean that they're not active. As a matter of fact, they become veritable hives of activity with dozens of different groups and clubs and committees--social groups and art groups and study groups and philanthropy groups and athletic groups, most of them ostensibly Jewish. The dance group works up an interpretive dance they call Spirit of the Israeli Pioneer; the choral group adds "White Christmas" to its repertoire so they can sing it at Christian churches during Brotherhood Week and the church can respond by having its lead tenor sing "Eli, Eli." The rabbi conducts the holiday services with great decorum, and except for an occasional responsive reading he and the cantor perform the entire service between them. You would never know that this is the spiritual home of a people who for three thousand years or more considered themselves a nation of priests sworn to the service of God, because every bit of energy of the congregation and the rabbi too will be bent on showing that this Jewish church is no different from any other church in the community.
There's a haunting quality to that prediction as we read it today, no?

The mystery in this debut concerns the killing of a young live-in nanny, whose corpse has turned up near the temple parking lot. The rabbi is an obvious suspect, though Chief Hugh Lanigan wisely never takes the prospect seriously. Nonetheless, the rabbi feels called upon to help solve the mystery and well-suited because of the logical nature of his Talmudic training. He's fortunate in that Lanigan both likes him and is fascinated -- more so than most of the congregation -- by the learning the rabbi is only too eager to share. Together they make for a delightful crime-solving team, even if the mystery is ultimately quite secondary to Mr. Kemelman's other, more timeless, concerns.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Harry Kemelman Links:

    -Harry Kemelman (1908-1996) (kirjasto)_
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Harry Kemelman (
    -HARRY KEMELMAN (Bastulli Mystery Library)
    -Rabbi Small (creator: Harry Kemelman) (Philip Grosset, Clerical Detectives)
    -REMEMBRANCE: Remembering Harry Kemelman and the Rabbi (Arthur Vidro, June 30, 2022, somethingisgoingtohappen)
    -ESSAY: The Rabbi Who Knew Too Much (Adam Rosen, September 4th, 2014, Los Angeles Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Rabbi Small Returns to Entice New Generation of Mystery Readers (MARK ARNOLD, Jewish Journal)
    -ESSAY: One Day the Rabbi Speculated (Kenneth Barker, January 1992 Theology Today)
    -ESSAY: Justice (Lawrence W. Raphael, Winter 1997, Judaism)
    -REVIEW: of Friday the Rabbi Stayed Home by Harry Kemelman (Classic Mysteries)
    -REVIEW: of One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross by Harry Kemelman (Newgate Callendar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Day the Rabbi Resigned by Harry Kemelman (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of That Day the Rabbi Left Town by Harry Kemelman (Marilyn Stasio, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW of Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (Classic Mysteries)

    -Lanigan's Rabbi (
    -Lanigan's Rabbi: a k a Friday The Rabbi Slept Late (Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide)

Book-related and General Links: