The Fifth Servant

  • Review
By – August 25, 2011
It is the eve of Passover in late 16th cen­tu­ry Prague when the mur­dered body of a young Chris­t­ian girl found in a shop brings a blood libel charge against the Jew­ish store own­er.
 The rel­a­tive qui­et enjoyed recent­ly by the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty under the rule of Emper­or Rudolph is now threat­ened. This his­tor­i­cal fic­tion nov­el is told as a detec­tive sto­ry in the voice of Benyamin Ben-Aki­va, a young new­com­er to Prague’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. He is a schol­ar and shammes (care­tak­er of a syn­a­gogue) work­ing for Rab­bi Judah Loew, also known as the leg­endary Mahar­al of Prague. The shammes is pressed into imme­di­ate ser­vice to try to save the com­mu­ni­ty from impend­ing doom. The author takes us inside and out of the Jew­ish ghet­to to find the killer and his rea­son for the mur­der. In the process we learn about life in a walled shtetl, the intri­ca­cies of prepa­ra­tions for the Sab­bath and Passover, rela­tions between the Jews and Gen­tiles and their ruler, dis­putes among the Jew­ish sects, the Papal Inquistitor’s mis­sion to rout out witch­craft and heresy, the study of apothe­cary, preva­lent super­sti­tious beliefs, and the cre­ation of a Golem. The hero of this sto­ry attempts to solve the case using exten­sive Jew­ish phi­los­o­phy, Tal­mu­dic rea­son­ing, and some chutz­pah. Wishnia’s bril­liant, intense, and well-researched tale has more than a touch of Yid­dish humor, which keeps the read­er engaged and think­ing about the many inter­twined con­cepts. This is a fast paced sto­ry with so much to teach that read­ers will want to set aside time to ful­ly enjoy The Fifth Ser­vant. Author’s note, bib­li­og­ra­phy, glos­sary, map.


Ken­neth Wish­nia is a soft spo­ken guy who is eager to dis­cuss two of his lit­er­ary cre­ations with me as we sit in his mod­est office at Suf­folk Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege, where he teach­es cre­ative writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture. 23 Shades of Black, the first book in his crime fic­tion series, was set in mod­ern day New York City, while his his­tor­i­cal fic­tion debut The Fifth Ser­vant is about a blood libel in 16th cen­tu­ry Prague. Wish­nia tells me that the writ­ing process for The Fifth Ser­vant was oppo­site from that of his crime books; 23 Shades of Black has punk rock style, while The Fifth Ser­vant is clas­si­cal music. But the author reveals sim­i­lar­i­ties between the heroes of his books and inject­ed his own per­son­al­i­ty into both Filom­e­na Bus­carsela, the female Ecuado­ri­an NYPD cop of the crime series and Benyamin Ben-Aki­va, the hero of The Fifth Ser­vant. They are clever, wit­ty, cyn­i­cal out­siders who per­se­vere.

Wishnia’s first draft of 23 Shades of Black took six weeks to write, com­ing to life near­ly effort­less­ly as he mold­ed the sto­ry from the bot­tom up.” In con­trast, The Fifth Servant’s first draft took 2 12 years to churn out and the author was carv­ing a large block of mar­ble” as he wrote 14 sub­se­quent drafts. Wish­nia is still amazed by his achieve­ment as he shows me a pho­to of the pile of drafts reach­ing near­ly his own height. He feels that the effort it took to write this book should earn him an hon­orary doc­tor­ate in Renais­sance Jew­ish stud­ies. He cred­its his friend, award win­ning author S.J. Rozan (Shang­hai Moon), for help­ing him find the cen­ter and get the voice right” for Benyamin, the wit­ty and chutz­paduk main char­ac­ter. 

Wish­nia says humor is often used as a cop­ing mech­a­nism but he was sur­prised he could instill some into this seri­ous sto­ry. His book is quite detailed, describ­ing the ambi­gu­i­ty in the busi­ness rela­tion­ships between Chris­tians and Jews, enmi­ty between Catholics and Protes­tants, and squab­bles among the Jew­ish lead­ers which is so rel­e­vant today. We learn about apothe­cary, super­sti­tions, heresy, and the tor­ture used as pun­ish­ment. He refrains from gris­ly descrip­tions, pre­fer­ring to focus on how rou­tine­ly tor­ture was used then. Wish­nia says the only rea­son to write about his­tor­i­cal events is to com­ment on the present. 

Wishnia’s books fea­ture very strong women. He says the men in his book are arro­gant, believ­ing they have the sum total of knowl­edge, while the women admit they are lim­it­ed by what they see but real­ize there’s more to learn. He attrib­ut­es his fem­i­nist lean­ings to his moth­er, who is a retired asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at SUNY Stony­brook, and a founder of the Women’s Stud­ies pro­gram there. He is mar­ried to Mer­cy, an edu­ca­tor, and ful­ly shares with her the respon­si­bil­i­ties of their chil­dren and home. When I asked him when he writes, he said oth­er than his sab­bat­i­cal year, which was a life­saver for this book, he fits writ­ing in when­ev­er he can, most­ly late at night in his home office. 

Wish­nia grew up in New Hamp­shire in a sec­u­lar house­hold. Although his Yid­dish speak­ing grand­par­ents emi­grat­ed from Europe, he acquired the wealth of Jew­ish knowl­edge exhib­it­ed in this book as an adult. Wish­nia says he had a reverse rev­e­la­tion” about Judaism. He read the New Tes­ta­ment when he mar­ried his Ecuado­ri­an Catholic wife but real­ized he already knew a lot of it due to assim­i­la­tion into Chris­t­ian cul­ture. He decid­ed to edu­cate him­self by read­ing the Hebrew Bible, then stud­ied Yid­dish and became inter­est­ed in writ­ing a Jew­ish sto­ry. He has read that study­ing Torah is equiv­a­lent to prayer, and feels that by research­ing this book he has been pray­ing a lot. Wish­nia is intrigued by the study of Tal­mud and its method of split­ting hairs” to dis­cuss every aspect of an issue, where even the small­est minor­i­ty opin­ion is stat­ed. He said his biggest chal­lenge was mak­ing the dia­logue sound nat­ur­al, so he cre­at­ed Benyamin as one who came to Jew­ish learn­ing lat­er in life like the author. Wishnia’s enjoy­ment of Tal­mud and Midrash is obvi­ous from his many ref­er­ences from those sources. He hopes to reach a diverse audi­ence of intel­li­gent read­ers. Although he won’t be writ­ing a sequel, he hints that the next book may delve into ancient Jew­ish his­to­ry. I pre­dict a bright future for Ken­neth Wish­nia, filled with loy­al read­ers who enjoy a seri­ous and enter­tain­ing sto­ry. I enjoyed learn­ing so much from The Fifth Ser­vant and eager­ly await his next ven­ture into any peri­od of Jew­ish history.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions