The Rab­bi Who Prayed for the City 

  • Review
By – November 13, 2023

This Rab­bi Vivian Mys­tery is set six years after the first book in Rachel Sharona Lewis’s series. Rab­bi Vivian Green is prepar­ing to take over as head rab­bi of her syn­a­gogue. She and her wife con­tem­plate tak­ing steps toward hav­ing a child, and her pre­de­ces­sor, Rab­bi Joseph, plans to make aliyah upon retire­ment. Mean­while, a friend of Vivian’s wife strug­gles with the moral impli­ca­tions of mil­i­tary invest­ment in his work in robot­ics and AI, and a Cat­e­go­ry 4 hur­ri­cane threat­ens the city of Prov­i­dence. This install­ment in the series cen­ters on a trio of major con­tem­po­rary issues: cli­mate change, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, and the grow­ing ten­sion with­in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty over Israel’s frag­ile democ­ra­cy. Some small dif­fer­ences from real­i­ty, such as a change in hur­ri­cane-nam­ing guide­lines, sug­gest a near-future setting. 

Read­ers look­ing for a com­plex mys­tery with many clues and red her­rings to puz­zle over may find the plot — involv­ing the dis­ap­pear­ance of an autonomous mil­i­tary robot — too straight­for­ward. The mys­tery is less deeply con­nect­ed to Vivian’s sto­ry than the syn­a­gogue fire of the first book, and at times feels like an after­thought. The part of the plot in which the syn­a­gogue is used as a storm shel­ter is much stronger, and feels more lov­ing­ly drawn. The most com­pelling ele­ment of the robot mys­tery is its spin on the leg­end of the golem. The echoes of the golem sto­ry in the autonomous, AI-dri­ven secu­ri­ty unit tie nice­ly into Rab­bi Vivian and Rab­bi Joseph’s con­flict over the moral­i­ty of the Israeli gov­ern­ment (but per­haps could have been devel­oped further). 

The real strength of the nov­el is the way that Lewis’s pro­tag­o­nist explores the moral ques­tions that pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers must face. Is it right to bring a child into a world of cli­mate change and polit­i­cal upheaval? Are human efforts enough to repair what human neg­li­gence has allowed to break? How do Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties and their lead­ers bal­ance con­cern about anti­semitism with the need for sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er oppressed peo­ples, or con­cern about Israel with con­cern about the dias­po­ra? Jux­ta­pos­ing Sukkot (and its motifs of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to the ele­ments) with a strong New Eng­land hur­ri­cane is a par­tic­u­lar­ly clever way to join Jew­ish tra­di­tion and an urgent con­tem­po­rary issue. 

The Rab­bi Who Prayed for the City is an excel­lent choice for Jew­ish book groups look­ing for a fun and engag­ing way to start a dis­cus­sion about bal­anc­ing tra­di­tion with inno­va­tion and inter­nal Jew­ish con­cerns with com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions. Although ded­i­cat­ed read­ers of who­dunits might find the sto­ry too sim­ple, the char­ac­ters are charm­ing, and Lewis ties up loose ends neat­ly, while still leav­ing the larg­er philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions for us to answer for ourselves.

Sacha Lamb is the author of Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist When the Angels Left the Old Coun­try. Their next nov­el, The For­bid­den Book, is com­ing this fall from Levine Queri­do. Sacha can be found on Insta­gram at

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