The Rab­bi Who Prayed with Fire

  • Review
By – June 7, 2021

Rachel Sharona Lewis’s The Rab­bi Who Prayed with Fire is both a trib­ute and an update to Har­ry Kemelman’s clas­sic Rab­bi Small mys­ter­ies. The homage is explic­it, but even with­out Lewis’s author’s note on the sub­ject, it would be clear from the bal­ance of city and syn­a­gogue pol­i­tics, the inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, and the lov­ing cri­tique of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish community’s foibles. Where­as the Rab­bi Small series (orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in the 1960s) stars a male rab­bi hired to give his some­what assim­i­la­tion­ist con­gre­ga­tion a tra­di­tion­al fla­vor on the bimah, Lewis’s twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry ver­sion stars a young, les­bian rab­bi whose afflu­ent Con­ser­v­a­tive con­gre­ga­tion has hired her in hopes of bring­ing in a new gen­er­a­tion. You don’t look like a Rab­bi,” says the love inter­est, Kar­la, on first meet­ing Rab­bi Vivian — and quick­ly cor­rects her­self: not like the rab­bi who taught her Hebrew school, her last expe­ri­ence of Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty life. While cau­tious­ly kin­dling a rela­tion­ship with Kar­la despite the latter’s job as cam­paign man­ag­er for a city coun­cilor who Vivian finds insuf­fi­cient­ly pro­gres­sive, the rab­bi must also try to find her foot­ing in her con­gre­ga­tion as more than a token fresh face.

The mys­tery itself is sat­is­fy­ing, but not ter­ri­bly com­pli­cat­ed, though enough threads remain untied at the end to imag­ine a whole series of Rab­bi Vivian sto­ries. What is tru­ly sat­is­fy­ing about the book is its deft han­dling of the com­mu­ni­ty issues that plague an afflu­ent, his­toric Jew­ish con­gre­ga­tion. Con­gre­ga­tion Beth Abraham’s strug­gles are com­mon ones for syn­a­gogue lead­er­ship, rang­ing from declin­ing mem­ber­ship to slow-mov­ing com­mit­tees to ris­ing anti­semitism in the pub­lic, with the mys­tery coa­lesc­ing around a Fri­day-evening fire that might — or might not — be arson, might or might not be a hate crime. The fire draws out long-stand­ing ten­sions between the need for secu­ri­ty against anti­semitism, and the fact that increased polic­ing of syn­a­gogues makes Jew­ish spaces less safe for poten­tial con­gre­gants of col­or and for indi­vid­u­als, like Ray­mond, the Black cus­to­di­an at Beth Abra­ham, who are not Jew­ish but nev­er­the­less essen­tial to the run­ning of syn­a­gogue life.

While many con­gre­ga­tions have made the changes Rab­bi Vivian rep­re­sents for the fic­tion­al Beth Abra­ham — inter­faith coop­er­a­tion, more youth pro­grams, social jus­tice ini­tia­tives — oth­ers are still in the place the book’s con­gre­ga­tion finds itself, need­ing to expand in order to attract new mem­bers, yet cau­tious to be too open when the polit­i­cal cli­mate feels uncer­tain for Jews in the Unit­ed States. Rab­bi Vivian’s sto­ry thus speaks to the need to reach past our trau­mas and build con­nec­tion with com­mu­ni­ties besides our own that have also, in their unique ways, been trau­ma­tized. In that sense, the book accom­plish­es exact­ly what it set out to do: encour­age self-reflec­tion even as we enjoy the thrill of solv­ing the who­dun­nit. The Rab­bi Who Prayed with Fire is a wel­come addi­tion to the detec­tive genre.

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

Discussion Questions