Rabbi Aviva Cohen

(creator: Rabbi Ilene Schneider)

Rabbi Ilene Schneider
Rabbi Aviva Cohen, who lives and works at Congregation Mishkan Or in the (fictitious) town of Walford, New Jersey, is independent, stubborn and nosy. She is also complacent and doesn't really want to do anything she doesn't have to. But she is friendly and encouraging and finds that people are very ready to confide in her. She is 53 at the start of the first book. Although not orthodox, she does "keep Shabbat after a fashion. I use electricity, watch TV, cook, drive, but I don't use any money."

She had previously been assistant rabbi in a large Philadelphia synagogue, but had had a midlife crisis when she turned 40 and had shed both her job and her (second) spouse. Before her two divorces, she had been a "hippy alternative educator".

The author explains, "She grew out of me, and then took off on her own. There are a lot of things about her that people say remind her of me - her dry wit, her physical appearance, her 'voice' - but most of the other details are different." But, like her creator, she is an enthusiastic "birder". She is usually a tolerant, sympathetic sort of person, but also confesses to having a "warped sense of humour, changed with a streak of cattiness." She Is quite prepared to describe herself as being "old, fat, and lazy."

Rabbi Ilene Schneider was a 1976 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and became one of the first six women rabbis in the United States. A native of Boston, she holds a B.A. In Publication from Simmons College, Boston, an M.Ed. in Psychoeducational Processes from Temple University, Philadelphia, and an Ed.D. in Foundations of Education from Temple, as well as being an Honorary Doctor of Divinity.

She has served as the Executive Director of the Board of Jewish Education of Atlantic County, New Jersey, and in other posts. She is currently "Coordinator of Jewish Hospice for Samaritan Hospice" (whatever that means) in Marlton, New Jersey, near Philadelphia.

She has been a columnist for the Burlington County Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She is the author of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen series, reviewed below, and also of the humorous Talk Dirty Yiddish. She lives in Marlton, NJ, with her husband, Rabbi Gary M. Gans, and their two sons. In her spare time, she is a keen birder and gardener. She says she gets time for this by not doing any housework!

Chanukah Guilt (2007)
Chanukah Guilt describes how busy Rabbi Aviva Cohen (who tells the story throughout) is surprised to find that her first ex-husband is moving to her town as the new interim Chief of Police (or Director of Public Safety, as he is now called). But her life takes an interesting - and sinister - turn when she agrees to officiate at the funeral of an unpopular land developer. She doesn't expect to be told by two different people that he had been murdered. Nor does she expect that the first funeral will result in a suicide. Her search for the story behind the suicide (or was it murder?) puts her life in jeopardy. But she spurs the police into giving her the help she needs to solve the mystery.

The story is full of Yiddish terms, most, but not all of which, are explained for the benefit of non-Jewish readers. One exception is the word chanukah from the title which the author was assured by a friend would be understood by all non-Jews. How wrong she was!

It is a gently amusing story, written in a determinedly cheerful style, but even the episodes that ought to be really exciting (such as when a burglar attacks first the rabbi's synagogue then her house, or when her car is forced off the road and over a cliff) lack enough sense of drama. However, there are some interesting glimpses into Jewish social customs, as well as some intriguing references to, for example, "Jewitches" – Jews who are also witches, and to "Bu-Jews" – Jews who practice Judaism and Buddhism. None of this seems to trouble Rabbi Cohen, who Is quite happy to attend a memorial service at the "Triple-U coven of the New Millennial Wiccans". Although she is good at helping people, she never seems to get around to actually mentioning God.

Altogether, it makes an undemanding cozy read, likely to appeal most to those who share its Jewish background or are curious about it.

Unleavened Dead (2012)
Unleavened Dead is the second book featuring Rabbi Aviva Cohen, now aged 55. It gets off to a good start with the words: "I love weddings. I even enjoyed my own. Both of them. Too bad the marriages weren't as successful as the weddings."

Before long a couple, members of Aviva's congregation, are found dead, victims of what has been ruled accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. A friend of the dead couple asks her to look into the circumstances of these deaths. Aviva had already been wondering about them: the couple had information about a colleague who has been offered a new position, an offer that would be withdrawn if the information is revealed. She doesn't believe her colleague would go so far as killing someone to protect his job, but she ís not so sure about his wife.

Aviva has other problems, too. Her niece's lesbian partner, Sherry, the director of the student counseling center at the nearby university, is the prime suspect in a deliberate hit-and-run death. The victim was a newly appointed dean who had just informed Sherry he was taking over as director, and she was being demoted. Witnesses had heard her threaten to kill the dean.

As she looks into these two disparate cases, Aviva discovers they may be connected, in ways she never imagined that included the sexual abuse of young teenaged girls, money laundering, stolen identities, and even a (thoroughly unconvincing) FBI investigation. She certainly has a busy life.

Like the previous book, it has its amusing if catty moments, as when we are told about an old lady, dressed in purply silky material, who "looked like a plum. A plum that had been in the fridge too long and had begun to shrivel and wrinkle. Her varicose veins were colour-coordinated to match her outfit". And, after describing the elaborate removal of all leavened food in preparation for Pesach, Aviva comments, "Pesach is proof that God is male, as no woman would ever have come up with a holiday with so many regulations about cooking and cleaning." Later on she tells us, "I would have tried lip reading, except for one problem: I can't lip read."

The author is at her best when describing incidents that sound as though they could have arisen out of her own rabbinic experience (or nightmares), as when a rabbi was appalled to find that he had carried out an intermarriage, not realising that the husband wasn't Jewish. Or when she describes a lunch being held by the Women's Rabbinic Network that gave them a chance to air their grievances "about the male elite that still control so much of Jewish life, even though women had been ordained for over a generation." Although, as Aviva admits, even women rabbis can have their problems, as when one of them was having to take an outdoor ceremony when "the cold wind popped out her nipples and they could be seen through her blouse." And I liked the sign at her parking spot at the synagogue that said "Reserved for Rabbi; Thou shalt not park".

It is when she strays right outside her own experience, as when she involves FBI agents in melodramatic goings-on, that the plot lacks conviction. Lots of chat and gossip is no substitute for a strong story line. Indeed it is the plots that form the weakest element of these books. The author seems much happier when describing in detail such matters as exactly how to prepare kugels (there are pages about this, and we keep on coming back to them) even if they interrupt what action there is.

Right at the end Aviva (who had come to the police's rescue by conveniently recording the murderer's confession) says, "I'm retiring from sleuthing." I wouldn't bet on it, though.

The author has her own website (complete with links to various interviews with her, some of which, in January 2013, needed updating).

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Chanukah Guilt cover
The cover is striking, even if the lettering is difficult to read.
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