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Rabbi Small
(creator: Harry Kemelman)

Rabbi David Small is the creation of Harry Kemelman (1908-1996). Harry Kemelman grew up in Boston where his parents had settled after emigrating from Russia. He had long wanted to become a writer but at first, after reading English Literature at Boston University, had to teach in local schools. He married in 1936, and had two daughters and one son.

After serving in the second world war as a chief wage administrator, he was eventually appointed an assistant professor of English at Franklin Technical Institute in 1963. His first short stories (which have not aged too well) featured Nicky Welt, a college professor who solved various mysteries just using logic but without having to go out and do very much himself. These were subsequently published as The Nine Mile Walk, named after the best of the stories.

Then in 1964 appeared Friday, the Rabbi Slept Late in which Rabbi Small made his first appearance, and which made use of material from Kemelman's own factual account of the building of his local temple that his publisher had at first rejected. This won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award in 1964. It was followed by Rabbi Small books featuring all the other days of the week: Saturday, the Rabbi Went Hungry, Sunday, the Rabbi Stayed Home, Monday, the Rabbi Took Off, Tuesday, the Rabbi saw Red, Wednesday, the Rabbi Got Wet and Thursday, the Rabbi Walked Out. Having then run out of days, there followed Someday the Rabbi Will Leave, One Fine Day the Rabbi bought a Cross, The Day the Rabbi Resigned and, finally, published two years before the author died, aged 87, The Day the Rabbi Left Town.

All of these books (of which 7 million copies were published in dozens of languages) owe much to the sharp, humorous way in which members of the tight-knit Jewish community in the little town of Barnard's Crossing are shown interacting and plotting, often to get rid of their uncompromising if innocuous conservative rabbi who uses logic, based on the Talmud, to solve each mystery. The result is always revealing and interesting, and, particularly in the earlier books, makes for strong plots. Fascinating to a non-Jew too is the insights it opens into current Jewish thinking and beliefs - although as Kemelman points out, Jews don't have any sort of creed to believe in ("With us, faith in the Christian sense is almost meaningless, since God is by definition unknowable... Our religion is a code of ethical behavior."). Similarly rabbis shouldn't be compared to clergymen, as what they really are are experts in the law and not ordained ministers. So I don't suppose Kemelman would have liked his rabbi to be described as a "clerical" detective, as I have done.

Kemelman himself said that his purpose in all the stories was to teach and explain Judaism to Jews and Gentiles, and this he certainly does. Comparisons with Christianity appear in all the books, but most explicitly in Conversations with Rabbi Small (1981) which isn't a crime novel at all, but a series of long conversations between Rabbi Small and a potential young woman convert (not that he offers her any encouragement as Jews are not out to convert anybody). Once again, there are fascinating descriptions of Jewish religious practices, but his description of the Jewish treatment of their Arab subjects as the most benevolent ever known certainly seems to ring very hollow today - and his painstaking descriptions of Christian beliefs sometimes seem to me to miss the point (e.g., "Christianity is a religion for dying, Judaism for living"). But Rabbi Small remains an outstanding creation - and so too is the close, affectionate portrayal of his little community.

An American TV series, Lanigan's Rabbi, was based on the David Small books. (Lanigan was the local police chief, a practicing Roman Catholic, and friend of Rabbi Small.)

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