The Creation of Rabbi Small

A Special Foreword by Harry Kemelman

I was born and grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Boston. We moved several times, but always to a Jewish neighborhood, that is, one which had enough Jews to support a Jewish butcher shop and a Jewish grocery where you could buy herring and hard-crusted rye bread rather than the wax-wrapped loaf advertised as “untouched by human hand” (understandably) that was sold in the chain stores. These had to be within walking distance of one’s home. Few people had cars in those days, and even those were stored in a garage for the winter since streets were not plowed, only sanded. Any area that could support these two was also able to sup-port a shul or a synagogue.

I stayed out of school for every Jewish holiday, accompanying my father to the synagogue, mumbling the required passages as fast as I could but never as fast as my father. He would recite the Amidah and sit down before I was halfway through, even though I skipped a lot. During the High Holidays, when the synagogue was jammed, I would say I was going up to the balcony to see my mother, and then skip out and play with the other youngsters, and later when I was a teenager, stand around and flirt with the girls.

Although everyone in the congregation recited the passages in Hebrew, only a few knew the meaning of the words they were saying.

We did not pray, at least not in the sense of asking or beseeching. We davened, which consisted of reciting blessings expressing our gratitude, reading passages from the Bible and the Psalms. What petitionary prayers there were, were for the land of Israel and for the Jewish nation as a whole. It is perhaps simplistic, but nevertheless indicative, that our equivalent of “Give us this day our daily bread” is “Blessed art thou, O Lord, for bringing forth bread from the earth.”

Fifty years ago, I moved to the Yankee town that I have called Barnard’s Crossing in my books, where the few Jews in the area had decided to establish a synagogue. Of necessity, since there were so few of us, it was set up as a Conservative synagogue so that the few older members who were likely to be Orthodox on the one hand and the Reform on the other, would not feel the service too strange. In point of fact, most of them knew little or nothing of their religion. They were second and third generation Americans; their parents had received little from their immigrant parents and passed on even less to their children. Only one or two of the older Orthodox members kept kosher homes.

They knew about religion in general from their reading or from the movies they had seen, but little or nothing of the tenets of Judaism. Typical was the reaction of the young lawyer who had asked the rabbi they had engaged to bless the Cadillac he had just bought. He was surprised and hurt when the rabbi refused and said he did not bless things. The friends in the synagogue whom he told of the rabbi’s refusal felt much the same way.

I was fascinated by the disaccord between the thinking of the rabbi and that of the congregation, and the problems it gave rise to. So I wrote a book about it. My editor, Arthur Fields, thought the book too low-keyed and suggested jokingly that I could brighten it up by introducing some of the exciting elements in the detective stories that I had written. As I passed by the large parking lot of our synagogue it occurred to me that it was an excellent place to hide a body. And as a rabbi is one who is learned in the law and whose basic function is to sit as a judge in cases brought before him, it seemed to me that he was the ideal character to act as an amateur detective by searching out the truth. Thus was born Rabbi David Small.

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