Book Notes: Harry Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

This is the first in a series of mystery novels about Rabbi David Small. The mystery in this first novel in the series is nothing special. I knew who the murderer was 3 seconds after the murderer’s first appearance. But the rabbi is priceless.

The novel was written in the 1960s when there seems to have been a hope to create a way of being Jewish that lay between the Hasidic lifestyle and the completely irreligious marching-with-the-BLM and wailing-at-faculty-meetings-about-the-importance-of-pronouns lifestyle. Kemelman’s rabbi is trying to create that midway option but even in the 1960s it seems to be too late. The congregation doesn’t want rabbinical wisdom. It wants to discard every marker of Jewishness and just fit in. It’s interesting to read the novel now that we know how the story ends.

Quite a few paragraphs from the novel sound like they have been lifted straight from Rod Dreher’s blog. American Christianity is right now experiencing what American Judaism went through 60 years ago. If Kemelman’s novel is to teach us anything, it’s that Dreher is right to worry. People need to feel that their lives have a transcendent aspect. Once you erase religion from their lives, they start trying to wrench transcendence from places that aren’t suited for that purpose. The result is always ugly.

As I always say, the people who stop believing in the Savior become the Savior. And that’s very scary.