Lewis, Rachel Sharona. “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire”, Ladiesladies Press, 2021.
A New Kind of Rabbi
One of my favorite things about being a reviewer is reading new talent. Rachie Lewis is not new to me as a person but she is as a writer and I had no idea what to expect from her first outing into literature. I knew her as a social activist in the Jewish and LGBTQ communities Boston as an activist so I was not surprised to see that she included activism into her story but I was delightfully surprised by the quality of her writing— so much so, that I read “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” in one sitting. I read a lot of books with Jewish/LBGTQ themes and have noticed that they use this motif as happenstance whereas here it is an integral part of the test and it is extremely well done. I have lived through fascinating times as a member of this community and have watched it change and it is so good to have a book about a rabbi who is both a lesbian and Jewish. (I can just see myself explaining the premise of the book to my observant parents who would immediately have something negative to say).
Rabbi Vivian Green is the head of Congregation Beth Abraham in Providence where they feel that their new rabbi should “sing some songs and go to an environmental rally.” She, however, sees things differently and wants the membership to become involved with what is happening around them. This, to her, means getting involved in the special election for mayor of the city, to attend interfaith breakfasts with their city-special mayoral elections, interfaith breakfasts, fight for affordable housing and become people who really care and act on how they feel about the larger world in which they live. Then there is the rabbi’s social side when she “would like just one night off to go dancing in the leather boots that make her look like her finest gay self.” The new Judaism has arrived and for Beth Abraham it has done so with Rabbi Green.
Things do not go smoothly and the temple is set on fire bringing about that old division in the congregation. But then they learn that there were other fires in town as well. The rabbi is not willing to let go causing tensions to flair between her and her boss, the community and a mysterious person who wields a lot of power. The case becomes more than just knowing who committed the crime.
The idea of a rabbi who is also something of a detective is not new. In fact, I have read similar novels with some of the same trademarks of a mystery novel. What is new is the way writer Lewis handles her story. She writes from a different perspective as she attempts to solve the crime as she takes us behind the scenes of the temple’s inner workings.
Today’s issues of solidarity with communities of color, changing wealth from power and the rabbi who is new on the scene provides a fascinating read and also has us questioning ourselves as if we are actually part of the situation. I think the major plus of the book is its relevance to our lives in terms of modern Judaism— a move away from the old-fashioned emphasis on learning and the new emphasis on doing. We really see how much the religion has progressed. We do need read about study and intense prayer but rather about making a difference. The characters are Jews like us who care about community and justice in our world and not about a world that is far removed from us. I certainly hope that this is the beginning of a new series and that Lewis has plans to continue. She is off to a great start.