Book review: Jewish mysteries – liberal and Chasidic

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

I’d rather read a mediocre mystery than a mediocre literary novel. The reason is simple: most mysteries have a satisfying ending, if only because I learn “who-dun-it.” Reading mysteries feels relaxing, even when the characters are evil and the plot gritty. I can just lean back and enjoy the twists and turns without worrying whether or not the book has any socially redeeming value. My preference is for mystery series since, even if the mystery isn’t great, I usually enjoy the interaction between the characters who appear in each book. It doesn’t matter if the series is humorous (think Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels), serious (for example, Elizabeth George’s Lynley and Havers series) or ones that contain both aspects (Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels). In fact, it’s the sheer range of what qualifies as a mystery that’s part of their appeal. Two recent Jewish-themed mysteries – “Yom Killer” by Ilene Schneider (Aakenbaaken and Kent) and “The Chassidic Trauma Unit” by Abraham Boyarsky (8th House Publishing) – are very different examples of the genre.
I’ll admit I feel an affinity for the main character in “Yom Killer.” After all, how could I not like Rabbi Aviva Cohen, a middle-aged, wise-cracking, liberal rabbi? In previous books in the series, Aviva not only had to deal with balancing the needs of different members of her congregation, but with an ex-husband who is now living in the same town. There were also phone calls and advice from her older sister and her mother, who fortunately don’t live in New Jersey, but who still frequently interfere in her life. In the current novel, Aviva faces a family crisis during the worst possible time for a rabbi: the High Holidays. When she learns her mother is in the hospital, Avivia rushes – with her ex-husband in tow – to Boston. Questions abound: If her mother only had a simple fall, why did the hospital place her in a medical coma? Why does the staff at the hospital and the assisted living facility act as if they are hiding something? Does the fact that a new company owns the assisted living facility and the hospital have anything to do with her mother’s injury? Aviva is willing to risk her own life to find the answer.
Aviva is an appealing character, partly because she’s honest about her own faults – and she does have several endearing ones, including not thinking before she acts. It’s also hard not to like someone who packs far more books than she can possibly read for the trip to Boston. The novel has the right balance of seriousness and humor, and the mystery was satisfyingly complex. While perhaps not great literature, “Yom Killer’ is fun, easy reading.
While “Yom Killer” is a perfect book for the beach or relaxing after work, “The Chassidic Trauma Unit” is too serious to be considered light-hearted vacation reading. Sender Pleskin, a member of the Bubner Chasidim, is an overweight 45-year-old, who runs the trauma unit from the basement of his house. The members of the unit do everything from give medical advice to helping those in mental distress – be it from illness, old age or mathematical homework assignments. Sender sees the unit as his way to serve God and believes every challenge is a test of whether or not he’s able to do God’s will. When a Chasidic teenager falls into a coma, Sender and his unit try to discover why the young man, who was on the verge of leaving the hospital, relapsed. Sender treats every clue as a message from God – if only he can understand what they mean. What follows is, unfortunately, a convoluted and unconvincing plot.
I had mixed feelings about “The Chassidic Trauma Unit.” The writing was off-putting at times, beginning with the description on the first page of a woman whose “wild bosom [was] swinging from side to side like watermelons on a horse drawn-cart.” What kept me reading was Sender, whose determination to help others made him an intriguing character. Although his lifestyle may not appeal to many readers, Sender works very hard to be a good person and I admired him for that, even when I disagreed with his actions. Now if only the plot and the writing had done him justice.