A synagogue and a frozen yogurt shop by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What possible connections could there be between a synagogue and a frozen yogurt shop? They both serve as buildings that offer meaningful lessons, or at least they do in two recent novels: “The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire: A Rabbi Vivian Mystery” by Rachel Sharona Lewis (Ladiesladies Press) and “Milk Fed” by Melissa Broder (Scribner). I’m not certain how the two main characters of these works would interact: Rabbi Vivian might be less than impressed with Broder’s heroine Rachel’s obsession with calories, while Rachel might scoff at Vivian’s social organizing. Fortunately for readers, we can enjoy both heroines without worrying whether they would clash.

Rabbi Vivian is a wonderful character: she’s a young, new rabbi who wants her congregation to join interfaith efforts and make their city a better place. It’s the perfect time for politics: a special mayoral election is taking place shortly and affordable housing is one of the main issues. The extra land the synagogue owns would be perfect for that type of housing, although not all members of the congregation agree. Joseph Glass, the senior rabbi, wants to do the right thing, but after years of being battered by so many different opinions, it’s difficult for him to decide the best way to use the land. Good intentions then go awry and Vivian finds herself at odds with a woman to whom she is attracted. Will politics ruin not only her professional life, but her social one?

“The Rabbi Who Prayed with Fire” made for quick and easy reading. I guessed “whodunnit” and why, but that didn’t spoil the fun. In fact, I was pleased that I spotted the clues as early as I did. Anyone who has been on a synagogue board will note how Lewis captures the give and take of those meetings, which can seem long and tedious. Young rabbis will appreciate the problems Vivian faces while trying to balance her personal and professional lives. My favorite lines in the book were Vivian’s thoughts about going to a dance club after she was ordained: she visualizes “three bearded old men staring her down with disdainful eyes... It was soon after her ordination that the panel of rabbis first appeared to her in her favorite dance spot in Brooklyn, sitting on bar stools, drinking wine from the kiddish cups and shaking their heads in disapproval.” That is a wonderful image. Fellow readers will join me in hoping this is the first in a series. 

While Vivian feels like a far more mature character than Rachel, the heroine of “Milk Fed,” it’s unlikely she knows the exact number of calories she consumes in a given day. That’s the central fact of Rachel’s life, though. Rachel’s days revolve around food, although her focus is on limiting what she eats. A chubby child, her mother continually tried to control everything and anything that went into her mouth. Rachel calls her mother “the high priestess of food, the religion of our household: abstain, abstain, abstain.” Rachel felt the most Jewish as a child when she visited her grandparents, who, she says, were “deeply obsessed with Jewish food,” noting they “would drive me to New York and take me on a tour of all the old culinary haunts of our tribe.” Now that Rachel is slim and living in Los Angeles, she counts calories, is rigid about what and when she eats and tucks nicotine gum into jaw 24 hours a day to help limit her appetite.

Rachel does allow herself to indulge in a small amount of frozen yogurt each day. She has trained the counter person to stop the flow of yogurt when it reaches the lip of the cup. But one day, when Rachel walks into the shop, she finds a different person behind the counter: the Orthodox Miriam. Miriam seems the opposite of Rachel: fat, religious and embracing of food and the joy of family. When Miriam fills her cup to overflowing, Rachel has difficulty getting rid of the excess yogurt. When Miriam gives her a yogurt with all the toppings she normally refuses, Rachel is smitten not only with the food, but with Miriam. The descriptions of food that follow are the most erotic I’ve ever read and the descriptions of what Rachel wants to do with Miriam aren’t far behind. But there’s a problem. Miriam invites Rachel to celebrate Shabbat at her parents’ home, where Miriam lives, and the family embraces Rachel. Yet, if the two women start an affair, will Miriam’s family, to whom Miriam is greatly attached, ever accept it?

While this description might make “Milk Fed” sound very serious, Broder leavens the drama with a great deal of humor. Although in different hands Rachel might have come across as unlikeable, she’s not: readers will sympathize with her and the problems she faces.