Friday the Rebbetzin… A Feminist Look at the Rabbi Small series

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, 1964

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, 1966
Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, 1969
Monday the Rabbi Took Off, 1972
Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red, 1973
Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet, 1976
(All Fawcett Crest Paperbacks) by Harry Kemelman

Harry Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late came upon the publishing scene in 1964. At subsequent intervals of about two and a half years, Rabbi Small went hungry, stayed home, took off, saw red and got wet. Each book has made it to the bestseller lists in hardcover and has been reprinted in paperback to be sold by the millions, and Friday has been translated into other languages.

The Rabbi Small books have had a significance far and beyond what could be expected of a mystery series. All have been reviewed by the most reputable newspapers and magazines (sometimes on the front page of The New York Times Book Review!), where much emphasis was placed on the fact that Rabbi Small uses Jewish scholarship in his detective work. For many reviewers and readers it is not the mysteries themselves but their Jewish content and color which have made the books significant. “The puzzle is a good one but the best part of this and any Small tale is the wondrous warmth and assurance of the portrayal of Jews and Judaism,” wrote the reviewer from The New York Times Book Review.

After I read Friday the Rabbi Slept Late in 1965,I, too, wrote an enthusiastic review, published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle. My last paragraph read:

Rebbetzin Small goes around the house every Sunday picking up, dusting, etc. Just in case someone drops in. These are aspects of rabbinic life not taught at the seminary. I heartily recommend Friday the Rabbi Slept Late to lovers of mysteries and/or rabbis.

As I reread my review recently I realized that I was so enthusiastic about the book because I had identified with Rabbi David Small, Jewish Scholar, rather than with Rebbetzin Miriam Small, Jewish Housewife. Now, 12 years after my first review, I have reread all the books to evaluate the treatment of Rebbetzin Small and her role from a Jewish feminist perspective.

The first book, which takes place in 1963, sets the scene for all the succeeding ones. By 1963, Rabbi Small has served the congregation of Barnard’s Crossing, an imaginary small town in the Boston area, for almost a year, and the Board of Directors is undecided about whether to renew his contract. Rabbi Small decides a case of negligence in the use of a borrowed car on the basis of Talmudic precedent and acquires some supporters. He then uses his Talmudic methodology to solve a murder of which one of his congregants is a suspect, he makes some more friends, and keeps his job. The subsequent books have similar ingredients: a mystery solved by Talmudic logic, and tzoris with the congregation dissolved by mystery’s end.

Kemelman tells us a great deal about Rabbi David Small:

His yichus (status based on lineage)— he comes from a long line of rabbis; his grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi in an East European shtetl (townlet); his father was a Conservative rabbi in an established synagogue in an American city;

Education—he is a graduate of “the seminary” (obviously the Jewish Theological Seminary, since he is a Conservative rabbi);

Scholarship—in Friday he is working on an article on Maimonides; by Sunday the article has been published (p. 19), and in Monday, David works in Jerusalem on his paper on Ibn Ezra for the Quarterly (Jewish Quarterly Review, published by Dropsie College?). In Israel, he declares that his Hebrew is good enough to enable him to write for one of the newspapers. (Monday, p. 137) But here and there, one may find lacunae in his Jewish knowledge. For example, on the El Al plane to Israel he shows ignorance of the difference between “kosher” and “glatt kosher” (Monday, p. 66).

While the David Small described in Friday seems to be as strictly observant of kashrut and Shabbat as any Orthodox rabbi, by Saturday, he is driving on Shabbat (p. 149-50), and in Monday, blessing non-kosher wine and challah at the Friday night meal of a secular kibbutz (p. 117).

Ellery Queen can be a 30-year old bachelor for 40 years, but a traditional rabbi cannot be celibate or a swinger. Harry Kemelman therefore created Rebbetzin Miriam Small, helpmeet par excellence. Miriam seems to look a little bit like Gloria Bunker Stivic of All in the Family. When we first meet her, in Friday, she is a few years younger than the rabbi, who is described as under 30 in 1963:

She was tiny and vivacious, with a mass of blonde hair that seemed to overbalance her. She had wide blue eyes and an open frank face that would have seemed ingenuous were they not offset by a firm, determined little chin. (Friday, p. 40)

On the first page of Saturday, Miriam is described in exactly the same words as in Friday. And then Miriam is past 30. After the birth of her first child, Jonathan, she is still

Tiny and vivacious looking… had blue eyes, open countenance, and a firm determined little chin. (Sunday, p. 14)

Pregnant again in Monday before they leave Israel, she gives birth to Hepzibah sometime in 1973, when she is in her mid-30’s. At 35, a mother of two, “she seemed not merely young, but immature.” (Monday, p. 35) A few years later, she is still

Tiny, with a mass of blonde hair that seemed to overbalance her. She had wide blue eyes that gave her face a schoolgirl ingenuousness, but there was determination in the set of mouth and in the small rounded chin. (Tuesday, p. 28)

She must have gained some weight, for her “firm little chin” has become a “small rounded chin.” In 1976, when she is almost 40, her chin is back to what it was before:

She was small, with the trim figure of a young girl. She had wide blue eyes and an open frank face that would have appeared naive were it not for the firm determined chin….Age has not darkened her hair, nor has she changed her hair style. The mass of blonde hair piled on top of her head threatened to come tumbling down about her neck and shoulders…. (Wednesday, p. 29)

We know that Miriam is the daughter of a rabbi, that her mother is alive (there is no mention of her father in this connection), and that her mother’s sister, Gittel, has been living in Israel since British Mandate times. Miriam knows enough Hebrew to read her prayer-book by rote. In Israel, she either consults a dictionary or has David help her with her shopping lists.

Although Miriam seems to know how to keep a strictly kosher home and how to prepare for Shabbat (Wednesday, p. 103) and Passover (Sunday, p. 171), David has to explain to her the significance of the number 18—chai (life) (Saturday, pp. 6-7) and Jewish naming customs (Saturday, p. 46). Improbably, this rabbi’s daughter is shown to be lacking a solid Hebrew/Jewish education!

Miriam cannot drive a car in Friday and is still not driving in Wednesday. It is difficult to imagine a middle-class Jewish woman living in a small town who keeps a kosher kitchen and does not drive. (Of course, it is possible that David does the shopping, but Miriam has already pointed out that he is a complete shlemiel in the market.)

No mention is ever made of Miriam’s secular education; she never seems to talk about literature or art or education or history. She worked as a typist to help put David through school, so it is quite possible that she is not a college graduate.

Kemelman is most lacking in authenticity in this entire area of rebbetzinship. Some of my best friends are rebbetzins— Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Re-constructionist—in congregations in small towns and big cities from coast to coast. Only a few of them, notably those who graduated high school during the Depression, did not go to college. Many have master’s degrees and some have doctorates. They all have solid Jewish educations, either acquired before they met their husbands, or while they were considering marriage to a rabbi.

Most of my rebbetzin friends of Miriam’s age work as Hebrew teachers in their husbands’ congregations. Many congregations take for granted this addition to their religious school staff when they hire rabbis. But even after over a dozen years as rebbetzin in Barnard’s Crossing, Miriam has not taken an active role in the synagogue or community.

Perhaps this is because Miriam’s major role is that of caregiver, and she has been busy nursing and mothering her husband:

“He’s like a boy,” she said by way of apology. (Friday, p. 44)

This may also be the reason that their first child, Jonathan, was born in 1966 when Miriam is 28 or 29—rather late for a traditional Jewish couple married four to five years, especially where the wife has not been working outside the home for years.

Miriam is a “ring around the collar” wife, responsible for her husband’s sloppy appearance.

“A wife should see to her husband. But what can I do? I see that his clothes are neat when he leaves in the morning, but can I follow him around all day?” (Friday, p. 50)

She had put away the coats that her husband had left draped over the valise…. [She] viewed her husband lying on the couch with affectionate annoyance. “David!” she called sharply.
“Sit up.”
“I took my shoes off,” he protested.

“And how about your jacket? It will be all wrinkled for tonight.”‘(Sunday, pp. 18-19)

Miriam is very protective of her husband. When he gets crank calls she intercepts them so he will not be disturbed. (Friday, p. 133) She insists that he wear his topcoat (Friday, p. 44) or his raincoat (Wednesday, p. 65) in bad weather. When he gets sick, she puts him to bed, takes his temperature, gives him orange juice and aspirin, and calls the doctor. (Saturday, p. 96) She wishes he would take better care of his health and go for regular checkups. (Wednesday, p. 100) She fusses over him “like a mother hen.” (Sunday, p. 118)

Miriam has been well trained by her mother-in-law. Although she herself has only toast, coffee, and a cigarette for breakfast, David must be properly fed:

“You should see that he eats, Miriam. Don’t ask him what he wants, because for him, if he has a book propped up in front of him, or if he has some idea spinning around in his head, he can gnaw on a crust of bread and be satisfied. You’ve got to see that he eats regular, a balanced diet with lots of vitamins

” She hovered over him, seeing to it that he finished his grapefruit, setting his cereal down before him with an air that indicated she would brook no refusal. As soon as he had finished the last spoonful, she served his eggs, a-long with his toast already buttered. The trick was to avoid any delay during which his mind could wander and he would lose interest. (Friday, p. 55)

Miriam is still hovering even when pregnant. She prepares the meals and clears away and washes the dishes so “he was able to drink his coffee in peace.” (Saturday, p. 12).

During one of the bad days of her pregnancy, Miriam is “tired and her feet swollen from the extra housework required to prepare the house for the Sabbath. Rather than upset him by suggesting she stay home, she asked him if he’d mind if she rode to the temple.” (Saturday, pp. 149-150, emphasis added)

Erev Pesach “the brunt of the work naturally fell on Miriam and this year was even more difficult, because Jonathan was old enough to…get in the way…” (Sunday, p. 120, italics added) When they decide to go to Israel, Miriam is, of course, in charge of arrangements:

Miriam, on whose shoulders the management and logistics of the expedition devolved, had worried and fretted, had made out lists…. (Monday, p. 63)

Miriam shows a maternal pride in her “boy-like” husband:

“David will change the world, Mr. Wasserman, before the world will change my David.” (Friday, p. 50)

“You’re an excellent rabbi and an excellent teacher, too. You have trouble with your congregation because you’re a good teacher.” (Tuesday, pp. 215-16)

David’s attitude towards Miriam is very protective and paternal, even patriarchal. He makes important decisions about their future, such as sending in a letter of resignation, without consulting her, explaining that he does not want to distress her during her pregnancy:

[Miriam] “The point is, that was all right when there were just two of us. But I’m carrying a child and I feel responsible for it.”

[David] “For him, and Irresponsible. ” (Saturday, p. 55)

(Of course, the child turns out to be a boy, Jonathan.)

But David does not react at all when Miriam’s obstetrician Poo-poos her labor:
“The pains have stopped for the time being. It’s quite common. Sometimes the girls get a little lazy, or maybe they change their minds. If they didn’t they wouldn’t be women, ha-ha.” (Saturday, p. 175)

Sometimes David shows contempt for Miriam’s ignorance:
[David] “We’re travelling north.”
[Miriam] “How do you know?”
[David] “By the sun, of course,” he replied scornfully. (Wednesday, p. 251)
David admires Miriam’s Aunt Gittel very much. She, like Miriam, is tiny, but with a mass of gray hair piled on her head. Says David to Miriam:
“I think she’s grand. I don’t mind her managing. She comes from a long line of matriarchal managers, all the way from Devorah to Golda. It’s a tradition with us. In the shtetl, while the men studied, the women ran things ….” He smiled. “You’ve got a little of it yourself, you know.” (Monday, p. 84)

Continues to talk nostalgically of shtetl fe in Tuesday:

“To us, the unmarried woman, the spinster, is a tragic figure because she has not had the chance to complete her normal life cycle…. There were no spinsters in the shtetl.” (p. 265)

Endeed, it is the fact that Dean Hanbury is an unmarried woman that puts him on her rail as potential murderers.

David seems not to have acquired any ew ideas about the role of women in Jew-in life over the years. In Tuesday, when he eaches a class on Jewish Thought and Philosophy at a nearby college, probably in the fall of 1971, he treats Ms. Goldstein, one I his students, with patronizing patience.

He smiled. “And I might add for the benefit of any ardent exponent of Women’s Liberation who may be among us, that by rabbinic law, only one born of a Jewish mother—note, mother, not father—is a Jew.”

“… Isn’t that just a line Jewish male chauvinists hand women nowadays to hide their second class status? [Ms. Goldstein said]. Women are brainwashed into thinking they’re more important because they’re the ones who decide whether the kid belongs to the Jewish race or nation or whatever it is …. When actually, wasn’t it because with Jews a persecuted minority everywhere, there was greater certainty if you traced descent from the mother?”

“Oh, I see what you mean. Yes, I imagine that could be the rationale,” he admitted.

A frosty smile flitted across her face. “And isn’t it true that women have no place in the Jewish religion down to the present day? In some synagogues they even hide them behind a curtain up in the balcony.”

“That’s only in strictly Orthodox congregations.”

“In our synagogue they sit on one side,” Lillian Dushkin said.

“And they’re not allowed to take part in the service,” Ms. Goldstein added.

“That’s not true,” said the rabbi. “The service is a recitation of a series of prayers. Women who attend the service recite the prayers along with the men.”

“Big deal,” said Lillian Dushkin. “They’re never called up to read or anything.”

“They are, in Reform temples,” the rabbi corrected her. (Tuesday, pp. 50-51 )

Apparently, women in Rabbi Small’s Conservative shul are neither called up for an aliyah (to read or recite blessings on the Torah), counted in a minyan (quorum of worshippers) or even allowed to vote: “

…a lot of the girls feel that this fight in the congregation… is not such a good idea.”

“Yes, but the girls don’t vote.”
“Maybe not, [Pearl Jacob said] but a lot of them can influence those who do vote, and in Reform congregations they do vote, and I think it’s a good idea….” (Sunday, p. 120)

Kemelman may be willing to consider giving women the vote, but he still calls them girls.

The rabbi’s—and the author’s—limitations are most obvious in the concluding segment of the classroom discussion in Tuesday:

“I know for a fact that the husband can divorce the wife by just sending her a letter,” said Mark Leventhal…. “And she can’t divorce him at all.”

“And if her husband dies, she had to marry her brother-in-law,” said Mazonson.

The rabbi held up both hands to bring them to order. “This is a very good example,” he said, “of the danger of discussions based on ignorance and limited knowledge.”

Indeed, these very words may very well apply to the danger of paying attention to Kemelman’s teachings based on his own ignorance and limited knowledge, for he ends with David saying:

“No, Ms. Goldstein, I see nothing in the divorce laws that could suggest second-class status for women.” (pp. 50-51)

The Rabbi David Small books have appealed to a very wide audience and their impact on the Jewish and non-Jewish reader has been enormous. Millions have read these books and have learned painlessly and enjoyably what they believe are authentic Jewish traditions. Some of the material Kemelman is teaching through Rabbi Small is innocuous popularized, somewhat homogenized Judaism. Some of the material is monolithic, possibly derived by Kemelman from his own rabbis. The material relating to women, however, is pernicious.

Rabbi Mezzik, a rival whom some of the congregation are enamored of, gives a detailed rationale for men-only minyans “with no women or children to distract us”:

“It isn’t an example of male chauvinism. It’s as natural as life itself…. It doesn’t mean you’re a sex maniac if you get a little warm thinking about a woman. That’s natural…. But when you’re trying to make contact with Him, it gets in the way… The best way is not to have them around…. Now I ask you, is it male chauvinism to admit you think so highly of women that you confess they can distract you from God Himself?” (Wednesday, p. 118)

No opposing viewpoint on the issue is given by the author.

Kemelman’s presentation of the role of the Jewish woman—for Rebbetzin Miriam Small is the archetypal Jewish woman in many ways—is affectionate, but also patronizing, narrow minded and ignorant. For while the author has shown us Rabbi Small’s character and behavior as it develops over a 12-year period—especially in his increased leniency in certain religious observances—Miriam Small remains essentially the same trim-figured, firm-chinned caregiver throughout. While described in the first book as a “shrewd and a forceful young woman . Friday p. 40), she has never demonstrated these characteristics in any of the books in the entire series. Nor has she grown and become involved in advanced education or a career, or the community, or in religious or educational innovation or in the Jewish women’s movement.

Thus the Jews and Gentiles who are drinking from the wellsprings of Jewish knowledge via David Small’s exploits and explications are also, unfortunately, imbibing additives via Miriam Small’s lack of a positive Jewish female identity.

Miriam Small’s consciousness–and Kemelman’s—still remain to be raised.

Dr. Ida Cohen Selavan is an educator, historian, lecturer, translator and author of over 25 publications. She has pioneered in oral history in the Pittsburgh Jewish community, where she lives. She became a mystery fan 35 years ago when she read a story by Ellery Queen, with whom she corresponds.