By Vikary E. Fins
In the past, if someone had offered me a novel about people in the Orthodox community, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. Living a secular life, my knowledge of traditional Judaism is incomplete.
I learned to respect the joys of Shabbat and the holidays from my former in-laws; however, I was not well acquainted with the standards guiding the Orthodox community.
I also had a bit of naiveté about the people who live this life. In my mind, they suppress temptations. Spouses don’t stray. Rabbis don’t prevaricate. Synagogue boards and committees don’t engage in political machinations.
Along comes “Fruitfly Rabbi,” from local authors Chana Shapiro (an AJT columnist) and Meta Miller, and imagine my surprise.
Entertaining? Yes. Readable? Very. And, for me, informative.
From the “Fruitfly” characters and situations, I recalled many improbable synagogue anecdotes (OK, gossip) related to me by friends and family over the years.
I’m the kind of reader who needs to care about the characters in a book, and I found myself invested in the choices and experiences of our hero, Josh. I was intrigued by the motivations that compelled his boss, Rabbi Ephraim Halperin, a rabbinic icon, to pursue questionable actions. I sympathized with Josh’s family and wondered why he was attracted to the three very different young women in his life.
From my understanding of human nature, I appreciate Josh’s journey from the world of science to the world of religious observance. I have to admit that I enjoyed watching Josh struggle with the obstacles along the way.
“Fruitfly Rabbi” is a fast-moving, can’t-put-it-down page-turner, with several plot lines cleverly intertwined. I especially like the humor, intrigue and remarkable characters accompanying Josh on his odyssey.
Even though it seems that the male characters are central, I was pleased that the women are more important in shaping the various situational outcomes. The congregational secretary, Serena, uses private information prudently. Sheila Small, the board president’s wife, is an excellent tactician. Bunny Halperin, the senior rabbi’s wife, reveals more depth than is initially expected, and Josh’s girlfriends — I’ll leave the fun of those revelations for you.
And then there’s Rabbi Mordechai Goldschmidt, Josh’s mentor and moral compass. Goldschmidt uses his insight into Josh’s essence to guide him, sometimes at the 11th hour. Shapiro and Miller say they are working on their next “Fruitfly Rabbi” novel. I hope Rabbi Goldschmidt sticks around because Josh needs him.
I’m so glad that the authors included a comprehensive glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases. It has been too many decades since I lived with my Yiddish- and Ladino-speaking grandparents. I now know the meaning of mechitzah and the probable spelling of tchachkas.
By Chana Shapiro and Meta Miller
Leftwrite Books, 320 pages, $15.99