Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Faye Kellerman’s first novel, The Ritual Bath, trades on a fascination with extremes of human behavior, from the piety and rigidity of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the brutality of rapists and drugged-out anti-Semitic gangbangers.
Set primarily at a cloistered yeshivah in the gritty hills outside of Los Angeles, the novel employs some, but not all, of the conventions of the mystery novel formula: for one thing, it begins with a violent rape rather than a murder and, for another, instead of a solitary sleuth, Kellerman serves up an unexpected pair of crime solvers, Peter Decker, a cynical police detective, and Rina Lazarus, a young and open-minded ultra-Orthodox widow.
Though at first the oddest of confederates, brought together because Rina was on hand at the mikveh when the rape occurred and is the only person willing to explain the peculiarities of yeshivish culture to Detective Decker, these two turn out to have more in common than they, or the reader, could have expected.
Weaving in Peter’s and Rina’s growing intimacy with the search for the rapist, Kellerman keeps the tension high and the violence harsh. Before long the reader is privy not only to the rape but to murder and an anti-Semitic attack. To her credit, Kellerman does not shy away from the representation of obscene speech, racist taunts, or physical violence, making the novel every bit as graphic and disturbing as other thrillers of the period, like Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (1988).
At the same time, as Rina both practices and explains to Peter the ins and outs of Orthodox ritual, including the laws of kashrut, feminine modesty, and “Taharat Hamishpacha” or family purity, peculiar situations arise. Long before Rina has ever allowed Peter to touch her hand or see her with her hair uncovered, for example, the pair has discussed, apropos of the rape investigation, subjects including anal penetration and the analysis of seminal fluid.
Kellerman’s novel dramatizes the ways in which even a cloistered and relatively self-contained religious community grapples with and fends off the temptations and threats of the mainstream culture, whether they come in the form of baseball games and children’s toys or criminal attacks. She treats her pious Jewish characters with respect, too-carefully showing that they are just as good and bad, just as admirable and flawed, as anybody else-and devotes considerable space to explaining and justifying Orthodox beliefs and practices that are likely unfamiliar to many of her readers.
Throughout a long series of novels featuring the same characters, Kellerman has built upon these explorations as Rina and Peter reevaluate their relationships to Jewish practice and to each other. Driven forward by suspense plots and by seamless prose, Kellerman’s novels engage with the changing possibilities of traditional Jewish culture in late-20th-century America, making them a remarkably successful hybrid of popular and traditional textual practices.
Though many readers feel that Kellerman’s first novel is her strongest, she has published more than 10 books to date featuring the same characters as well as a mystical mystery, Moon Music (1998), and a historical romance novel, The Quality of Mercy (1988). Kellerman’s husband, Jonathan, and son Jesse are also successful mass-market novelists, though their books have not treated Jewish themes as centrally as the Lazarus/Decker novels.
Jewish-themed mysteries and suspense novels are extremely common, ranging widely in their interests and settings; some notable contributors to the genre include Rochelle Krich, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and country-musician-cumpolitician Kinky Friedman. Worthwhile anthologies of Jewish mystery and crime fiction include Murder Is No Mitzvah (2004), Mystery Midrash (1999), and Criminal Kabbalah (2001), and the editor of the latter two books, Rabbi Larry Raphael, provides an extensive if not exhaustive bibliography of the field on his website, http://www.jewishmysteries.net.
Pronounced: MICK-vuh, or mick-VAH, Alternate Spelling: mikvah, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish ritual bath.