Harry Kemelman dies at 88, author of Rabbi Small series

PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — Truth be told, Harry Kemelman did not like David Small very much.

Admired him, yes. Respected his scholarship and his humanity, sure. But like him?

"He's not a very likable person," Kemelman said of the fictional rabbi who, from his first appearance in "Friday The Rabbi Slept Late," catapulted the author to fame more than 30 years ago and who — like his creator — grew older and more curmudgeonly as the years went on.

Harry Kemelman died Dec. 15 at the age of 88, leaving a legacy for a whole new generation of mystery novelists for whom being Jewish is more than just a turn of the plot.

Many of the authors turning out Jewish sleuth fiction today say they took their "permission" to create Jewish characters from Kemelman.

Faye Kellerman, author of the popular Rina Lazarus-Peter Decker series, is one such spiritual heir.

She calls the late Massachusetts author "the granddaddy of us all." Under his tutelage, she says, American Jewish authors gradually became more comfortable turning out heroes who are proudly, visibly Jewish.

Through all 11 of the Rabbi Small books, Kemelman continued to fine-tune his fictional hero, infusing him with compassion, intelligence and righteousness.

"He's a traditional rabbi, sufficiently learned in the law to be able to sit in judgment," Kemelman said two years ago while writing what would be the last Rabbi Small volume, "That Day the Rabbi Left Town." "He's a teacher, not in the sense of a melamed, a teacher of children, but in the sense of someone who steers his community in the right direction."

Kemelman had a love-hate relationship with his alter ago right up to the end. "No congregation would tolerate him," the author said of his unbending, inflexible cleric. Jewish residents of the fictitious Barnard's Crossing often went head to head with their uncompromising rabbi over matters of religious policy and law.

"I wish there were more rabbis like him," Kemelman said wistfully.

It never just flowed for this best-selling author. Every word was a struggle. When he would sit down at the typewriter his mind would send out the message: "Get me outta here."

That is one reason Kemelman used to get more work done in Jerusalem, where he and his wife, Anne, spent five months of every year. Back home in Marblehead, he had perfected the art of avoidance. He would decide to get a cup of coffee, drive to the nearest McDonald's and stop at the library to shmooze.

"I can kill about three hours," Kemelman would admit. "But in Jerusalem, I can't do that, so I reheat the morning's coffee and proceed to write."

Millions of readers are profoundly grateful that he did. New legions of readers will likely stumble on one of the 7 million copies of Kemelman's books in existence. As Kellerman did, they likely will fall in love with Rabbi Small's shtetl-born logic, his cerebral approach to mystery-solving and his ornery impatience with lesser mortals.