Rabbis not-so-private life as whodunit scholar

Don’t expect Sue Grafton, who has penned a series of mystery novels from “A is for Alibi” to “R is for Richochet,” to write “Ch is For Chuppah” anytime soon.

There’s very little that’s Jewish about Grafton and most of her colleagues who crowd the New York Times best-seller list. But readers in search of Jewish mysteries do have an ever-expanding body of work to choose from, according to Rabbi Larry Raphael of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

When not carrying out his religious duties, Raphael has become an expert on Jewish identity in American mystery novels. His journey as an armchair detective was rooted in escapism, he told enthusiasts of the genre during a Nov. 16 lecture at Sherith Israel.

It began in 1972. Raphael was a student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Instead of studying for his approaching final examinations, he spent a weekend with his brother reading Ross McDonald novels.

“A lot more interesting than studying for a Talmud exam,” said Raphael, who replaced longtime Rabbi Martin Weiner at Sherith Israel in July 2003.

Raphael came to the Reform congregation after about 30 years as an educator at HUC in New York City. He will be installed during the weekend of Dec. 3. Joel Siegel, entertainment editor of “Good Morning America” and Raphael’s childhood friend, will be the featured speaker at a Dec. 4 dinner for the rabbi.

In keeping with his interests, the two-day installation called “Mystery, Magic and Midrash” celebrates Raphael’s passion for detective novels.

About 250 Jewish mysteries have been written since 1986, according to Raphael, who has edited two anthologies of Jewish mystery writing: “Mystery Midrash” and ” Criminal Kabbalah.” A third book is in the works, “Diaspora Detectives,” though it may have to wait until retirement.

There are cultural Jewish novels by the likes of Kinky Friedman (President Bush’s favorite author), where “often the God of their ancestors has been forgotten but the cooking of their mothers has been remembered.” And there are the books of authors such as Faye Kellerman, Rochelle Krich and Harry Kemelman (the Rabbi David Small series), in which Judaism is used to advance the plot.

“There are some mystery writers who combine the desire to solve a crime with the desire to illuminate some aspect of Judaism or the Jewish community,” he said.

But regardless, “Real Jewish writing is Jewish inside and out and doesn’t have to take place in Brooklyn or Manhattan.”

Certainly, Raphael’s rabbinical work teaches him more about Judaism than he gleans from mystery novels. But he recognizes parallels between immersing himself in a whodunit and probing the bigger picture.

“The best of all mysteries allows us to confront the bogeyman,” he said. “[They provide] a credible central figure who can hold back the darkness for one more day.”