By Kenneth Wishnia
It’s the eve of both Shabbat and Passover, when the assistant synagogue caretaker (shammes) Benyamin Ben-Akiva is called from sleep by the broken cry of a girl’s name.
It’s 1592 and Benyamin is a Talmudic scholar recently arrived in Prague from Poland.
The city is a simmering stew of superstition, ignorance, bitter prejudices and conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Emperor Rudolph II’s tolerance of the Jewish people has allowed a fragile refuge inside the gates of the Jewish ghetto. But with preparations for Passover and Easter happening elbow-to-elbow, tensions are high.
As Benyamin is calling the community to Friday morning services, a young Christian girl’s bloodied body is found in a Jewish shop. Its owner, his wife and daughter are taken to prison on charges of blood libel (the accusation that a Jew has used Christian blood for a Jewish ritual).
Keenly aware of how quickly this could turn into violence against the Jewish community, Benyamin argues with the local sheriff that it makes no sense for the shopkeeper to have committed this crime in his own shop. He is given three days to come up with the real killer.
In kaleidoscopic style, you meet Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal); Yossele, who became a specter that many believed was the Golem of Prague; Anya, the Christian butcher’s daughter, who works as a maid in a wealthy Jewish household and serves as a link between the Jewish and Christian communities; and Kassandra the Bohemian, an herbalist and wise woman, who narrowly escapes execution as a witch. The religiously tolerant, but odd Rudolph II also makes a cameo appearance in a meeting with Rabbi Loew.
A light and suspenseful read, THE FIFTH SERVANT throws you into an early Renaissance world still shaking off the Dark Ages. Actual historical events are smoothly incorporated into the fictional story. The story is told in a series of episodes that offer views of Prague and the times from different perspectives – Inquisitors, Protestants, Christian and Jewish merchants, wives, whores and Talmudic scholars.
It’s a rich glimpse at history with a good story and strong Jewish themes.
The Author: Kenneth Wishnia
This book is an outgrowth of Wishnia’s marriage to a Catholic Ecuadorian woman. In the process of learning more about her religion, he discovered how little he knew about Judaism.
He has also written a series of mysteries featuring New York Police Officer Filomena Buscarsela, who grew up in Ecuador, became a U.S. citizen and discovers her desire to do good often runs at cross purposes with the police department’s business-as-usual.
Wishnia holds a bachelor’s degree from Brown University and a doctorate in comparative literature fro SUNY Stony Brook. He is a professor writing and literature at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Long Island.