The Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries

By Ilene Schneider; reviewed by Jeannette Hartman

Aviva Cohen is the twice-married, twice-divorced, 50-something rabbi at Mishkan Or in southern New Jersey who has a nose for sleuthing.

Her life is usually filled with religious services, meetings with the synagogue’s board and committees, overseeing the religious school, counseling congregants and representing the synagogue at community and interfaith events.

But Aviva is curious and observant. She doesn’t hesitate to get involved when something tweaks her instincts. The fact her first ex-husband Steve Goldfarb has been appointed acting director of public safety for the town of Walford doesn’t hurt her investigations. Nor does the fact that her niece Trudy Meisner is a cyber genius.

It’s not essential that you read each book of the series in order. It can be helpful to follow characters’ lives — Steve is married and becomes widowed, Trudy and her partner adopt a child — but it isn’t critical.

Each book is set during a Jewish holiday, but the mysteries don’t usually relate to the holidays. The books so far are:

  • CHANUKAH GUILT. When unpopular real estate tycoon William Phillips dies, Rabbi Cohen is only local rabbi he doesn’t hate. She’s selected to officiate at his funeral. Two relatives tell Aviva that they believe that he was murdered — then one of them turns up dead, an apparent suicide.
  • UNLEAVENED DEAD. When two of Aviva’s congregants, Florence and Milton Fisher, turn up dead of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning, the police believe it is due to a bird’s nest in a dryer vent. Aviva, an avid birder, doesn’t buy it. Interfaith marriages, the challenges of getting and holding on to congregational positions and the demanding standards some congregations expect of their rabbis all figure into this “who done it.” This story ends with a twist readers will never see coming.
  • YOM KILLER. When her 96-year-old mother is found unconscious at her assisted living apartment in Boston, Aviva drives north to be with her. Aviva is exhausted from Rosh Hashanah services and should be getting ready for Yom Kippur. Steve, now a widower hoping for a second chance with Aviva, offers to go with her. Unsure if her mother accidentally fell or was attacked, Aviva has no choice except to investigate. She soon discovers that new management at the facility plans to transform the place into an expensive, high-end facility and is sparing no compassion in easing out its oldest residents.

These cozy mysteries blend the complex responsibilities of being a rabbi, a detective, a family member, a friend and an all-around mensch. These stories have a Jewish feel but aren’t heavy in religious rituals or observances.

Aviva makes a credible sleuth, especially with the assistance of Steve and Trudy, who can worm her way into anything on the internet. While Trudy’s assistance isn’t always legal, it’s enough to goose an investigation in the right direction.

Some situations hit close to home like YOM KILLER, which delves into a situation that would send terror into the heart of any one taking care of an elderly relative.

If you’re looking for light, entertaining Jewish stories, this series is excellent. The writing is sometimes uneven and some of the plots stretch credibility a tad, but they offer a good reads.

If this series interests you, you might want to also check out Andy Weinberger’s AN OLD MAN’S GAME.

The Author: Ilene Schneider

Ilene Schneider, EdD., was among the first six women to be ordained as rabbis in the United States.

In addition to serving as a congregational rabbi, she is the former director of Jewish hospice for Samaritan Hospice in Marlton, NJ.

In addition to the Aviva Cohen series, she has written TALKING DIRTY — IN YIDDISH?. Her short story, “The Triangle,” was included in the anthology, JEWISH NOIR II. She has also developed a Q&A website about Chanukah.

She lives in Marlton, NJ, with her husband, Rabbi Gary M. Gans, whom she met while attending the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. They have two adult sons, Natan and Ari. Her husband, after retiring from Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, became a chaplain with the Evesham police department.


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