Rabbi Aviva Cohen is a 50-something, twice-divorced rabbi living a rather uneventful life in South Jersey. True, she has a family that is rather unconventional. And her first ex-husband is moving to her town. But her life takes a truly interesting – and sinister – turn when she agrees to officiate at the funeral of an unpopular land developer. She doesn’t expect to be told by two different people that he had been murdered. Nor does she expect that the first funeral will result in a suicide. Her search for the story behind the suicide (or was it murder?) will lead her to discover the truism “appearances can be deceiving” is accurate, while putting her life in jeopardy.
Read A Review:

Sometimes mysteries with religious content become venues for moralizing. Not so with this good mystery by Ilene Schneider. Chanukah Guilt weaves Jewish culture and mystery in a delightful blend.

Rabbi Aviva Cohen, 50-something and twice-divorced, would never have chosen to officiate at an unpopular land developer's funeral. And his highly dysfunctional family won't make it any easier on her, especially when one of his daughters asks to see her privately the day after the funeral. When a second family member turns up dead, this time declared a suicide, the family starts to wonder. Could both deaths have been murder? Rabbi Cohen is dragged into the investigation when one family member threatens her with a lawsuit, and she's compelled to search for answers.

The character development in this book is very good. Ilene Schneider's writing style allows you to really know both the main characters and the supporting roles. You finish this book with a solid picture of what these
people look like and their personality quirks. Chanukah Guilt gives insight in to the Jewish culture and religion because the rabbi's life revolves around the synagogue where she is employed. The plot moves along well and
the conclusion is satisfying. I enjoyed this cozy mystery and look forward to the next instalment by this talented author.

Rev. Lillian Porter

Rabbi-author Schneider is a 1976 graduate of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and has earned several advanced degrees, including an Ed.D from Temple University, and an honorary Doctor of Divinity from RRC.  She was one of the first six women rabbis in the United States. 

I liked the protagonist in CHANUKAH GUILT, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, before I had finished Chapter I of this novel.  The 50-ish, roundish, red-headed, twice-divorced rabbi admits on page 4 that she has a warped sense of humor.  I guess!  She considers Geraldine Grainger (The Vicar of Dibley, BBC comedy) to be a "good role model" for a rabbi.

As the story opens, we learn that Rabbi Cohen has given up a plum position as (she says) "assistant rabbi/gofer" in a large, affluent Philadelphia synagogue, to become the only rabbi at Mishkan Or, a small congregation in the suburban community of Walford, New Jersey.  Mishkan Or suits Aviva and she suits her congregation.  She's doing what she wants, "and not what society expects."  She can wear comfortable clothes to work, she knows all her congregants at a personal level.  So...she's making less money, has little prestige, and has a few problems with an older sister living in Florida?  Never mind, life is good.

Good, that is, until a widely despised land developer (the kind who builds fancy gated communities in wetlands) dies suddenly of a heart attack, and the family asks Aviva to conduct the funeral.  She's never met the man, so why her?   Well, because he left a long list of rabbis he didn't want conducting his funeral, and Rabbi Cohen was the only area name not on the list.  (The reason being he never met her or attended Mishkan Or!)

On the Monday after the funeral, the land developer's teen-aged daughter comes to see Rabbi Cohen, blurts out that she killed her father--not directly, but because of something awful she did and confessed to him. As a result he was blackmailed and, when he refused to pay, she says he was killed.   She tells Aviva she now fears for her own life.  Aviva tries to console the girl, but lets her disbelief in the story show, and suggests seeing a mental health professional.  The distraught girl immediately rushes out of the office.  On Wednesday, her death by suicide is reported.

Not only does Aviva suffer massive guilt because she didn't do more to help the girl; the dead girl's mother calls on her, says she knows her daughter didn't commit suicide, and asks Aviva to investigate.  The police are accepting both the heart attack and suicide stories.  Wrapped in her own guilt, Aviva agrees to look into the matter.

Things get complicated after that and a number of family members, as well as members of the Mishkan Or congregation and others in the community become involved.  Schneider does a good job of keeping us straight on everyone's identity as Aviva marches on, talking to folks and puzzling over clues.  At the same time the intrepid rabbi manages to handle several events at her synagogue, the eight-day Chanukah celebration beginning less than a week after the deaths, an early snowstorm over black ice, and several attempts to harm her.

This was a satisfying and entertaining book, and I recommend it to any lover of cozy mysteries.  One caveat. While reading the book I admit I was helped by some familiarity with Jewish worship practices, as well as a small knowledge of both the Yiddish and Hebrew terms used throughout.  I suspect that--especially here in the mid-south part of the United States--a small glossary of terms would have helped readers totally unfamiliar with Judaism.  But, not knowing all the terms in no way detracts from the story itself.  It just adds to the entertainment if you understand them.

For example:  Do you know the Yiddish word "zaftig?"  (Pronounced zoff-tig.)  From the German, "plum."  Among other things it means "plump, buxom, well-rounded."  Rabbi Aviva Cohen uses the word to describe herself.  Maybe some of us could do that as well?  Enjoy!!!  

Radine Trees Nehring