Rabbi Gabby Lewyn

(creator: Roger Herst)


Roger Herst
Rabbi Gabby (for Gabrielle) Lewyn is 33 years old when we first meet her and has been assistant rabbi at Washington's Ovah Shalom Congregation for seven years. At the start of the story she is having to act as Senior Rabbi, and hopes that her promotion will soon become permanent. She is unmarried, and her eight-year-old romance with a Presbyterian minister is breaking up. She is "an attractive woman - slender, athletic, with all her facial features in symmetry, including a nose which was successfully altered at fifteen with a gentle curve downward at the tip". Attractive dimples were her dominant feature. But however soft she may look on the outside, inside she's a tiger, "a lady of iron in a soft fleece jacket."

Her religious views are nothing if not non-doctrinaire: "The best she can commend to her enquiring congregants is a deity who somehow watches over the human species and (despite wars, disease, and an inequitable distribution of the earth's resources and wealth) somehow permits humanity to flourish in increasing numbers. But as far as individuals are concerned, hey, they're on their own."

Roger E Herst (date of birth?) was born in San Francisco. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago, John Hopkins University and the Hebrew Union College. His doctorate was in Middle Eastern History. He is an ordained Reform Rabbi and has also been a history professor and television writer. After finding that the stories in his sermons attracted his congregation's interest, he went on to write a series of novels and numerous scholarly articles concerning Jewish history and philosophy. He lives with his wife, a physician, in Washington, DC.

Woman of the Cloth (1998, but subsequently revised and republished as a Kindle eBook in 2011 as Rabbi Gabrielle's Scandal))
Woman of the Cloth starts with the disappearance of Senior Rabbi Seth Greer who has vanished without a trace after having several affairs with women in the congregation. Associate Rabbi Gabby Lewin has to take his place, if only on a temporary basis. Then another congregant, prominent business developer Noah Zenter, gets accused of raping Eli Waller, an eminent financial adviser, and Gabby sets about finding out what really happened - and in the process finds herself falling in love with Noah.

At first the reader is struck by how real everything seems, particularly the description of a rabbi's life when the author is able to write from first-hand experience. But, as the story wanders on, and tension fails to build up, long descriptions of incidents such as a pro-life rally or the inclusion of Gabby's story about a young Nazi in the Waffen SS do not prove as interesting as the author obviously hoped. And the description of a lecture by Gabby, although certainly fun to read, is hardly essential to the plot. The author explains on his website that he regards his novels as "sustained stories" made up of "a series of episodes that resolve toward a climatic ending that is not obvious to the reader as the episodes unfold". A more coherent plot with some real feeling of excitement or tension would have been more interesting.

Yet the description of Gabby herself, her life as a rabbi, her ambition and beliefs, are all very convincing, and one cannot help but sympathise with her in her fight against gender discrimination. It is her old friend Ephraim who tells her that there is opposition to her promotion because, "You're single and without children .... We are a family oriented organisation. For each single member, we have close to five hundred families."
Gabby curled her lips. "I can't believe what I'm hearing, these people you talk about, who are they? On what planet do they live? And in what century? How can they expect me to go through college and rabbinical school, then work my fanny off Monday through Sunday and still have anything that resembles a normal family life? Who else works seven days a week? And is on call twenty-four hours a day, both in the synagogue and at home? How can they be so rigid?"
In the end Gabby is prepared to admit in court that she has made love to Noah, even though she thinks this will ruin her chance of promotion.

Gabby wonders about prayer too: "Maybe prayer is nothing more than words of a wounded heart spoken to One who must listen because He has nothing better to do". As she later explains, "Everyone comes to Judaism in his or her own way. Rabbi Greer was raised in an Orthodox home and comes from an old school. I was not. To use the jargon from our profession, he is a Theist and I'm a Deist. He conceives of God as an omnipotent judge, and I as a remote cause. His notion leads to personal relationships; mine to philosophical concepts."

She is quite ready to admit to having doubts about God: "but no more than what I discern in the hearts of many members. Often our congregants voiced their doubts and reservations about God .... We're trying to establish a climate for individual judgement. If I'm not wrong, our members object to rigid dogma .... There's danger in believing we are God's emissaries, that somehow rabbis have stronger convictions than others. It tends to make as arrogant and pompous..... I don't believe the rabbis at Ovah Shalom should establish core beliefs that will exclude members of our community. We can't afford to lose those who are struggling at their own pace and in their own ways. The pursuit of a belief is just as important as the belief itself."

In the end it turns out that the missing senior rabbi has taken a job as a stand-up comedian - not exactly probable, you can't help feeling. Nor is the way that Gabby is hidden away from troublesome journalists by an obliging network of gays who are impressed by her because, "You revealed yourself in public. We struggle with the same problem everyday. Your fan club admires what you've done." And the explanation that Seth had allowed menopausal women to have sex with him in an effort to find "Divine Synapse" does not seem all that likely either. But Gabby remains a realistic figure.

A Kiss for Rabbi Gabrielle (2011)
A Kiss for Rabbi Gabrielle, who is now the senior rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Washington DC, where she has been serving for eight and a half years. In her new role she has to perform a funeral for her favorite Bar Mitzvah boy, now a young man recently murdered in a remote city park. This death brings her to a ghetto high school where the victim coached its struggling tennis team. An avid tennis player herself, Gabrielle attempts to keep the tennis team going and, because the police are unable to apprehend the murderer, investigates the crime. This brings her into conflict with Washington's thriving gun trade.

For the most part, it is a chatty cozy story that is at its most interesting when describing relationships beween people (such as Gabby's growing addiction for Joel whom she starts by describing as "a bit overweight. A bit too short. A bit too little hair. And worst of all, he's a gun lover and a hunter.") However, Gabby gets increasingly involved, not only with him, but with the competing pro and anti-gun lobbies.

As before, the synagogue setting is interestingly described, as when we are told that, "When a grown male who isn't circumcised converts to Judaism, the custom is to draw a small drop of blood from his penis to symbolize the full circumcision. It's called a tipat-dam." And inter-rabbi rivalries are convincingly brought to life, as you might expect from an author who is himself a rabbi.

Unfortunately, though, there are overlong and increasingly tedious descriptions of a charity tennis tournament in which Gabby and her lesbian friend Lucia take on men's teams and defeat them, and the only real excitement comes when Gabby finally gets involved in a bloodthirsty gunfight with drug dealers in which everyone seems to end up shooting each other. But never mind: even after all this bloodshed, the author manages to end the book with the opening of the new Tennis Center for which Gabby had been working so hard, for it was "time to say goodbye" to those who had died.

Rabbi Gabrielle's Defiance (2011)
Rabbi Gabrielle's Defiance sees Gabby
, now aged 38 and in her fourth year as senior rabbi at Congegation Ohav Shalom, toying with running for a seat in Congress with the help of handsome Kye Naah, a Korean computer geek who operates a successful on-line political campaign website called Politicstoday for underfunded, unknown candidates, such as her. It is not long before she realises she is in love with him. "She dreaded the moment as her eyes moved from his chest to his abdomen, descended to his groin and what she feared – his member partially erect, but uncircumcised, the symbolic difference between her race and his." But he had a plan …

Meanwhile her congregation has lost a child burned to death, and another badly injured, in an accident involving Hanukkah candles. Her highly talented associate rabbi, Asa Folkman, who also doubles as a pianist in a seedy nightclub, is accused of unprofessional incompetence and is the cause of a major law-suit leveled against Ohav Shalom that may well cost them $46 million. It is only Gabby's detective work that can save the day.

The most interesting parts of the story are lively descriptions of what happens in such matters as the deposition case when Asa Folkman is bullied by an aggressive lawyer and has to navigate through questions without giving anything away. Eventually he has to admit that it was he who had taught the 8 and 10 year old girls how to light the Chanukah candles that seemed to have caused the fire. But had he also warned them about the potential dangers involved? "You didn't anticipate that having learned the prayers and knowing how to use matches, they might attempt to do this on their own without parental supervision?"
Asa admits that he hadn't.
"Had you warned them about the dangers of using matches, would it have made a difference?"
"I don't know, that's pretty hypothetical, now isn't it?"
"Remember, Rabbi. I'm asking the questions here. But do you think it might have helped?"
"I'm… I'm just not sure even of that." He started, uncertain exactly where Sutterfeld (the prosecuting lawyer) was headed.
"So are you saying that the Morgenstern girls would accept your counsel on how to say the blessings and conduct the ceremonies, but they wouldn't obey you on the matter of lighting matches?"
"I don't believe I'm saying that at all. You are putting words into my mouth, Mr Sutterfeld."
Sutterfield's voice smarted with reprimand. "Just answer the question. Do you convey authority on religious rituals and not on matters of fire safety?"
"I'm a rabbi not a bloody fireman."

The later bankruptcy case in which Kye Nah is confronted by his creditors also grabs the interest, helped along by the formidable judge Julia Karsten-King who was "true to form this morning … humorless and impatient – snapping like a carnivore at Bartholomew George of Delmontroy, Marks and Syson, who represented thirty-eight venders owed money by Politicstoday." It was she who pointed out that "it's up to the creditors to be both reasonable and practical."

Interesting too is the description of the broadcast Jewish seder, produced in cooperation with Disney productions, complete with live feed from Egypt, in which Gabby finds she has to improvise and play a bigger part In explaining the meaning of the Passover than she had anticipated, but does it triumphantly.

Altogether it all makes quite an interesting read, especially when Gabby has to choose between staying on as a much-needed rabbi or her wish to bring a new honesty into politics, although it's pretty obvious which way the wind is blowing. And her love affair is getting on nicely.



The author has his own informative website.



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Woman of the Cloth

The cover gives no clue about the book's content. It's a wandering tale but with a convincing woman rabbi at the heart of it.
It was subsequently revised and reissued as Rabbi Gabrielle's Scandal which, like the rest ot what is now a series, is only available as an ebook.

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