Ruby the Rabbi's Wife

(creator: Sharon Kahn)

Sharon Kahn

Ruby the Rabbi's wife is actually the rabbi's widow, as her husband, Stu, had been killed in what seemed a hit-and-run accident. She is a bouncy, lively extrovert, aged 46 when we first meet her, who eventually part-owns a deli called The Hot Bagel, together with the man who becomes her business partner, Milt Aboud. She has long worked as a freelance computer consultant for small businesses. She lives in Eternal, Texas, just south of Austen. She happily admits to having a "rather bizarre sense of humor".

The books are all told through her eyes and in her words. She admits to having a "firm build' (she's "a solid size fourteen") and auburn hair, with curls cut short, and green eyes. She has a son, Joshie, in his early twenties, and a three-legged golden retriever called Oy Vay. Later on she acquires a kitten too called Chutzpah. Although way past the first flush of youth, she certainly does not lack boy friends or admirers, including Kevin the incompetent Rabbi, and Paul Lundy, the police lieutenant.

Sharon Kahn (1934 - ) spent 31 years as a rabbi's wife and has worked as arbitrator and attorney. She is a graduate of Vassar College and the University of Arizona Law School. The mother of three, she lives in Austin, Texas, and has written two children’s books as well as the Rabbi's Wife mysteries. In addition, she has conributed weekly news items and computer-related book reviews to CompuServe's Online Today. She seems to share certain characteristics with her character, Ruby.

Fax Me a Bagel (1998)
Fax Me a Bagel is set a year and a half since Ruby's husband Rabbi Stu Rothman had been killed in a hit and run incident, but Ruby finds she is still expected to behave as the rabbi's wife. "I once thought that maybe with Stu gone - much as I miss him - my title would go too. No such luck." But then a woman in the queue with her at The Hot Bagel collapses dead, having just eaten a bagel that was full of cyanide. Ruby's old friend Milt, the owner of The Hot Bagel, is suspected of murdering her, and Ruby sets about saving him. In the process she risks life and limb and finds out that even her husband's death had not been the accident she had supposed.

It all sounds very serious, but that's reckoning without Ruby's bouncy extrovert style and the author's sense of humor and affection for the little Jewish community she describes so well. Particularly memorable is the dead woman's sister, Essie Sue Margolis, a really overbearing lady who is more than happy to organise everything and everyone off their feet. It is effectively she who decides who the next rabbi must be: this is Kevin, who is a pompous self-proccupied little man and who insists that everyone should address him as Rabbi Kapstein. Ruby, of course, insists on calling him Kevin throughout. She is more than a match for him, as when he tries to get over-familar in her car, and she puts him in his place by dropping his glasses on the floor (glasses he he had carefully taken off and put on the dashboard for safe-keeping before attempting to kiss her) and threatening to jump on his "Calvin Klein eyeware". Passion, we are told, then gave way to prudence.

Ruby herself ends up by being threatened by the murderer who breaks into her house but, being in the middle of sending one of her numerous e-mails to her friend Nan in Seattle, she quickly types in call police, presses the send button and hopes for the best. It all makes an entertaining and well-told story which nobody, least of all the author, expects to be taken too seriously. Yet some of the author's own experience's as a rabbi's widow seem to come through, and it is her own quirky way of observing the enclosed little world around her that brings the book to life. Recommended, as is the whole series, except perhaps for the last book, Out of the Frying Pan Into the Choir.

Never Nosh a Matzo Ball (2000)
Never Nosh a Matzo Ball sees the irrepressible and indeed irresistable Essie Sue as the new owner of Sam's Gym, now called the Center for Bodily Movement, where she is busy enlisting all her friends and adversaries to join exercise classes with her new trainer, the mysterious Bogie. Unfortunately he soon gets murdered - and it is Ruby who, with Kevin the rabbi, finds the body.

This does not prevent Essie Sue from going ahead with her Annual Temple Matzo Ball Sale featuring her new fat-free, salt-free (and taste-free) matzo balls. Her aim is to raise enough money for what Ruby describes as a "totally superfluous Queen Esther statue in memory of her sister Maria (murdered in the previous book). In marble, near the temple steps".She is looking for fund-raising Diet Partners "to help spread our spiritual and nutritional message". "You mean you need them to help sell the matzo balls," points out one of her fellow-members on her Temple Beautification Committee, Marble Arts Section.

Ruby, hot on the trail of the murderer, is concerned about what is really going on at a new Fit and Reducing Ranch which seems a to have a strange attraction for rich Californian people. She gets a job there as a computer consultant, so that she can poke around their secret records, and once again puts her life in danger. She and Kevin eventually get arrested for setting the place of fire. Luckily Police Lieutenant Paul Lundy is still around.

Rabbi Kevin risks his life too by getting engaged to Angel, the Ranch's "spirital director". It is she who insists on explaining to Temple members that "The Ten Commandments has had its day. At the dawn of a gentler century, wiser souls are persuading the world with the Ten Suggestions . How much more readily they would be accepted than the authoritarian concepts of yesteryear." Take "Thou shalt not commit adultery - do you see where I'm going here? This is the laid-back generation - maybe what you call adultery, another person, with as much right as you to have an opinion, would just call it fooling around, or really, really special affection, you know? And how about people who are just born to hug?"No wonder Essie Sue has to drag her back to her chair.

Right at the end, as dramatic events prevent the wedding taking place, and, as Essie Sue has already paid and arranged it all, she hopefully suggests to bridesmaid Ruby: "There's a congregation in there, and they're expecting a wedding from their rabbi. Ruby, can't you take the bride's place at the last minute? It's a shame for that gorgeous receptin to go to waste."

All this is good fun, and there are even a couple of recipes for matzo ball soup at the end of the book. Essie Sue can't resist adding a note to Ruby's recipe: "You should be buying my diet matzo balls in the first place. Don't try to prepare them yourself. since the ingredients are top secret, you can't make them on your own without a lawsuit pending."

Don't Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami (2001)
Don't Cry for Me, Hot Pastrami is the story of a fundraising cruise trip to "the Jewish Caribbean", organised for the good folk of Temple Rita by the resourceful Essie Sue, on the not-so-good ship Bargain II. As the captain of the ship was her cousin, she'd been able to negotiate special rates, but she'd reckoned without the desperate cost-cutting of Bargain Cruise Lines, where even the movie they showed turned out to be a documentary on growing corn, obtained free from the Department of Agriculture. And the gala meals, even if garishly colored, were equally economical.

Sue Ellis had previously organised a temple focus group to discover what members thought of their new rabbi, Kevin Kapstein, and found that the answer was not much, so she had intended the trip as a way to showcase his leadership abilities. Ruby had absolutely no intention of going, but Essie Sue saw to it that she won a free trip as first prize in a raffle. But everything goes wrong: the ship's lecturer is found dead before the boat even sets out to sea, then, on the voyage, Ruby manages to get herself knocked on the head, robbed, almost drowned and kidnapped. So we can't complain that nothing much happens.

Despite the fact that she must be getting on for fifty (not a fact she mentions), and has an expanding waistline, she seems to have no trouble in attracting the unwanted advances of the unattractive captain. When, in his replendent white uniform with a drink in one hand , he tries to embrace her, "I almost reflexively stomp on his foot and jump out of the way. As he grabs for his toe, the drink goes first, making a tannish stain on his white pants and all over his sheath of medals. He's lucky I went for his foot. I could have gone for his knee or worse."

Then there are the much more welcome attentions of a journalist called Ed Lavinger from San Antonio. The only trouble is that she's not sure whether he isn't one of the crooks. She had got her first sight of him as his rear end disappeared up the stairs ahead of her: "an awfully cute one, I might add". So she promptly makes up her own name for him, Mr Sweetcheeks.

The Jewish background is convincingly handled. One interesting sideline is a mention of the Conversos, "also known as Crypto Jews, descended from Spanish and Portuguese Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish and Mexican Inquisitions." Thousands of them apparently still live in the American Southwest. Although they know nothing about Judaism, and are indeed regard themselves as part of a good Catholic community,some of them "never ate meat with milk, gathered in the fields on a Saturday to socialize, and pulled all the curtains on Friday night while candles were lit". It all makes fascinating reading.

Despite all that happens, Ruby continues sending entertaining e-mails to her friend Nan, and ,as always, it's great fun to read.

Hold the Cream Cheese, Kill the Lox (2002)
Hold the Cream Cheese, Kill the Lox sees Ruby getting involved with her friends in tracking down the person who had stabbed lox cutter Herman Guenther to death. He was to have catered for the forthcoming Bar Mitzvahs of friend Essie Sue's obnoxious twin boys whom Ruby has agreed, much to her regret, to put up in her house.

It makes an entertaining story, memorable chiefly for its happy humorous portrayal of the local Jewish community. And there's a set-piece description of a trip to Alaska - not really all that essential to the plot, but interesting in itself. Characters range from the ineffective rabbi (who even manages to get himself arrested when the terrible twins enlist his unknowing help in smuggling doubtful videos out of the video shop) to Ruby's seldom-present boy friend, investigative reporter Ed Lavinger, who eventually helps her solve the mystery that has to be tracred right back to Nazi-era Denmark. It's also helps having the friendly Police Lieutenant, Paul Lundy, with whom she once used "to flirt a lot".

The story is punctuated with exclamations like oy, yum and whoa, but they do not seem inappropriate for such an exuberant character as Ruby, who proves adept at resisting Essie Sue's "unremitting goal of molding me into the perfect rabbi's wife, even though the husband in question, Stu, died quite a few years ago". Essie Sue, meanwhile, is busy organising the grandest feast in Temple Rita's history, all the time searching for bargains. She even eyes Ruby's new salad display hopefully, and asks, " Since it's a new display counter, are you offering a discount on the salads? .... My friends might want some, too, if you make it a special". It's all grist to the mill to Ruby, who is always happy to swap confidences in e-mails to another old friend, Nan.

It's all very light-weight and amusing, with no claims to being spiritually profound. And there are a few recipes included at the end.

Which Big Giver Stole the Chopped Liver? (2004)
Which Big Giver Stole the Chopped Liver? sees the irrepressible Essie Sue organising a complicated and over-lengthy reunion of previous members of Temple Rita as a great fund-raising effort. Prominent amongst them is Sue's rival Freddie Fenstermeister, grand-nephew of the Temple's founder, Rita Fenstermeister, who had inherited the family fortune and who had then left the money to the Temple "on the condition it was to be named after her. Fortunately someone came up with the brilliant idea of calling it Temple Rita instead of Temple Fenstermeister".

To save money and demonstrate her own skills, Essie Sue has made a huge chopped liver mould in the shape of Texas. What she didn't know was that it's place on the ice would be taken by the dead body of a mysterious stranger. Luckily, Ruby is at hand to discover the murderer, helped by incompetent Rabbi Kevin and admiring police lieutenant Paul Lundy.

At one stage Ruby goes off to a special clinic for a sleep apnea test, You wonder why this is described in such detail - but then an intruder cuts off her air supply. We should know by now that whenever there is a lengthy explanation of some apparently irrelevant activity, it turns out to be not irrelevant at all as it ends up with someone trying to kill her - or at least frighten her off. But you are still left wondering if there is an element of autobiography here. Certainly Ruby seems to have similarities with her author, sharing the same background (they are both rabbi widows), computer expertise, expanding waistline, and age (well, Ruby is rather younger) - not to mention that engaging sense of humor.

Ruby is in partnership with Milt at The Hot Bagel, where she looks after the books and business affairs, and he does the practical work. She has been a widow for over five years now, but is having an off-and-on affair with journalist Ed, but he only seems to come to see her when there's a good story going.

Ruby is still keeping up her e-mail correspondence with her friend Nan in Seattle. This is entertaining in itself, but also provides Ruby's personal comments on what has happened, as well as being an ingenious way of summarising events that the author does not then have to describe in detail. This helps to keep everything moving at a brisk pace, and, as always, the humor helps it along, Essie Sue's "Godfatherly" ways being particularly memorable. And there are two chopped liver recipes at the very end. Ugh!

Out of the Frying Pan Into the Choir (2006)
Out of the Frying Pan Into the Choir leads up to the Temple Rita Choir's scenic rail journey up to the First Interdenominational ChoirFest in Banff in Canada. But before they set off, their star soprano collapses and dies. Her secret diary reveals that she had been having a secret love affair with the smarmy choir leader, Andr
e.

But for long stretches, nothing very much happens, and the story lacks the vigor and excitement of the earlier books. Indeed some parts of it even read suspiciously like padding. Eventually, there is another murder, then, almost at the end, Ruby's life is threatened by the murderer who turns out to be one of her best friends. There is no convincing lead-up to this, so it is not exactly convincing.

Ruby, who is getting stouter and must be about fifty by now, is still attracting what seems rather unlikely male interest, this time in the shape of Gus Golan, "the very cute guy sitting next to me, who has that unusual combination of jet black hair and blue eyes I've always found fascinating". But "Ed continues to haunt my dreams, even though it's over, over, over" and "things are getting warmer with Paul" with whom she's in constant touch by cell phone. He's five years younger than her. Rabbi Kevin too still has a soft spot for her, so she really does remarkably well.

There are some amusing moments as when it is explained that the choir includes two non-singing members, added because "Essie Sue thinks it more aesthetically balanced to have ten people rather than eight ... and we had two extra choir robes going to waste". And Kevin the rabbi is enrolled by Essie Sue on a dating website called Nu-a Jew for You. Essie Sue fills in the form for him, describing him as "Somewhere between Brad Pitt and Robert Redford before he got old" and gives as the reason for wanting to go out with him: "My exciting sexual nature, my muscular body, my large brain, and my clever repartee". Not exactly the timid, tongue-tied little rabbi we've got to know.

So Essie Sue, at least, has not lost her sparkle. She even boasts about her new iMac: "As you all must know, the new Mackintosh is not a computer, it's a work of art. It's so stylish I'm diplaying it on my coffee table in the living room .... We Mac owners are a breed apart". She's right about this, of course!

Elsewhere, though, the book is much more slow-moving than usual. Too often there is more talk than action - and unfortunately we never get to the ChoirFest. A pity this, as it is just the sort of occasion that this author might have been expected to have had fun with.


Sharon Kahn has her own website, that even includes a bouncy song about Ruby.



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