In this novel, an American rabbi makes an unexpected trip to Germany, learns about the horrors of the Holocaust, and witnesses a murder.
Rabbi Elijah Daniels has led his congregation at the Temple Beth Shalom in California for years. But he’s shaken one day when he’s challenged by some of the temple’s members over his ownership of a BMW, a company that once collaborated with the Nazis and subsequently lied about it. He realizes his knowledge of that important period in Jewish history is wanting, and serendipitously, Pastor Dan Winter, a Christian friend of his, asks Daniels to take his place heading a student tour of Germany. He reluctantly accepts the offer and is quickly thrust into a whirlwind educational experience that challenges his long-standing preconceptions not only about the German people in general, but also the experiences of Jews historically in that nation. In addition, Daniels, who lost his wife, Leah, years ago, meets Hannah Kelman, an Israeli woman who runs a Holocaust museum and catches his eye. But his trip becomes even more eventful when he witnesses the murder of a young Turkish girl, Hajar Nazrawi, whose body mysteriously disappears before the police arrive. Later, Daniels discovers the body buried in a shallow grave, clinging to a dollar bill that demonstrably belongs to him, an inexplicable coincidence that raises suspicions he was involved in her death. The murder mystery, though, isn’t the heart of the intricate story—the real thematic core is Daniels’ educative tour of Germany, Paris, and Prague, and his emotional encounter with the grim plight of modern Jews in Europe. Gross-Schaefer (The Rabbi Wore Moccasins, 2013) skillfully braids the historical and mystical, investigating the spiritual crisis that, from the very beginning of the tale, appears in Daniels’ dreams. This is also an astute introduction to the history of European Jewry. But too much of the book seems didactically heavy-handed, as if most of the plot is little more than a fictional staging of historical lessons. Furthermore, those lessons are made narratively possible by Daniels’ fey and hard-to-believe ignorance of not only Germany’s past, but Jewish history as well.
A rigorous presentation of Jewish history ensconced within an uneven drama.