THE FIFTH SERVANT by Kenneth Wishnia


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Christians ferociously persecute Jews during the Easter/Passover season in late-16th-century Prague.

Most of this debut novel unfolds in or near the ghetto. Forbidden to leave its confines unless wearing “the Jew badge,” the ghetto’s denizens are nonetheless reasonably content in Prague, “a city that tolerated us, surrounded by an empire full of people who hated us,” explains narrator Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a rabbinical student recently arrived from the provincial town of Slonim. One day, however, a Christian girl’s body is discovered drained of blood, and Jews are immediately suspected of a ritual killing. The author has Christian characters voicing every paranoid prejudice handed down through the centuries, including the claim that “Jews kill a Christian every year so they can mix the blood with their filthy Passover bread.” In an atmosphere of agitation, uneasiness and panic, even Christians who seem willing to live in uneasy accord with those practicing another religion are suspicious—sometimes secretively, sometimes overtly—of Jewish magic. Jewish authorities, hoping to stave off possible genocide by solving the murder themselves, put Benyamin on the case with Rabbi Loew. Unfamiliar with the culture of the city and far more hot-headed than the meticulous rabbi, Benyamin occasionally gets into trouble with his quick mouth. But his intuitive insights complement the rabbi’s more rational, plodding approach, and they make a good team. Wishnia plays interestingly with role-reversal: A young Christian woman converts to Judaism, while a young Jew must disguise himself as a Christian to infiltrate a cadre plotting to destroy the ghetto during a week holy to both Jews and Christians.

Works nicely on at least three levels: as history, mystery and theology.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-172537-1
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2009