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Faye Kellerman’s Orthodox Characters Bring Judaism to the Masses

June 15, 2017 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

The bestselling mystery author serves up a dose of Jewish life and insight in the midst of her suspenseful who-done-its.

When best-selling mystery writer Faye Kellerman wrote her first book in 1986, she wasn’t sure how it was going to be received.

Added to the uncertainty of finding a publisher that all new authors face, Faye faced an even greater obstacle: her book was profoundly Jewish, with an Orthodox woman named Rina as its main character.

“Write what you know,” Faye recalls thinking at the time, in an exclusive interview. “I love my religion,” Faye explains, “and I thought that maybe other people would be interested in Orthodox Jewish faith, just like I’m interested in other cultures.”

At the time, Faye was raising her young family in Los Angeles and working as a dentist. She and her husband Jonathan (now an acclaimed mystery writer as well) were growing in their Jewish observance. They were active in their synagogue, celebrated Shabbat each week, and kept kosher. There was so much joy and happiness in their observant Jewish lifestyle, Faye wanted to convey that beauty in her work.

“You can write about Jewish characters and they can be really fascinating.”

There was little precedent for the type of characters she wished to create. Faye found many 20th century Jewish-themed novels to be dark; their depressing worldviews had little to do with the joyous Jewish community Faye and Jonathan experienced in Los Angeles. The author Chaim Potok was the only writer she’d read who she felt managed to convey the joy integral in Jewish religious life. “Potok’s 1967 novel The Chosen was a huge influence on me,” Faye says. “It helped me realize that you can write about Jewish characters and they can be really fascinating.”

Faye’s character Rina was compelling from page one in Faye’s debut novel The Ritual Bath. A recent widow who’s an Orthodox Jew, Rina assists a Los Angeles detective investigate a murder carried out near a mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. Rina’s love of Judaism is palpable: she pauses to make blessings over her food before she eats, she avoids speaking gossip, she knows her Chumash (Bible) and she teaches elementary Hebrew. Showing up early for a Bible class, Rina muses that “She liked the book they were studying – Samuel – for it described the excitement of the reign of King David. Not only was the book of Samuel interesting historically ,but it provided magnificent insights into the frailties of human nature.”

Jonathan and Faye Kellerman

A publisher accepted The Ritual Bath for a small run, and it sold modestly. Despite its limited sales, Faye was determined to write another book. “I always had a very vivid imagination and I knew I could write more than one story.” She spoke at book fairs and worked to promote her writing. Her books began to gain fans and sales soared.

The character Rina eventually married Detective Peter Decker (who found out that he was technically Jewish) and much of the fun of the books involves Peter’s growing religiosity. After a particularly grueling case in Faye’s second book, Sacred and Profane, Peter returns home, faces East, the direction that Jews traditionally face in prayer, and reaches into his new-found Jewish identity: “Feeling at peace, he took out a siddur (Jewish prayer book) and said his evening prayers.”

After 30 years of writing, Faye now describes her character Rina as “her own person”. The youthful character with young children is now a grandmother. Recent books have described Rina as trim in middle aged, dressed in her trademark denim skirt and beret; her husband Peter has gone grey and semi-retired to work in a sleepy police force in a small New York town. “After writing 30 books with both Rina and Peter, they have developed their own personalities. They sort of take on a life of their own,” Faye explains.

When she first started her series, Faye did copious research, visiting Los Angeles police departments and speaking with detectives. She also consulted a rabbi when she had questions about Judaism. Her husband Jonathan, who grew up attending Orthodox schools, has also been a valuable resource on Jewish issues.

Faye’s novels are, first and foremost, good stories. Any information about Judaism is always “part of the plot”.

Faye stresses that her novels are, first and foremost, good stories. “I’m not here to do any sort of preaching. If readers learn something and they find it interesting that’s good,” but any information about Judaism in Faye’s books is always “part of the plot”.

Rina is fearless about doing what is right. In Faye’s 2014 novel Murder 101, Rina negotiates with a Russian spy for the return of letters belonging to the late Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, stolen long ago by the Soviet regime. In The Bone Box (2017), Rina single-handedly fights off a murderous attacker. As the series has evolved, Rina’s detective work has grown, accompanied by a steady backdrop of Shabbat dinners and holiday celebrations.

No matter how busy the characters Peter and Rina are, no matter how grueling the case, they put everything on hold for Shabbat. Shabbat is a cornerstone in Faye Kellerman’s own life too. “It centers me. I cannot imagine my life without a day to stop and focus on family and faith each week. It’s a beautiful time to stop.”

Two of Faye’s children have become writers as well. Her son Jesse has penned a number of murder mysteries and Faye’s daughter Aliza co-authored a young adult novel with Faye called Prism. Faye’s two other daughters both work as psychotherapists.

One of the greatest gifts she and Jonathan gave their children was a strong sense of their Jewish heritage and identity.

Looking back, Faye notes that the one of the greatest gifts she and Jonathan gave their children was a strong sense of their Jewish heritage and identity. “It’s a great way to raise kids. They should know what Judaism is, that it’s not just lox and bagels on Sunday. They should know we have a 2,000 year history and appreciate this heritage in all its facets.”

Faye can trace her family back through several generations and was glad to pass along that heritage to her children. Her father, who was born in Poland, served in the American army during World War II, and helped liberate concentration camps. Fluent in Yiddish, he helped translate for the traumatized survivors. Faye included some of the details from these years in her books. Rina is a child of Holocaust survivors and Faye’s book Straight Into Darkness, a departure from her usual mystery genre, deals with anti-Semitism in interwar Europe.

Faye’s long-running mystery series has not only entertained a generation of readers, it’s also introduced countless fans to details about Jewish life. Religious people of all faiths appreciate the clean nature of her books, in which a good tale entertains instead of salacious details. Faye speculates that many religious readers “appreciate the fact that I don’t use religion as dirty word” and include so many facets of spiritual life in her works. “I feel there is a higher being, and ultimately He’s looking after the world,” Faye explains.

As her mystery series develops, Faye is also branching out and working on other projects. She’s departing from her usual style of fiction with an upcoming mystery The Killing Season, and is planning another Rina and Peter mystery after that. Faye, always working and thinking about new ideas, makes times for numerous visits to Israel where, she finds life is often spirited and full. “It’s a country that’s always busy and blooming with ideas,” Faye says.

That description can apply to Faye Kellerman, too, as she embarks on her third decade penning novels that bring the beauty of Jewish life to readers, along compelling writing, intriguing characters, and heaping doses of suspense.

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