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Review: The Fifth Servant, by Kenneth Wishnia
Morrow, 2010. 387 pp. $26

On Good Friday, a young girl in Prague is found murdered, her throat cut. Since the year is 1592, suspicion automatically falls on the Jews, and since that evening also marks the start of Passover, why, that settles it. Whoever killed her must have used her blood to bake matzoh. Never mind that by Jewish law, blood is ritually impure, literally untouchable, or that matzoh must be made of flour and water. The infamous blood libel has had a long, sturdy life, and in late sixteenth-century Prague, just about every Christian believes in it implicitly.

In taking this ancient lie as its premise, The Fifth Servant pushes its characters (and the reader) to look closely at bigotry and hatred while also inviting laughter. To explain that, I could say that oppressed people need humor to survive, and that Jewish humor, especially of the ghetto or shtetl variety, is well known. But that’s only half the story. This remarkable novel promises a wild ride even in the front matter, which compares the word shamus, or private detective, with its Yiddish ancestor, shammes, or sexton of a synagogue.

Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a Talmudic scholar newly arrived from Poland, is the shammes in question, the fifth of his calling in a ghetto with four synagogues. This makes him literally a fifth wheel, and he’s easily the squeakiest in town. Benyamin has three days to solve the crime, or the ghetto will pay, probably with its destruction. This doesn’t exactly come as a shock to him.

Holy Week and Eastertide were especially risky, and a gambling man would say that we were long overdue for some old-fashioned Jew-hatred. Every year the Jews got thrown out of somewhere. The lucky ones merely got beaten up, had their property stolen, and escaped with their books and the clothes they happened to be wearing at the time. But one Easter a while back, a mob of enraged Christians had practically burned down the entire Jewish Town, leaving only the black and stone shul and a few crummy houses that refused to fall over. Three thousand people murdered in one weekend, all because some idiot said that a Jewish boy had thrown a handful of mud at a passing priest.

Still, how can Benyamin do anything when Friday evening is not only the first Passover seder but the Sabbath, and he may undertake no labor? Moreover, since the crime took place outside the ghetto, and the authorities have closed the gates to Jewish traffic, how can he possibly gather clues or question witnesses? Finally, how can Benyamin carry out his investigation when several rabbinical authorities oppose him and his rationalist methods? It’s that heretical way of thinking, they believe, that caused the trouble in the first place. If everyone were properly devout, they argue, there’d be no blood libel.

Rabbi Judah Loew’s tombstone in the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague (courtesy MKPiekarska, via Wikimedia Commons)

But Benyamin has one respected ally, Rabbi Judah Loew, a rationalist himself (and a historical figure, incidentally). Between the two of them, using Talmudic logic and wisdom from the Torah and other texts, they try, little by little, to crack the mystery surrounding the girl’s murder. But the odds are heavily against them, and you won’t be surprised to hear that “no; and furthermore” greets them at every turn — excuse me, neyn; un noch, since Yiddish is the key language, here.

Along the way, Wishnia re-creates sixteenth-century Prague, Jewish life of that era, and a world of intellectual ferment alongside brute superstition. I’ve never read a mystery in which the sleuths are Talmudic scholars, quoting references from sacred writings to support the inferences they draw from observed facts. (For that matter, even the ghetto’s whores are learned enough to enter the debate.) That can be very funny, especially when they have to explain themselves to Christians, who believe that drawing inferences from anything must be an example of Jewish witchcraft. Such humor carries a dangerous edge, of course. But even among his fellow Jews, Benyamin has to overcome suspicion of his origins, scholastic pedigree, and ways of reasoning. For instance, when one skeptic asks, “How come I haven’t heard of you?,” he replies, “Because the angels who sing my praises do it beyond the range of normal hearing.”

At times, Benyamin’s commentary wears thin; a little less archness would have worked a lot better. And the reader unfamiliar with Hebrew or Yiddish may feel at sea, though the text explains the many quotations and expressions. (There’s also a glossary at the back.) But such is the draw of The Fifth Servant that it pulls you into its world and doesn’t let go – for laughs and heartache, both.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.