“They always say that you should write what you know,” laughed Rabbi Ilene Schneider.
As one of the first female rabbis from Southern New Jersey ordained in the U.S., she did just that.
Schneider recently published her third novel of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen mystery series, Yom Killer.
The books follow Cohen — a female rabbi in Southern New Jersey at an unaffiliated synagogue (so as to not offend any readers) — who solves mysteries that just sort of fall into her lap, Schneider said.
“Being a bit of a yenta and being a bit nosy, she goes out and looks into them,” she explained.
Her first book in the series, Chanukah Guilt, explores a suspicious funeral and subsequent deaths, and her second, Unleavened Dead, which takes place during Passover, follows a similar storyline of unexpected deaths.
In Yom Killer, Cohen receives a call that her mother in Boston was found unconscious at her assisted living facility — but whether it was an accident or an attack is for Cohen to find out.
The story occurs between Rosh Hashanah’s end and Yom Kippur’s beginning, “and again, Aviva comes to the rescue,” Schneider said.
Schneider is also the author of Talk Dirty Yiddish and Recipes by the Book: Oak Tree Authors Cook.
She has a couple more books planned for the series, for which she often comes up with the humorous titles before the plot.
The wit in her writing comes from her father.
“It has to be genetic,” she said. “He has a rather wacky sense of humor. In fact, we have a joke in our family, whenever my [sons] come up with a bad joke or bad pun, we’ll look at each other and say, ‘zayde humor.’”
And although the novels cover pretty serious subjects, Schneider’s humor keeps the stories light.
“Basically they can be read out of order because I try to work into the book information that provides some background into the other two books without giving anything away, and at the same time not boring people who have already read the other two books,” she added.
Some of Schneider’s friends have told her that when they read the books, they hear her voice narrating.
“There’s part of me in some of [Aviva’s] personality,” she said.
Aside from the surface connections — both female rabbis from Southern New Jersey — she takes most of her inspiration from local news.
“I’ll read something and I’ll think, ‘Why?’” she said, “or, ‘How did that come about?’”
She then comes up with a MacGuffin, a moment in the story that “really had nothing to do with the plot, it’s just something that sets everything in motion.”
The MacGuffin in her first book was the theft of a few artifacts from a museum, including a Canaanite goddess figurine.
That was based on a years-ago theft from the University of Pennsylvania museum; the stolen object was later spotted in the window of an antique store on Pine Street.
“It just stayed in my mind — this ‘what if?’ and ‘why?’ — and that sort of set up my spinning this story,” she said.
In her second book, Aviva Cohen uncovers a case involving carbon monoxide poisoning — something Schneider recalled happened in her own town. Owners of a newly built house sued the builder for negligence because the gas wasn’t properly vented, she said.
That, too, stayed in the back of her mind.
She doesn’t outline or plan her books, but rather just starts writing and sees where the characters take her.
“The whole creative process is very mysterious,” she added.
Schneider — who’s originally from Boston but has lived in Marlton, N.J. for 35 years with her husband, Rabbi Gary Gans, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Tikvah — said she admires any writer who she is currently reading.
Otherwise, she looks up to classic authors who have stood the test of time, like Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle.
But she relates to her character Aviva Cohen on a more personal level.
Schneider was one of the first female rabbis in the U.S., ordained in 1976.
“At the time, I don’t think I thought that much about it,” she said, calling herself naive for thinking it would be easy to break boundaries.
She then faced the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated profession, which Cohen also grapples with in the novels.
She said she had to learn how to gain respect and deal with complicated instances of “casual sexism” that she faced from even the most “enlightened” of religious male leaders.
But before she embarked on a career path to the pulpit, there was another job she wanted to do: become the first female editor of The New York Times.
Of course, that goal has since been achieved by another woman, but Schneider has been interested in writing since she was young.
“When I was a kid, I used to write parodies of nursery rhymes,” she remembered. Her second career goal was to write for Mad Magazine.
Later on, she got involved mainly with nonfiction works like school literary magazines.
Her first paid piece of writing was for an obituary in 1963 after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Then-15-year-old Schneider received a check for roughly $10.
“I didn’t even want to cash [it], but my mother told me I had to,” she admitted.
She since rediscovered her love of novels, a passion that had been there from the beginning.
“It set me off on a new career that had been picking up from what my original intention in life had been,” she said.
Yom Killer is available on Amazon.com and Kindle e-readers or can be purchased at Barnes and Noble.
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