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Posts Tagged ‘Jewish history’

THE FIFTH SERVANT by Kenneth Wishnia: Book Review

We need to go back in time over four hundred years, to 1592 to be exact. To the city of Prague, where the semi-benevolent Kaiser Rudolph II rules Catholics, Protestants, and Jews in an ethnic mix that can boil over at the slightest provocation.  And the fact that the first night of the Jewish Passover and the Christian Good Friday fall on the same day this year is exactly that provocation.

The title character in The Fifth Servant is a shammes (sexton) named Benyamin Ben-Akiva, newly arrived from a small town in western Poland to the big city of Prague. Although of course an observant Jew, he nonetheless is a follower of Rabbi Judah Loew, a reformist rabbi who stands slightly outside of the tight circle of rabbis who head the various synagogues within the walled ghetto where all Jews are forced to live.

As The Fifth Servant opens, Benyamin is awakened by a piercing cry that turns out to be that of a father looking for his missing daughter.  After Benyamin runs out of his shared bedroom (three people to a bed) in a rooming house and across the street, he comes upon the body of a Christian girl lying dead on the floor of a Jewish butcher shop.

The old familiar charge of blood libel is being tossed around the small shop, that being the term for the belief that at Passover time Jews kill Christian children for their blood to make matzoh, something that the enraged crowd all-too-easily believes. But before the people can erupt into violence against the butcher and his family, the shammes reminds them that the Jews of Prague are vassals of the emperor and under his protection.  So the city’s sheriff allows Benyamin and several rabbis to go to emperor and plead their case for the butcher to be transferred from the city’s jail to the emperor’s, where he presumably will be safer.  The emperor then gives Benyamin three days, until the night of Easter Sunday, to produce the killer; otherwise, it is certain that the butcher will be killed.

The Fifth Servant is as much a historical novel as it is a mystery. There is an incredible amount of research that has obviously gone into the writing of this novel.  There’s the combination of Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and Czech languages; the detailed explanation of Jewish prayers and beliefs; the conflict between the fifteen-hundred-year-old Catholic church and its upstart rival, the Protestant church; and the story of the Jewish people, always subject to the whims of whatever man happened to be in power in the country where they lived.

Kenneth Wishnia does a masterful job in creating not only this broad landscape but also the miniature sketches of the characters who people the city, some major and some minor. In addition to the shammes Benyamin and his teacher Rabbi Loew, there is a cast of dozens:  the visiting Catholic bishop who has come to Prague to ferret out the witches and sorcerers he knows live there; the sheriff of Prague who is willing to listen to Benyamin protesting the blood libel; the Christian servant Anya who is in love with a young rabbi; the emperor who wants to learn the secrets known only to his Jewish subjects; and the Jewish residents of the ghetto and the Christian residents of the city who view each other with suspicion and enmity.

You can read more about Kenneth Wishnia at his web site.