Retirement is murder for this NJ rabbi

     Ilene Schneider likes to work at a Starbucks near her home. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Ilene Schneider likes to work at a Starbucks near her home. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Rabbis often address troubling community issues in their sermons. Rabbi Ilene Schneider takes a different approach: She writes humorous murder mysteries. Killing with laughter is a tradition among Jewish humorists, from Woody Allen to Jon Stewart. What better way to explore the darker side of human nature?

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    Rabbis often address troubling community issues in their sermons. Rabbi Ilene Schneider of Marlton, New Jersey, takes a different approach. She writes murder mysteries. Funny ones.

    Killing with laughter is a tradition among Jewish humorists, from Woody Allen to Jon Stewart. What better way to explore the darker side of human nature?

    “I have to be very careful,” says Schneider. “My husband, Gary Gans, has been the rabbi of Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton for 34 years. I don’t want anyone to think I’m basing my characters or stories on them.”

    Many of the incidents in Schneider’s novels are drawn from local news stories. As for her stories about synagogue politics and intrigue, let’s just say Schneider has an active imagination.

    Fact and fiction

    One of the first women to be ordained a rabbi in the United States, Schneider goes to lengths to disguise the source material for her characters. However, her resemblance to her protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, is striking. Both are petite, full-figured women with curly, red hair. Both are avid birders and gardeners who reside in Southern Jersey.

    And that’s where the similarities end. Schneider has been married to the same husband for 38 years; her fictional counterpart is twice-divorced. Schneider recently retired as coordinator of Jewish hospice at Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice in Marlton; her heroine is the rabbi of a South Jersey synagogue. The crucial difference comes in how they spend their time.

    “Aviva Cohen chases down murderers and catches them. My idea of excitement is spotting an owl in the wetlands,” says Schneider, an avid environmentalist.

    However, a recent trip to the Jersey Pine Barrens triggered an idea for a mystery. “It’s a terrific place to hide a body!”

    Chasing bad guys since 2007

    Her first mystery, Chanukah Guilt, about the suspicious death of a South Jersey land developer, was published in 2007. “I had sent query letters to agents and got nowhere,” says Schneider. “So I started contacting small publishing houses. I didn’t hear back in so long, I was ready to give up. That’s when the call came. My book was accepted.”

    Following the publication of her first novel, Schneider was asked to write a nonfiction guide called Talk Dirty Yiddish.

    “I was asked because I’m a rabbi, but my knowledge of Yiddish was limited. So it was primarily a research project.”

    The book, which isn’t “dirty” as much as entertaining, quickly climbed to the top of the Amazon list in its category. While Saturday Night Live has made fahrklempt a household word, Schneider delivers the fine points between fahrmished, fahrmutshet and fahrpatshket.

    “It’s for people who want to find out what their grandparents were really saying,” says Schneider.

    In her second mystery, Unleavened Dead, Schneider explores the link between two untimely deaths that take place during Passover. It’s no coincidence that each of her mysteries occurs during a Jewish holiday and has a catchy title. “Using a holiday as a focal point, allows me to write about Jewish life and a rabbi’s role in the community in a more meaningful way,” says Schneider.

    The method to her ‘murders’

    Schneider often doesn’t know whodunit until half-way through the writing process. “I’m a pantser, not a plotter,” she says. “I write by the seat of my pants. I never outline. When I start a new book, I have a vague idea of what it’s about, but, basically, my characters tell me what’s going to happen.”

    Schneider, who never had an agent, credits her success to networking. “I subscribed to several listservs for mystery writers. That has been my primary source for connecting with publishers.”

    She also attends local and national mystery events, including Deadly Ink, an annual conference for Jersey mystery writers and fans; Malice Domestic, which focuses on cozy mysteries in Bethesda, Maryland; and Boucheron, an international mystery writers’ event held in a different location every year that draws thousands.

    In addition to working on her next Aviva Cohen Mystery, Yom Killer, set in an assisted living facility, Schneider has taken on two non-fiction projects: Recipes by the Book, a collection of authors’ recipes for Oak Tree Press, and Why Nine Candles for Chanukah? Answers to Questions You Never Thought to Ask.

    Where did she find time to write books with a full-time job, running a household, serving on the board of her local library, and being a rabbi’s wife? “Smoke and mirrors,” quips Schneider. “That’s why I retired early and decided to focus on my writing.”

    “I don’t write for the money,” she says, “I end up spending more on promotional materials and conferences than I make. I do it for another reason.”

    Schneider recalls a bereaved widow who stayed up all night reading Unleavened Dead. “She told me that it was the first time since losing her husband that she had gone to sleep with a smile on her face. That is why I write. To give people pleasure.”

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