Saturday, September 3, 2011

Sample Chapter From The YouTube Rabbi

The YouTube Rabbi

Rabbi Ben sat on the edge of his narrow hotel bed, hunched over the screen on his MacBook Pro, using Google Maps’ satellite feature to recon the neighborhood around the Benkamal home. Google showed him fuzzy photos of a tree-lined street of blocky, modest, two-story private homes and apartments.
Ben stared at the picture, puzzling over the men that had followed him. If they had meant him harm, he concluded, they would have attacked when he left Rabbi Zeev’s home. And if they were indeed Mossad, Ben reasoned, someone would now be watching the Benkamal home. And someone, or several someones, would probably be waiting near every subway stop in Bensonhurst. Unless by now they knew where he was staying, in which case they would stake out the hotel.
But to what purpose? he wondered.  To intimidate him? To have him lead them to the Codex? Was something else going on? Ben didn’t know, and he didn’t want to risk calling the Benkamal home—the line could easily be tapped—until he’d met Miryam and could explain the situation. He needed a way into the house without alerting watchers.
He peered again at his computer. Four houses down from Benkamal’s was the concrete playground of a Catholic school. A fence about seven feet high guarded adjacent backyards. A mature tree extended a green-clad limb over the fence.
 A parochial school presented problems. He’d need a plan.
By 7 the next morning, Ben had run a five-mile circuit around Williamsburg and environs and returned to his hotel for a shower and a quick breakfast of coffee, juice and toast. Wearing old jeans, a T-shirt and black training shoes and carrying a small bag, he hailed a cab and left it near Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, where he walked around until he was satisfied that no one was tailing him.
In Borough Hall’s marble corridors, he found a restroom with a vacant stall, where he changed into the clothes that he’d rented the previous afternoon. He rode the subway into Manhattan, surfaced at Lexington and 59th, and walked to the Cardinal Terence Cook Building at 56th and First Avenue.
A black Lincoln with darkened passenger windows picked him up there.  Ben had the livery driver take him to back to Bensonhurst, then circle the residential streets surrounding St. Hermione’s Catholic School. Down the block from the Benkamal home, he saw two men in a battered old Mazda with a clear view of the house.
The two men who had tailed him the previous day.
Ben had the driver stop in front of St. Hermione’s.
The driver said, “Shall I wait, Father?”
Ben handed him a hundred dollar bill. “What’s your cell phone number?”
The driver wrote it on a scrap of paper. Ben said, “Wait right here for half an hour. Then go have coffee, and I’ll tell you where to pick me up.”
“Standing in a school zone is a two hundred dollar fine!”
“It’s exactly a hundred and fifteen, but if you get a ticket, I’ll pay it. And another hundred if you stay right here the full thirty minutes.”
“You got it, Father.”
Wearing black summer-weight trousers and a jacket with a white Roman collar, Ben stepped out of the air-conditioned Lincoln and into the heat and humidity of a Brooklyn summer. He marched into St. Hermione’s and hailed the first nun he saw.
“Sister,” he said, in excellent mimic of what one of his college professors had called a Belfast brogue. “Where might I find Sister Agatha?”
The nun was in her 50s, a handsome arrangement of lines and angles in summery street clothing. She smiled warmly at the handsome Irish priest.
“Third floor, street side. Shall I show you, Father ...?”
“Horace. Father Horace Cole.”
“I’m Sister Ignatia. This way, please, Father Horace.”
Sister Agatha was pushing 60, as plump and as plain as Sister Ignatia was slender and aristocratic. She smiled at the young priest through shrewd hazel eyes.
“And to what do we owe the honor?” she trilled.
“A small honor indeed, when a humble servant of God visits one of the Church’s finest schools,” Ben said, still pushing the pseudo brogue.
“Humble servants don’t usually travel in such grand style, Father.”
“Nothing eludes you, Sister Agatha.”
“What can I do for the Archdiocese today?”
“It’s what you’ve already done,” Ben replied, a smile playing on his lips. “Your fifth-grade girls have shown every Catholic in New York the value of a good education.”
And, glory to God, that’s all over the Internet, Ben thought.
Sister Agatha flushed with pleasure. “It’s kind of you to say so.”
“It’s His Excellency who says so.”
“His Excellency himself? Archbishop Dolan?”
“He’s very high on your school, Sister Agatha.”
“I’m so tempted to be flattered and prideful.”
“He’s considering a visit.”
“The Archbishop’s coming here? When?”
“You can’t tell anyone, Sister.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s the reason I’m here.”
“Where are my manners! Would you like a cup of coffee, Father?”
“Thank you, but I allow myself but one cup, and that’s now ancient history.”
“Something stronger, then?”
“Sister, I stand with Thomas Aquinas on the virtue of temperance.”
Sister Agatha looked contrite.
“Then again, if we could both swear that the sun had set on the Hudson and you had a wee drap [stet: drap] of the Jamie, I’d happily do my penance with the others.”
Sister Agatha burst into laughter.  “Tell me what you need from St. Hermione’s.”
“Thomas Aquinas, no less than His Excellency, ranks prudence first of the cardinal virtues. Sad to say, but the day when a man like Timothy Michael Dolan could go anywhere in this city without fear—that day has passed.”
Sister Agatha bowed her head.
“His Excellency has enemies, Sister, but also many friends. And some right here.”
“The Jews, you mean?”
“Indeed. They may be stiff-necked, they may refuse to see the errors of their beliefs, but they remain our elder brothers, our family in faith.”
“Of course. As the Holy Father in Rome has instructed us—”
“Exactly. And they have observed some suspicious foreigners in this area.”
“Not the ones in black that never shave their whiskers? The Hasids?”
“Some of those Jews are very close to His Excellency. I refer to strangers, possibly from the Middle East.”
“I pray that they are not. In any event, my superior, Monsignor Pierce—” 
Sister Agatha raised a plump palm. “A tall, heavy man with deep blue eyes?”
Ben shook his head. “Neither tall nor short, heavy nor thin. And as for his eyes, blue or brown, he misses nothing. One of my junior colleagues calls him ‘Hawkeye.’ He serves his Excellency as, shall we say, secretary of prudence. He asks that I have a look around the grounds, if that’s not inconvenient.”
Sister Agatha’s frown was enough to turn any 10-year-old’s knees to jelly. “Summer classes are in session. What are you looking for?”
“Entrances and exits. Places to hide explosives or weapons.”
“You must think me a fool.”
Ben’s heart sank. She was on to him! He somehow mustered a smile. “Not at all.”
Sister Agatha said, “These children are more precious than all the bishops in Christendom. And yet they are safe here. Do you suppose that is mere accident?”
“Certainly not. But no physical security is foolproof. And your resources are limited. More to the point, there are many schools and few archbishops. I commend you for keeping our children safe, but I need a look around just the same.”
Sister Agatha sighed. She’d made her point but gained nothing. “But how is it that you just materialize on my doorstep like a David Copperfield, without so much as a phone call to introduce you, with the courtesy of an hour’s notice?” she inquired.
“A fair question, Sister. At one time, not so long ago, if you picked up a phone in Manhattan to call Brooklyn, there was wire all the way from one instrument to the next.”
“So what?” Sister Agatha snapped.
“And now it’s all digital, it’s all radio waves, and anyone with a hundred dollars can buy a little black box and listen to anyone else. Do you suppose nobody’s tuned in to the Cook Building, listening to every word that goes out into the ether?”
 “Of course not, Father. Where shall we start?”
“No need to disturb your students. Let’s begin in the basement.”
Forty minutes later, having descended and climbed every flight of steps in the school and ascertained to Ben’s satisfaction that there was no hidden passage, unguarded door, or secret entrance, Ben allowed Sister Agatha, panting and damp from her exertions, to return to her office while he inspected the playground.
He found no holes in the fence. Ready to abandon his masquerade, he slowly paced the wall between the schoolyard and the two adjacent homes, one facing 82nd Street and one 83rd and separated by small yards. He paused near the tree, eyed the overhanging limb, measured its height and thickness. He backed away, a step, two, three. He crouched. Then in one fluid motion, Ben flew forward, bounding skyward with his third stride to seize the limb, extending his legs before his body, letting his momentum carry him up and over the fence and out of sight in the blink of an eye.
He landed with bent knees and let himself roll forward on the grass.
An enormous mastiff bounded into the yard, fangs bared, then crouched, growling, 120 pounds of terror ready to spring at his throat.

The YouTube Rabbi: Summary

The YouTube   Rabbi

Marvin J. Wolf

 Rabbi Ben Maimon, hero of The Tattooed Rabbi, is back, and more than ever he’s not your bubbe’s rebbe: Ben is like Jason Bourne in a fedora, a rabbi with a black belt instead of a pulpit. A roving trouble-shooter, Ben’s the man to call when a synagogue, museum, library, school, community center, philanthropic agency or anyone needs serious assistance with a situation where the police are not wanted, where discretion is paramount, and where the bagels are fresh.
Lured to a clandestine meeting with the President of Israel, Ben is asked to find the long-missing third of the Aleppo Codex—the world’s oldest complete Hebrew Bible, rivaled in historical importance only by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Snatched by a mob in Aleppo, Syria, in 1947, most of it was recovered eleven years later. Now the missing pages reportedly surface in Brooklyn’s Syrian Jewish community, only to vanish again. It’s a job that only Ben can handle—quietly, discretely.
The pages were found by Miryam Benkamal, the sassy, sexy, grand-niece and sole heir of the late Shemuel Benkamal, a wealthy, influential and mysterious figure rumored to have been among those entrusted with smuggling the entire Codex out of Syria after WWII. While Miryam was at Shemuel’s funeral, somebody snatched Benkamal’s safe and the newfound pages. Descended from Ashkenazi (northern European) Jews, Ben finds Jewish Aleppo’s unique culture—a mash-up of Sephardic (Iberian) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) Jews—terra incognita. He begins by visiting nonagenarian RABBI ZEEV, a living link to the Byzantine world of Jewish Syria. Leaving Zeev’s home, Ben picks up a tail: a mother pushing a baby stroller. She turns out to be a man in drag, and his tag-team partner. Ben ditches both in the subway, but they dog his heels for days, forcing him to take inventive measures just to meet Miryam.
After Ben unintentionally charms Miryam, they join forces and begin to explore Shemuel’s house, which reveals itself as a warren of secret compartments, hidden rooms and cryptic documents. Late at night, terrified by another brazen attempt to break into the house, Miryam phones Ben for help.
When Ben moves into her guest room, Miryam decides that he’s the man she needs to escape an arranged marriage. To Ben’s astonishment, she introduces him to the community as her fiancé. He plays along, hoping it will help him win people's trust. But suddenly he can’t go anywhere in that part of Brooklyn without being recognized, and every time he saves a cop’s life, whips a gunman’s butt or nabs a killer, it winds up on YouTube and local television. 
Working together, Ben and Miryam peel away layer after layer of Shemuel’s mysterious life and death, working toward an explosive climax that illuminates a fascinating and grisly tale of counterfeiting, opportunism, greed, treachery, superstition and unsuspected murders spanning 60 years.
 As for the Codex, a single lost page turned up in Brooklyn just this year. The rest of it might still be out there, waiting to be found…

The YouTube Rabbi

 I started last September. September 2010.  I hoped to finish in six months, as I did with the first in this series, The Tattooed Rabbi.

It took, instead, a year. Now it's written, rewritten, massaged. I've taken feedback and input from a few carefully-chosen writer friends, then rewritten, then had the manuscript proofed by the always eagle-eyed Cindy G., then massaged that with my own two pages of erratum and now—finished!

My agent, like everyone in the New York publishing world, is vacationing out of town until after Labor Day. In reality that means trolling writers conferences for new talent, catching up on client manuscripts, maybe a brief visit with a client in some convivial port of call. And some top-quality family time, I’m sure.

When he returns he’ll find a stuffed mailbox and in it my manuscript. It might be weeks or months before he gets back to me, but I will wait. Or rather, I will start work on my next Rabbi Ben mystery, which, so far as I now know, will be set in Pittsburgh.

The YouTube Rabbi started out with the working title “The Aleppo Codex.” That’s a real thing, a fascinating and priceless Torah that went missing from a synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, in 1947.  The Codex, however, is actually the MacGuffin of this story, the thing that drives the plot and moves it forward.

Those who write fiction will know that sometimes a story takes on a life of its own. Exhibit A: The YouTube Rabbi.   I started out to write another mystery featuring Rabbi Ben, set this time in Brooklyn, New York, and as usual once I was into the process I dreamed—literally dreamed in my sleep—scenes to flesh out at the computer. And these scenes led me, step-by-step, inexorably, toward a different kind of mystery. It became, against every inclination I’d previously had, against all my experience and all my misgivings, a love story wrapped in a mystery.

The introduction will tell you what the book is about.

Tomorrow or sooner, I'll post a sample chapter that will give you a taste. The chapters are very short and I might post one or two more.



Monday, January 24, 2011


What was that noise? Ben wondered. It was faint—barely louder than the roaring in his ears. But it sounded almost like people screaming—how could that be? And why did his hands feel sticky?

The scream-like noise was louder now, and there was something else, a strange rising and falling tone, like from one of those old European movies his zaideh, his grandfather, used to watch. But why were his hands so sticky?

The screaming—it was clearly screaming—got louder. The odd tones, Ben realized, came from an ambulance siren.
But why was he covered with gore?

He raised his head, looked around. Dozens of people, dead and dying, lay in the ruins of a café. A few staggered outside into the street. He must help them, he realized, and turned to kneel beside a pale young man. Choking sounds came from his bleeding, ruined face.

Ben saw that the man had swallowed his tongue. He reached into his mouth, wincing as he realized that he, too, was bleeding—that his hands and arms bore numerous cuts.

Blood dripped into his eyes. It was hard to see, but he must get his tongue out. Somehow. The screaming was overwhelming, crowding out even the sirens.

It must have been a bomb, he realized. That was it. A suicide bomber! Rachel was visiting and they had just ordered dinner. Where was Rachel? Where?

Oh God! Please! Please! No! No!

Ben sat up in bed, dripping with sweat.


Kicking off the sopping sheet, Ben turned to look for the alarm clock. The glowing red digits should have been to his left on the nightstand next to the bed.

Nothing there but his glasses. He put them on, then swiveled his head until he saw blue digits glowing in the darkness off the foot of the bed.

Of course. He was in a hotel room. In California.

It was a little after five. He’d slept almost six hours. His meeting was at nine, and they’d probably be a little early. Might as well get up, he told himself. Find the gym, get his heart pounding, a nice sweat going, a long hot shower, some coffee.
                                 *  *  *
It was ten to nine and Ben was on his third cup when the Beit Joseph people entered the hotel coffee shop.  He was expecting only three, but there were five people. They hesitated at the door, looking around, unsure of themselves. The tables were filled with noisy families with young children; the lone solo diner was a robust, red-headed, fair-skinned, smooth-shaven man an inch or two under average height and dressed like a tourist in an open-necked sport shirt, faded jeans and well-worn Nike running shoes.
The newcomers looked at each other—had they gotten the wrong hotel? Was it the Red Lion Hotel Anaheim or the Anaheim Plaza Hotel Suites?  Or were they simply too early?

Ben stood up and waved.

They trooped over, four men and a woman, all over forty and under sixty, neat and tidy in business attire. Ben decided that the bearded man about fifty had to be Rabbi Hank Kimmelman. The tall, graying, blue-eyed, good-looking fellow? A lawyer—probably the congregation’s president, he concluded. The short, very pretty, dark-haired, slightly zaftig woman—an educator. Perhaps a college professor. Maybe the synagogue treasurer. The other two were older.
More reserved, harder to read. Probably the money guys, he thought. Businessmen.

“Rabbi Ben Maimon?” ventured the bearded man, extending his right hand. “I’m Hank Kimmelman. We exchanged emails—”

“Call me Ben.” They shook hands.

“This is Dr. Tova Levine, our immediate past president,” Kimmelman continued. “Gary Burkin, our president,” he said, indicating the tall, handsome man. “And board members Aaron Ferguson and Manny Seddaca.”

Ben shook each hand in turn, then looked around the room. “We’ll need a larger table.”

“I’ll handle it,” Ferguson said. He headed for the cashier’s desk, all but breaking into a trot.

“I apologize for meeting in such a goyishe place,” Rabbi Kimmelman said. A place suitable only for gentiles.

“I understand. We’re fifty miles from your shul in a place no Jew would come to eat. I’m getting that whether you hire me or not, discretion is vital.”

Kimmelman and the others exchanged guarded glances.
“You come very highly recommended.”

“Thank you. Your email said that you knew my grandfather, of blessed memory?”

Olav hashalom—may he rest in peace. He taught Talmud my first year at J.T.S. Just before he retired.”

“So he would have been in his eighties. By then he was bald and his beard was white. Otherwise, I look just like him.”

Everyone smiled.

“So, Dr. Levine—”


“—you’re still at UCLA in… the Political Science Department?”

Tova’s mouth dropped open. “How did you know that?”

“When I got Rabbi Kimmelman’s email, I visited Beit Joseph’s Website. It hadn’t been updated in a while, but you were listed as a board member.”

Tova smiled. “But—”

“I Googled Tova Levine and discovered five in Southern California. Two were very young, judging by their Facebook pages. One was awaiting sentencing on drug charges, one a pediatrician and one teaches at UCLA.”

Kimmelman said, “But I introduced her as ‘Dr. Levine.’ How did you know she wasn’t the pediatrician?”

“Because she’s put on a few pounds lately—forgive me, Dr.
Levine—Tova—but your jacket is a little tight—and the sleeve has a faint odor of old tobacco smoke. So I guessed that you might be trying to quit smoking—”

“—and no pediatrician would smoke,” Kimmelman finished.
“I told you he was good.”

“Okay, what do you make of me?” Burkin asked, as Ferguson returned with a waitress.

“I can seat you now,” she said, and the group followed her to a booth across the room.

After everyone had ordered, Burkin looked at Ben. “Rabbi Maimon—” Burkin began.

Ben said, “You’re an attorney. Managing partner in Burkin, Turner and Overstreet. You’ve made a reputation handling criminal cases, and you seldom go to trial.”

“You’ve done your due diligence.”

Ben shrugged. “Now please, before we go any further, can you tell me why I’m here? What is this all about?”

Burkin and Kimmelman exchanged glances.

“Someone got into our bank account,” Kimmelman said.

“How much did you lose?”

“That’s the crazy thing. He didn’t take anything.”

“Then how do you know that—”

Burkin said, “Someone deposited over two million in one of our accounts. We’d like you find out who.”

“And why,” Tova said.

“And if we can keep the money,” Ferguson added.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Birth of Rabbi Ben

How This Book Happened 
(An abbreviated history of my writing career)

Rabbi Ben, or someone like him, has been flitting around my mind for literally decades, never quite coming into focus, occasionally haunting my dreams, less often appearing on periodic to-do lists of projects or books that I wanted to think about.

I don’t know about other writers, but I often mull things over for years before ever embarking on the perilous voyage from cerebral fantasy to finished project. Or I start a project, it goes off track, I get frustrated and decide to start over. Eventually.

But not always. I got into the book writing racket on a quirk and in a hurry, and that goes to the birth of Rabbi Ben and The Tattooed Rabbi. In 1982 I was working as a photojournalist and accepting corporate gigs when I could get them—they paid far better than magazines or newspapers. An obscure California ad agency hired me to create the images for a marketing campaign to introduce a line of products from a new company. I spent two weeks crawling around Epson’s computer factories in a remote corner of Japan, and as I exposed over a hundred rolls of film I was also exposed to an entirely new take on Japan’s postwar economic “miracle.”

When I got back to California and turned in my pictures, I began to think about a magazine piece about labor conditions in Japan. This led to a New York City meeting with a book publisher. I was sent back home to California with a steamer trunk filled with newspaper and magazine clippings about Japan, and instructions to see how the information in those articles fit together with my first-hand observations. Five months of 18-hour-days later I turned in my first book, The Japanese Conspiracy, which earned many excellent reviews and stirred up much controversy. The publisher, however did a poor job of promoting it—he didn’t even start until the books were starting to come back, unsold, from bookstores—and although the work established me as an author, it never earned the kind of royalties I expected.

 I returned to photography—and then a year later my daughter, 13, came back to live with me. An alienated teen needs at least one parent on the job; it soon became obvious that I couldn’t be a globe-hopping photojournalist and a successful single parent. I had to find another way to earn a living. I decided to write another book, and this led to days in the library looking at microfiche of New York Times best-seller listings going back several years. I concluded that there were two kinds of books that most often made that list: books about celebrities, and books about crimes.

I didn’t know any celebrities. And I didn’t think I had the chops to write fiction. I didn’t know enough about writing. So I embarked on a career in nonfiction, learning more about my craft with each successive book, often collaborating with others who had a story to tell but not the tools to tell it. I learned a lot from writing each of these books, as well as from writing book proposals, including many that never sold.

So about ten years ago, with my sixtieth summer staring me in the face, I felt at last capable of tackling fiction. I began writing screenplays.

That’s right. I’m not only an old dude, I was foolish enough to think I could start a career in a business notorious for ageism against writers. Also, you can’t get into that business without an agent, and you can’t get an agent unless you’re in your twenties with fifteen years experience. I mean, it’s that hard.

Much harder than actually writing a screenplay, as it turns out.

Nevertheless, working with a slightly younger but more experienced screenwriter, I sold a  screenplay, sold a treatment (so someone else could write it) and optioned another. It was years of work at damn near starvation wages, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

And then, in November 2009, while I was in a nearby park walking Sampson, our Chihuahua-Terrier mix, I was struck by a blinding headache in and around my right eye. A filmy white curtain descended. I could see almost nothing from that eye.

I don't get headaches. Once in a great while I give them.

It was a stroke, I decided.

Sampson knew the way home, and I followed. My daughter drove me to the Emergency Room.
Fortunately, I'm a better writer than doctor: The ER doctor sent me to the eye clinic, where an ophthalmologist diagnosed a classic case of a rare type of glaucoma. The only type that can be reversed.

Over the next year, at times half blind between one of eight eye surgeries, I finally had the enforced leisure to think about Rabbi Ben (although he didn’t have a name yet) and how I could use what I knew about synagogues, rabbis, crimes, Jews, human nature and the crime mystery genre.

And then one night, quite unexpectedly, I dreamed the first chapter of The Tattooed Rabbi. Although that wasn’t the title and I hadn’t even thought of the tattoos.