In Wishnia's The Fifth Servant, the Jews of Prague find the city a contradictory mix of tolerance and repression. While Rudolf has granted them his protection, they're forced to live in a walled ghetto and wear yellow badges whenever they leave it. Rumors of their wealth and magical practices are pervasive, causing Christians to eye them with suspicion. And this, in a crowded, multiethnic capital still reeling from the Reformation. While Catholics view the Jews as misguided, they see Protestants as heretics.
The entire plot spans a three-day period, from Passover to Easter Sunday, in the year 1592. Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a Talmudic scholar, has just arrived in Prague from rural Poland. An outsider with no connections, he's very grateful to be offered a post as shammes, or sexton, at the Klaus Shul (synagogue) under the great Rabbi Loew. He also hopes to reunite with his estranged wife, who has returned to join her family in the ghetto.
After the butchered body of a young Christian girl turns up in a Jewish merchant's shop, Christian mobs accuse the shopkeeper of killing her for her blood - the classic lie, the blood libel, that has followed Jews for centuries. Benyamin believes him innocent. The sheriff allows him three days to uncover the killer, or else everyone in the Yidnshtot (Jewish town) will be held responsible.
Benyamin approaches his task with intelligence, wry humor, and chutzpah, and he'll need all three. His down-to-earth, slang-filled voice enlivens the narrative; that, plus his knowledge of Christian doctrine, surprises officials who are all too ready to dismiss him. Key to his investigations is the help of other freethinkers like himself: a Christian butcher's daughter who works as a Sabbath maid to the ghetto's mayor; a Bohemian herb-woman; and his supervisor Rabbi Loew.
Benyamin's can-do attitude and amusing remarks keep the pages turning, and the way he and Rabbi Loew use the words of appropriate Jewish sages to justify unorthodox decisions (it's their bad luck to have to work on the Sabbath) is a clever touch. Finally, the themes of religious tolerance, the courage to explore others' beliefs, and the importance of opposing censorship - which are all interlinked - have clear relevance for today.
I started The Fifth Servant wondering if it would be a book I admired more than I liked, but came away feeling sincerely impressed by the way it was all put together. The ending was satisfying and appropriate. Well done.
The Fifth Servant was published by Morrow in March 2010 ($25.99, 387pp).