Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Archive for February, 2012


In the past forty years, since I moved to the Philadelphia area, I only missed attending the Philadelphia Flower Show once. It was in 1978, and I had a good reason – Gary and I were living in Jerusalem for the year.

This year may be the second time.

It’s a major decision for me not to go. I even went once when a major blizzard was forecast. The snow had already begun when I caught the PATCO train from New Jersey to Philadelphia, was deep by the time I got home. The next day, the show was canceled for the remainder of the week. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had at the show – no crowds.

For the last several years, I have thought about not going. Every year, I go. Every year, I am disappointed.

It’s not that the show isn’t beautiful. It’s not that I’ve gotten tired of gardens (although my body has gotten tired of gardening). It’s not that I don’t come home inspired and broke from having bought too many plants I have nowhere to put.

It’s that I never look at one of the exhibits and think, “I could do that in my garden.” Every year, there are fewer and fewer native plants or replicable ideas. Instead, there are more and more exotics. Ireland, Paris, Italy, New Orleans, and, this year, Hawaii, have all been featured. None of those places have native plants that thrive in South Jersey, except in greenhouses or indoors with a lot of humidity and light. (Well, maybe Ireland is the exception.)

My philosophy of plant care, indoors or out, is best described as benign neglect. If it’s outdoors, I let Mom Nature take care of the watering (except the container plants); if it’s indoors, it gets watered weekly, whether or not it needs it. I believe that with enough time, a dead plant will come back to life, which is why my outside garden contains a lot of bare-branched bushes and my indoor plants includes pots of dirt. (Some of them actually do recover; the others eventually are replaced, with hardy outdoor native plants or with hardy indoor ones that thrive on being watered weekly. Or even weakly.)

I miss the former Flower Show venue in West Philadelphia. It was on a lower level, reached by a long, steep escalator. As you went down, the entrance to the Show would slowly appear. There was always a “wow” moment as the full panorama was revealed.

Now, you go up an escalator, down a long hallway, through a door, and . . . well, it’s impressive, but not “wow.”

Over the years, too, the vendors have stopped offering as many tools, seeds, plants, or cut flowers (there are still some, of course) in favor of items that only tangentially have to do with gardens – decks, outdoor furniture, water features – plus even more that have nothing to do with gardening – jewelry, mops, replacement windows, condiments. It doesn’t stop me from buying, but I liked it better when I struggled home on the train (or, at an earlier time when I lived in Philadelphia, the bus) under the weight of unwieldy spider plants, pussy willow cuttings, and bags of bulbs, rather than . . . I can’t remember what I’ve bought besides plants.

Another deciding factor was discovering the New Jersey Flower Show, in Edison, about 60 miles from Marlton. It took me under 90 minutes (including parking and walking from the remote spot) to get there on a Sunday with no traffic on the NJ Turnpike. The 12 miles to Philadelphia can take as long, especially as I usually miss the train and have to wait for the next one. Then I have to walk several blocks. Or, I could drive, get caught in the traffic heading to the show on the one-way narrow streets, then pay $20-$30 to park in an outdoor lot even further away than the train station.

The NJ show was crowded, but manageable; there was free parking; there were chairs to sit on when you got tired. There were not nearly as many exhibitors as in Philadelphia, but the ones there were “accessible.” There may not have been any “wow” factors, but I hadn’t expected any. I looked at the exhibits and thought, “Yeah, that could work.” Okay, not the waterfall or the tree house, but many of the plants and layouts. I even confirmed the identity of a bush in the front of the house (I never save the plant sticks with the names): a mahonia. (It’s hard to search on-line when you’ve no idea what you’re looking for.)

My biggest complaint is the vendors had even fewer plants for sale than in Philadelphia, and even more irrelevant items. But at the end of the show, many of the vendors were selling the plants from their exhibits.

I even had a nice chat with a master gardener from Rutgers, who confirmed what I had suspected: the only way to get rid of a groundhog is with a .22, although he didn’t recommend it as a method. Basically, he just shook his head and wished me luck.

So, will I go to the Philadelphia Flower Show again? Probably. But maybe not.


And now for something completely (well, somewhat) different. I’ve given my space to author Donna Fletcher Crow. And she’s given her space to me. You can read my thoughts at:

Donna Fletcher Crow among the tombstones, Wales

Donna Fletcher Crow is the author of 38 books, mostly novels dealing with British history. The award-winning Glastonbury, an Arthurian grail search epic covering 15 centuries of English history, is her best-known work. Donna and her husband live in Boise, Idaho. They have 4 adult children and 11 grandchildren. She is an enthusiastic gardener.

Her newest release is A Darkly Hidden Truth, book 2 in her clerical mystery series The Monastery Murders. She also writes the Lord Danvers series of Victorian true-crime novels and the romantic suspense series The Elizabeth & Richard Mysteries. To read more about these books and to see book videos for A Darkly Hidden Truth and for A Very Private Grave, Monastery Murders 1, as well as pictures from Donna’s garden and research trips go to:

Clerical Mysteries: What and Why?

I’m so delighted to be doing a blog exchange today with Rabbi Ilene Schneider because we both write in the somewhat esoteric subgenre of Clerical Mysteries and I think it’s going to be great fun sharing our perspectives. So, when you finish reading this article, please come on over to “Deeds of Darkness; Deeds of Light”  and see what Ilene has to say about her Rabbi Aviva Cohen mysteries.

When A Very Private Grave the first of my Monastery Murders was published in 2010 I found myself scrambling to explain just what a clerical mystery is, so I turned to my friends on GoodReads for help. One reader said, “I’d say all that’s required is that the church (or synagogue, monastery or convent) or clergy, rabbi, nuns, or monks should be prominent in the story.”

That seems like a good start, although I think the ecclesiastical setting needs to be more than just background. The religious element actually needs to form the thoughts and actions of the main characters. They need to be more than simply photographed against an interesting Gothic background. Or as the Clerical Detectives website puts it, “characters whose lives really were influenced by their faiths.” Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Clare Ferguson stories are an excellent example of this where everything Clare does and thinks is formed by the fact that she is a priest.

Another reader said, “It seems to me that all the mysteries I think of as [clerical] do more or less have a spiritual theme.” And here it seems that we are getting close to the heart of the matter. Until I begin trying to define more sharply and realize that all mysteries are about the clash of good versus evil and strive for the triumph of right over wrong— What P. D. James calls “bringing order out of chaos.”

Perhaps Phil Rickman, one of my all-time favorites, is wise when he refuses to label his Merrily Watkins books. He says, “I absolutely did not want to go there. Too cosy, too safe, and too… well, too religious, I suppose.”

And perhaps the fluidity of the subgenre is one of the things that appeals to me. I guess it comes down to the fact of novels in this category being as wide— and as endlessly engrossing— as the whole matter of faith itself.

Then, as to the “Why” of going there, that was a question that much perplexed my heroine, too. Felicity, a very modern young American woman, who found she hated teaching Latin and didn’t know what else to do with her classics degree, went off to study theology in a monastery in Yorkshire “in a fit of madness” as she says, and then wonders what she’s gotten herself into:

What was the right term to describe how she was living? Counter-cultural existence? Alternate lifestyle? She pondered for a moment,

A DARKLY HIDDEN TRUTH: Book 2 of the Monastery Murders

then smiled. Parallel universe. That was it. She was definitely living in a parallel universe. The rest of the world was out there, going about its everyday life, with no idea that this world existed alongside of it.

It was a wonderful, cozy, secretive feeling as she thought of bankers and shopkeepers rushing home after a busy day, mothers preparing dinner for hungry school children, farmers milking their cows— all over this little green island the workaday world hummed along to the pace of modern life. And here she was on a verdant hillside in Yorkshire living a life hardly anyone knew even existed. Harry Potter. It was a very Harry Potter experience.

Therein, I think, lies much of answer to why I write what I do: This is a world — parallel universe— I have become acquainted with through my own research of English history, my own spiritual journey, and my daughter’s decision to— yes— study theology in a remote monastery in Yorkshire after finding she really, really hated teaching school in London. (Well, literature follows life.) And I found myself wanting to share this world and some of the amazing adventures I had tromping over ancient holy sites.

Background is always one of the most important factors in a novel for me— perhaps even the most important factor— so my books have to be set in places I love to visit, both for the research and for living there mentally while I write. My Clerical mysteries The Monastery Murders give me the opportunity to do just that.

I realize, of course, that all that still doesn’t answer the question of why I am so drawn to this esoteric world I reflect in my Monastery Murders series. But I wonder how many of us can define the source of our passions? I always tell beginning writers, “Write from your passion.” The most fortunate people are those whose passion has found them. And I do believe that’s the way it works. Does anyone ever get up in the morning and say, “Today I’m going to decide on my passion?” Or when making out new year’s resolutions put “Find passion” on their list? Surely it’s more of a realization, sudden or gradual, that “This is what I love. Here is something worth spending my time on.”

At the end of the day, what could possibly be better than getting paid (at least a little bit) to do the thing I love doing most and still taking time out to drink tea, prune my roses and eat chocolate?


In honor of the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act, I’m reposting this article from my previous website/blog.

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 8, 2004

Friends of mine, after several years living together, decided it was time to announce publicly their commitment to each other and to celebrate the permanence of their relationship. They met with a rabbi for premarital counseling. They set a date. They reserved a hall, hired a caterer, ordered flowers, mailed out invitations.

The ceremony was, as they always are, touching and sentimental and moving. It was an all-white wedding, with one of them in a formal gown and veil, and the other in a beautifully fitted suit. They stood under a chuppah, a canopy made from a large prayer shawl suspended on poles held by four of those closest to them. They shared wine from the same cup, exchanged rings and promises. The rabbi read from the Ketubah, the contract setting out their promises to each other. They broke the wineglass, and everyone shouted “Mazal Tov!”

It was a scene repeated thousands of times every week all over the world for millennia. But there was one major difference – both members of this couple were women. The ceremony did not take place on the steps of the San Francisco City Hall, or in Vermont, or in Massachusetts. It was right here in South Jersey just over two years ago. Today, they live just like their neighbors in their typical Marlton subdivision, mowing the lawn, paying their taxes, raising their baby girl, attending and volunteering at their synagogue. There was only one major difference between their commitment ceremony and a wedding between a man and a woman: their marriage is not registered or sanctioned by the state.

Religious leaders of various faiths and denominations have been conducting such ceremonies for years. The first one I can recall, between a woman I know and her partner, was held about 20 years ago. I am sure there were earlier ones as well.

For many of us, the religious ceremony takes precedence over the secular. In fact, except for applying for a marriage license and taking a blood test, there is no separate secular ceremony. It’s almost like getting a dog license: you show a medical affidavit (blood test for humans, rabies shots for dogs), fill out a form, pay a fee, get a signature (religious leader or judge for humans, clerk for dogs), and then put the certificate in a safe place in case you need it some day.

When my husband and I married, almost 28 years ago, we wrote our own Ketubah. It is that document which we had a calligrapher hand-copy and illustrate and which hangs on our living room wall. Our marriage license from Philadelphia, embossed with the Liberty Bell in honor of the Bicentennial year, is in our safe deposit box, along with our insurance policies and wills and passports.

It has been suggested that same-sex couples be registered after ceremonies called civil unions, while opposite-sex couples will continued to be registered after being married. In this way, say the proponents of the proposal, same-sex couples can receive the same civil guarantees – life insurance, inheritance, etc. – as married couples without using the word “marriage.”

I propose a different suggestion. Any two consenting adults, whether of the same or opposite sex, who wish to commit themselves to living their lives together, can be registered by the state as domestic partners. Marriage, which is considered a sacred bond, will remain within the boundaries of religion. In that way, those who wish to consecrate their love for each other can continue to do so, as they have for at least 20 years, by finding a religious leader whom they respect and who respects them; those that do not care about a religious ceremony can still receive the civil protections which are now given only to opposite-sex “legally married” couples.

As for that couple who got married in a Jewish ceremony 20 years ago, they are still together. How many opposite-sex couples who married that year can say the same?


Ah, yes. February 2. Groundhog Day.


Oh, I can figure out why it’s in early February. Groundhogs or woodchucks or whistling pigs – there’s no cultural, geographic, or linguistic reason why different people call them by different names, at least none I could find – are “light” hibernators. If the winter weather warms up for a day or so, as happens during “normal” winters unlike this one, when the weather has been unusually warm all season, they’ll pop out of their burrows to have a snack. Judging by their summer eating habits, the snack will probably be one of my favorite plants rather than poison ivy or pokeweed or Jimsonweed or some other noxious, invasive weed. Before they return to their solitary burrows to go back to sleep, though, they’ll also engage in a bit of amatory reproductive activity. In that way, by the time the kits (or are they pups?) are born, it will be spring and food, aka my favorite plants, will be in abundance. Deer do the same thing, which is why they run amok trying to mate with cars during the early winter.

Here’s what I can’t figure out: If Punxsatawney Phil or another local celebrity groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If it’s cloudy out, there will be an early spring.

Huh? Six weeks from February 2 is March 16, which is pretty early for the winter to be over. In fact, it’s a few days before the Spring Equinox, which is the astronomical spring but not the meteorological one. In this area, the frost-free date used to be May 15 – it’s now closer to May 1 – so anything before, let’s say, mid-April is already an early spring.

In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not Phil sees his shadow.


Why my fascination with groundhogs/woodchucks/whistling pigs? I have an on-going battle with them. Or, rather, with it. There’s only one at a time in my yard – they’re solitary creatures, except during mating season, as they’re not into parthenogenesis – but I can’t tell if it’s the same one all the time or several different ones. The only time I could tell one was a female was when Mommy came with her two babies, Chuckles and Chucklet, to show them the free salad bar.

Why am I at war with it? It digs holes. Deep holes. The exit holes from its burrow aren’t too noticeable – just a nice, neat round hole, exactly the right size for me to put my foot into. This time of year, the holes are filled with leaves, making them effectively camouflaged. I don’t fill them with stones to block Chuck from using them, because it will just dig another one. At least I know where the current ones are. I still step in them, but I know where they are. The entrance holes, on the other hand, are surrounded by piles of excavated dirt and easy to see. I’m thinking of using the hillocks as raised flower beds. But the plants will undoubtedly get eaten.

That’s my other problem with Chuck. It eats my plants. I no longer grow veggies. It’s an exercise in futility. Containers aren’t the answer, as Chuck climbs the steps onto the deck, pulls itself into the container, and sits there munching away. Coneflowers are beheaded within hours of going into the ground, although to be fair, it may be the chipmunks eating them.

One year, at the Philadelphia Flower Show, I asked someone at the Rodale exhibit how to get rid of woodchucks. “You mean non-lethally?” he asked. He went on to say that if I could find a way, I’d become a millionaire. Even that incentive wasn’t enough to help me come up with a technique.

So I live with Chuck. I watch it emerge in the spring, sleek and hungry, and gradually become plumper, as my plants dwindle in number. By the end of summer, Chuck can barely waddle across the yard. But it has no problem digging holes.