by Rita Charleston
Rabbi Ilene Schneider admits she was very naïve when it came to writing novels.
“I was always interested in writing, and over the years I had written some non-fiction work, mainly in the world of academics and grant proposals,” said Schneider, currently coordinator for Jewish Hospice at Samaritan Hospital in Marlton, NJ. “I’ve always been an avid reader, and I especially loved the mystery genre but wasn’t sure I could write one. However, at the end of most of the books I read, I’d often wonder how the writer got published, telling myself I could do better than that.”
And so she did. Rabbi Schneider has written several well-received books, and she will be at the Chestnut Hill Center for Enrichment at the Chestnut Hill Hotel, 8229 Germantown Avenue, on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 7 pm, to discuss her latest, titled “Unleavened Dead.”
Starting with her first novel, a mystery titled “Chanukah Guilt,” Schneider developed her main sleuth, named Aviva Cohen, a rabbi in a suburban synagogue.
Schneider explained Cohen’s origins: “They say you should write about what you know, so out came Aviva. We share many traits, but there are differences, too. For instance, Aviva has been a congregation rabbi, and I have not. I don’t work in a congregation, but my husband does.” Among other differences are the fact that Aviva is twice divorced, and Schneider has been married to the same man for almost 37 years. Aviva has no children, and Schneider has two boys.
“And yet,” the author added. “many people who read the books, especially those who know me, say they hear my voice when Aviva speaks. There are other traits people say remind them of me, like her dry wit and her physical appearance.”
With at least two more mystery books running around in her head, Schneider also produced a non-fiction work called “Talking Dirty Yiddish” between the first and second Cohen-based mysteries. So far, all the books — and hopefully the ones yet to be — come easily for Schneider, contrary to what many other novelists say.
”I have plans for at least two more books in the series featuring Aviva, and beyond that nothing is certain,” Schneider said. “I write pretty much in real time, so when I started out, Aviva was in her mid-50s. Right now she’s 60, and I am 64. I feel that she is about to retire and become one of those rabbis who go on cruise ships and are hired for the holidays. My husband and I have already been approached to do something like that, and I think the locale would make a great backdrop for a mystery novel.”
Without so much as an outline, Schneider said things just pop into her head, and when they do, she sits down and begins to write. “Actually, I write by the seat of my pants,” she said. “I view the process as a whole lot of thinking and then tweaking things in my head. My characters start to tell me where they’re going, and I just follow them and see where they lead me. And many times, the actual ending of the story comes to me when I’m in the shower and surprises me as much as anybody else.”
A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Schneider became one of the first six women rabbis in the country. She also has an Honorary Doctor of Divinity from RRC, and she has served as director of the Master of Arts program at Gratz College and has been an adjunct professor at Temple and LaSalle Universities.
Today, she thoroughly enjoys writing her books, working at the hospice, reading, gardening and anything else that strikes her fancy. “And I’m here to tell other women you are never too old to take on something you love doing. Look at me. I always say you’re never too old to get started, and never, never use your age as an excuse.”
Following her talk, Schneider will involve audience members in a Q&A. For more information, call 215-248-0180.