BY: MARK REUTLINGER
Everyone knows that Rose Kaplan makes the best matzoh ball soup around—she’s a regular matzoh ball maven—so it’s no surprise at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors when, once again, Mrs. K wins the honor of preparing the beloved dish for the Home’s seder on the first night of Passover.
But when Bertha Finkelstein is discovered facedown in her bowl of soup, her death puts a bit of a pall on the rest of the seder. And things go really meshugge when it comes out that Bertha choked on a diamond earring earlier stolen from resident Daisy Goldfarb. Suddenly Mrs. K is the prime suspect in the police investigation of both theft and murder. Oy vey—it’s a recipe for disaster, unless Rose and her dear friend Ida can summon up the chutzpah to face down the police and solve the mystery themselves.
Rita Mae Brown, bestselling author of Nine Lives to Die ~ “Is there kosher food in jail? These two heroines have gotten themselves in quite a pickle! Well, it’s a matzoh ball mess, really. Too deliciously funny!”
Bell, Book, & Candle ~ “Such a cute little mystery this one was. I loved how it had a ‘Game of Clue’ and the Thin Man kind of storytelling and vibe going on. The writing was impeccable and the pacing was right on the money. Never once did I feel bored or that the story was dragging its feet at all. The best part that made me chuckle the entire book was the fact the two old women were the sleuths that unraveled the mystery, much to Pupik’s chagrin.”
Smitten by Books ~ “…Jewish stereotypes abound, but all told, Mrs. Kaplan and the Matzoh Ball of Death is an entertaining little diversion. The book’s got a brisk pace, a wry sense of humor, and manages to work in a wealth of information about Jewish customs and traditions without feeling like a textbook or a lecture, and Reutlinger gets bonus points for creativity. A high-concept thriller it’s not, but it’s also not your typical traditional mystery; if you’re looking to change things up a bit this holiday season, you could certainly do worse than Mark Reutlinger’s.
Our Mrs. Kaplan is not what you would call competitive. Now, her late husband, Sam—of blessed memory—he was competitive. As a young man he was a terrific tennis player, and he never tired of telling us about how he once beat a world champion, even if at the time Sam was sixteen and the champion was only twelve and had not yet hit his stride. He also told us how he won Mrs. K’s hand by outmaneuvering two shlemiels who were trying to win her first. But Mrs. K? Even at bridge she plays only for fun, never to win, and don’t think that doesn’t drive her partners crazy. Sometimes I tell her, “Rose,” I say, “even if you don’t care whether you win or not, would it kill you to try a little harder for your partner’s sake, at least when I’m your partner?”
“It is just a game, Ida,” she says.
Maybe to her.
Anyway, the reason I’m telling you this is so you’ll understand about the matzoh balls. Other people might want to be the champion at hitting baseballs, throwing footballs, or bouncing basketballs, but Mrs. K only cares to be the best at one thing, and that is matzoh balls. Not throwing or hitting them, of course, just making them. For matzoh ball soup, that is. Here at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors, we take our matzoh ball soup very seriously, especially on Pesach—that’s maybe Passover to you—and no one makes matzoh balls like Mrs. K. If you have ever had the pleasure, you know that a matzoh ball can be light and fluffy like a cloud or dense and heavy like a rock. The first kind falls apart in the soup before you can eat it, and the second sits in your stomach like a pig on a plate, going nowhere. Ah, but Mrs. K, she makes a wonderful matzoh ball, light enough to digest without dissolving like an Alka-Seltzer. What’s not to like?
So every year just before Pesach, we have a little contest here at the Home. Everyone who thinks they make a nice matzoh ball soup is given a chance to make a batch for the rest of us to try, and then we vote: a secret vote, of course—we have to live with each other afterward, no?—on whose is the best, and the winner makes the matzoh ball soup for our seder that year. It may seem to you that it’s no great prize to have to do all that work and make matzoh balls for almost a hundred residents, but I assure you it is a great honor; and besides, what else have we to do here at the Home that is so important we can’t find time to prepare a few matzoh balls? As you might have guessed, Mrs. K almost always wins this contest—she is a real matzoh ball maven—and it is therefore her matzoh ball soup that usually is served at the Home on Pesach. This year was no exception, and Mrs. K again had the good fortune to be the winner. As you will see, however, the devil should have such good fortune.
It was the first night of Pesach. We were all seated in the dining room, beginning our seder, everyone in their best suits and frocks. Only on the High Holidays—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—and at funerals does everyone get so gussied up as at Pesach—and for whom should we? There were present most of the hundred or so residents of the Home, all except those few whose families take them home for Pesach. There were also some family members who like to come to our seder instead of making their own, either because it saves Bubbe or Zeyde the need to travel to them, or because they’d rather let the Home prepare their dinner and they just show up to eat—some of them, we don’t see all the rest of the year. Mr. Walberg’s son and grandson were there, as are Mrs. Golson’s two children with her three grandchildren—one child has one and the other has two, or maybe it’s the other way around.
The dining hall was glistening and laid out like for a big party. Every corner was cleaned, every carpet shampooed. There were decorations painted by the grandchildren of the residents hanging all around. It’s an old joke that every Jewish holiday has the same theme: “They tried to kill us, they failed, now let’s eat.” Okay, so maybe on Yom Kippur we skip the last part and we fast, but we make up for it on Pesach, a holiday where eating is not only allowed, but required.
The tables in the dining hall were all covered with white linen, and each had a plate in the center with all of the symbols of Pesach, such as the maror, a bitter herb to remind us we were slaves in Egypt; the karpas, a green vegetable that is dipped in salt water for the tears we were crying as slaves; the charoset—walnuts and apples and cinnamon, my favorite—which stands for the mortar that the we used to build the pyramids for the pharaoh; and, of course the three matzohs, the unleavened bread—because who has time to let bread rise when they’re busy fleeing from Egypt?
There was one long table near the kitchen end of the room, for the rabbi and other special guests. The rest of us were seated at the square tables that seat four each, as usual, although at some there were fewer tonight, and at others they pushed two tables together to accommodate a big family. Mrs. K and I always share a table with Mr. Isaac Taubman and Karen Friedlander, both of whom are most pleasant to sit with. Taubman, a big shot in the military in his time, still makes a handsome and dignified figure, with his dark blue eyes and combed back silver-gray hair—of which he still has a great deal, which for a man in his seventies is unusual. Karen is as quiet as a mouse, although she would be a very tall and thin mouse. As you will imagine, Taubman generally does much of the talking at our table, and Karen does much of the listening.
Daisy Goldfarb, who I think likes to come late on purpose just to make a fancy-schmancy entrance, arrived just after Mrs. K and I were seated. Her hair, which is blonde—no doubt with a little help from Mrs. Clairol—was beautifully styled, as she had surely visited the hairdresser earlier in the day. She always dresses elegantly, as she can afford to, and we said hello to her as she went to her table.
Bertha Finkelstein, who had moved to the Home only about two years ago, came in a few minutes later. Like Karen Friedlander, Bertha was a quiet soul, but there the resemblance ended. Bertha could afford to lose several pounds, and she never walked very well because of her swollen ankles, for which she wore special stockings. Unlike Daisy Goldfarb, Bertha was not dressed fancy, and she would not think of coming late on purpose, being extremely particular about her manners and what they call the social graces.
“Bertha is wearing such a pretty blue dress,” I said to Mrs. K, who nodded in agreement.
“I see she is sitting by herself,” Mrs. K said. “I do not think her usual table companions are at the seder.”
“She probably doesn’t mind,” I replied. “She’s one of those people who likes to keep to herself—she’s not what you call the life of the party, is she?”
“No. I suppose that’s why she chooses to sit at a table in the back corner of the dining room, where it’s almost private.”
It’s quite a contrast between her and Daisy Goldfarb.
As I was unfolding my napkin I got a nudge from Mrs. K and looked up. She smiled and nodded her head toward the waitress who was just passing, whose name was Mary. She is a slight, unkempt woman of somewhere between forty-five and sixty-five—it’s difficult to tell—who always looks like she has just lost a close relative. Mary is what you call a shlimazel: very lucky, but all of it is bad. She’s a nice person and means well, but if there’s a leak in the roof, you can be sure it is only on Mary’s head that it will be raining.
Rabbi Rosen, from the local Conservative congregation, was presiding in the front of the dining room. “Conservative” means for Jews somewhere in the middle between Reform and Orthodox. Like a Presbyterian for the goyim, someone once told me. I wouldn’t know. Rabbi Rosen is a fine young man. Only two years out of rabbinical school and already he has his own congregation—I should be so lucky with my Morty. He has a small moustache and beard, which I think he wears to make himself look older and wiser when he stands in front of a congregation that usually has so many people two or three times his age.
He was just finishing the blessings before the meal: He thanked God for helping us get out of Egypt, and he answered the four questions about why Pesach is different from other nights, which are traditionally asked by the youngest person present. Among the residents that would be Mr. Lowenstein, who is a mere sixty-three. Mrs. K and I are both in our middle seventies, and although my son Morty keeps telling me seventy is “the new fifty,” whatever that means, I don’t think it counts at a seder. But as I mentioned, many children and grandchildren were present, and so the four questions were asked, in Hebrew yet, by little Danny Walberg, only seven and such a bright boy.
Fortunately, Rabbi Rosen was smart enough to know that for a crowd like this, shorter is better, and soon we were beginning to eat. After the gefilte fish—chopped carp—if you put on lots of horseradish, it tastes better—came the matzoh ball soup, much anticipated by all, because we knew who had made it and how good it would be. The bowls of soup were served by the kitchen staff, with a few extra helpers brought in for the occasion, all in nice starched white uniforms.
Just after the soup was served, a man I did not recognize came over and sat down next to Bertha Finkelstein and appeared to say something to her. A minute later, he stood up and I could see he was wearing one of those backward collars, and I assumed he must be the new priest from the nearby Catholic church. Sometimes the goyim—you know, non-Jews—join us at our seder in order to be, how do they say it, “ecumenical,” which is nice. I did not see where he went after leaving Bertha’s table.
Mr. Taubman’s son Benjamin, who is a policeman, came in a little later with his wife and daughter. He was dressed in his nice blue uniform with the brass buttons, because he was on duty, which was why he got there late and couldn’t stay.
“It’s too bad that the child has missed the telling of the Passover story,” I said to Mrs. K.
“Yes,” she replied, “but as it is the exact same story that is told every Passover, she’ll have plenty of chances to hear it in the future.”
At least she didn’t miss Mrs. K’s matzoh ball soup!
Anyway, Benjamin gave his father a hug and saw his family was settled before he left. Oy, such a handsome young fellow he was in his uniform—a real mensch. But such a shame they made him work on Pesach. I would bet his captain doesn’t work on Easter! As I later remarked to Mrs. K, it’s strange that I still get a little nervous shock when I see a policeman, even a nice boy like Benjamin, coming my way. It’s many years since I left the old country, but somewhere inside my head there must still be the memories of those times when the police would come only to make trouble. It was to escape these things that our family came to America.
Benjamin stopped and said hello to me and Mrs. K on his way out, and to be truthful I was embarrassed at feeling nervous, even for a few seconds, when I first saw him.
As Benjamin was leaving, the rabbi tinkled his water glass with a spoon and asked for quiet. He began to speak, and he turned toward Mrs. K, so I think he was going to thank her for making the prize-winning soup, when there was a loud noise from the front of the room, like china breaking. We all looked to see what had happened. Perhaps someone had fainted or fallen ill. That certainly happens from time to time. Then we heard shouting—not the kind when there is an emergency, but the angry kind like when people are arguing. There was a lot of commotion as people toward the back tried to see for themselves what was happening in the front. There were more angry words as other voices joined in, mostly in Yiddish and none at all polite. It was quite a hoo-ha.
Finally the rabbi, accompanied by Benjamin, who had not yet left the building and had come back into the dining room to see what was happening, went over to where the commotion seemed to be coming from, and after a minute or two there was silence again. The rabbi walked back over to the head table, while the janitor made his way forward with a mop and pail. I caught Benjamin’s attention as he again headed for the door and asked him what caused the hubbub.
“Apparently one of the servers knocked over a stack of plates and spilled soup on the tablecloth. Then one of the residents at that table—I think it was Mrs. Levin, that bossy lady my dad can’t stand—began to berate the poor woman who caused the accident, and another resident whose name I didn’t catch took the server’s side, and they began to argue and, well, the rest you know. The rabbi reminded them that we are supposed to be celebrating Passover, not replaying the Six-Day War.” He gave us a nice smile and went on his way.
Certainly we had no doubt which server knocked over the china. It was the shlimazel Mary I already mentioned to you. And we were not surprised that Mrs. Levin was the one butting her nose into it, like usual. I for one was glad someone had defended poor Mary. It is not as if it was Mrs. Levin’s china that Mary had broken. Anyway, when there is trouble, what better combination to sort it out than a policeman and a rabbi?
Finally everyone went back to their tables and their soup, which fortunately came from the kitchen very hot and was still quite warm. The rabbi completed his brief remarks thanking Mrs. K, who was as usual both pleased and a bit uncomfortable, as she does not like to be the center of attention. There was a hum of low voices and then the polite slurping of soup, not to mention quite a bit of much louder slurping. It seems to me the older we get, the louder we eat. And everything seemed fine until someone behind us shouted, “Oh, my God, Mrs. Finkelstein has fallen into her soup!” And indeed, when we all looked over to where Bertha Finkelstein was sitting by herself, she was definitely lying face down in her soup bowl.
And while it is true that at the Julius and Rebecca Cohen Home for Jewish Seniors not everyone is a neat and tidy eater, we knew that no one of Bertha Finkelstein’s impeccable manners would think of eating her soup—much less Mrs. K’s delicious matzoh ball soup—from the bottom up, so to speak. There was definitely something very wrong with poor Mrs. Finkelstein.
©2020 by Mark Reutlinger