Rabbi Burns by Aben Kandel. Covici-Friede (1931), 312 pp.
Rabbi Marvin Burns serves a congregation of newly arrived Angelenos whose roots are in Eastern Europe. Many are wealthy and successful yet feel inferior to the better established German Jews. Rabbi Burns believes that to reflect their true status the newcomers need a grand new temple “as elaborate and magnificent and costly as Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater.” (p. 7) Burns is getting the fund-raising campaign underway. His key ally is Mordecai Solon, ambitious owner of a new Jewish newspaper. He along with his two assistants, cynical editor Adam Krasoff and shy, young circulation manager Louis Levine will handle publicity. Burns’s prospective initial contributor is wealthy banker and philanthropist Clifton Untermeyer. If Untermeyer makes a substantial pledge at the afternoon’s Yom Kippur service, other congregation members are likely to follow suit. Success will then be assured.
Kandel begins the satire in his first paragraph and doesn’t let up. He moves the story along by recurrent forays into the heads of his main characters. He’s mostly appalled by what he finds there. For the author the proposed temple represents not a house of spiritual enrichment but the embodiment of an assimilationist ideal. Los Angeles Jews want to look and behave like Gentiles without religion getting in the way. Through their relationships with the opposite sex, the main characters show how deeply seated this desire is. In one way or another they can’t connect with traditional Jewish women and look elsewhere for female companionship. As the story continues, the author cuts down on hyperbole and uses Krasoff to present a sharper critique of Jews in Los Angeles. The book, outrageous though it may be, raises transcendent issues of religious practice in a secular society. That might be enough to attract a small modern audience.