Rebbe On Ice
Despite winning critical praise for his latest novel, The Frozen Rabbi, a yarn detailing the life of a Jewish family in late 1990s Memphis, Tenn., and the frozen rabbi warehoused in their basement, author Steve Stern is still waiting to achieve a mainstream literary hit. This latest tome, in addition to its critical praise, is also his most accessible — and provocative — to date.
Stern’s success hinges upon young Bernie Karp, a 15-year-old couch potato whose love of food suggests the only place you’d find a rib on the boy would be in his mouth. In his basement, while on a quest for meat, the fleshy Bernie stumbles upon a huge block of ice containing the body of a 19th-century Jewish clergyman. When a freak power outage thaws out the centuries-old rabbi, Bernie becomes his protector and, eventually, his protege.
Half the novel is devoted to Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, who, during a pond-side, out-of-body experience, inadvertently slips into the water — where he remains until the bitter cold of the Polish winter encases him, rendering him frozen in time. Pogroms and genocidal attacks in Eastern Europe send the icy mystic careening on a trans-Atlantic tour that eventually lands him first in New York and, finally, in the Memphis basement of the assimilated Karp family.
Interspersed with this narrative is Bernie’s own journey of self-discovery. He realizes mystical abilities — allowing him to leave his own body — though he cannot control or fully understand these powers. The thawed Rabbi Eliezer meanwhile opens a “New House of Spiritual Enlightenment” selling schmaltzy, Yiddish-ized, nuggets of wisdom, like, “Feel good in yourself is the whole of the law.” Instead of actual enlightenment — or the advice Bernie craves — the rabbi instead offers his eager disciple a high-tech entertainment system, a Porsche and Viagra as symbols of the life to which one should aspire.
Themes of generational conflict, sacrifice and love intersect as the stories converge together in the early part of the current century; and Bernie’s desire to help his mentor leads to tragedy.
In previous works, Stern channeled the Yiddish-inflected, Old-World literary voice of an Isaac Bashevis Singer. He matches that tone occasionally here, especially as he tells the titular rabbi’s tale. However, by allowing us to discover the mysterious holy man with Bernie — and making us witness with him the possible corruption of Old-World values by modern-day consumerism — Stern marks the story as one profoundly relevant to a contemporary readership.
The Frozen Rabbi is, at its core, the story of being Jewish in the 21st century. The novel features gorgeous language, acrobatic grammatical renderings of Yiddish and English, and a scathing satirical tone. Stern, who learned Yiddish in adulthood to capture the stories of the earliest Jewish immigrants to Memphis, may have an ear for Old-World storytelling; but his sensibilities are thoroughly contemporary — especially regarding sex.
Bernie discovers the rabbi while searching for a piece of liver to re-enact one of the more provocative scenes of self-pleasure in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Later, the rabbi insists that what a confused Bernie needs is a good shtupping: “Sex is for the poor man his davening,” he says. Moreover, the novel disturbs and provokes with an incendiary conclusion that makes Roth’s liver-loving protagonist seem quaint and Old World in comparison.
Funny, tragic, scatological and potentially inflammatory, Stern asks some big questions: What does it mean to be Jewish today? What has our generation lost, either by choice or by accident? Can those lost, forgotten things be regained? Should they?
Stern refuses to answer such questions with pat or comforting responses. By the book’s last page, you may want to argue with him, slap him or embrace him. Above all, just read him.