What better way to chill out at the beach this summer than with “The Frozen Rabbi” (Algonquin)? Novelist Steve Stern’s entrancingly zany fable interlaces the mystery and mysticism of Old World Yiddish folklore with the New Age spiritual yearnings of today, and all through the magic of a story well told.
Bridging worlds old and new is the frozen rabbi himself. On a late spring day in 1889, the chasidic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr (still known as the Boibiczer Prodigy, despite his advanced age) lies down on the banks of a lake outside his shtetl and enters into a spiritual meditation so deep that he remains insensate when a flash flood drags him under water. Not only does his coma-like trance save him from death by drowning, but his corporeal being remains miraculously intact. In this way seasons pass, and before long the brutal Polish winter has transformed him into a sci-fi worthy cryogenic mass encased in ice.
But that is only the beginning of Stern’s fanciful yarn. Eventually, like a Rip Van Winkle from the Pale of Settlement, the frozen rabbi will awake — or rather, defrost — but that won’t happen until more than a hundred years later, and he’ll no longer be in an Eastern European shtetl, but in secular suburban Memphis, Tenn. No matter. Technological wonders not withstanding, what remains the same about his new surroundings, the rebbe discovers, is a deep hunger for spiritual enlightenment. And better yet, thanks to Madonna, Kabbalah has become big business. A quick study (not for nothing is he called a prodigy), the charismatic “ice sage” (as the rebbe dubs himself) in no time flat becomes the most persuasive false Messiah since Sabbatai Zevi, with a following that rivals those of popular Bible Belt televangelists.
The rebbe’s rise to power in his newfound guise as guru of Zen and Zohar is one of any number of irreverent plot twists that will leave the reader off kilter: Was ben Zephyr always a fraud, or did the modern age make him one? Did his soul, weary of this sorry world, wander off to heaven and never find its way back to his defrosted body? Has an evil demon possessed him, or are his teachings to be understood as projections of the shattered and imperfect souls in need of healing that each of us embodies?
Stern’s tale is open to any number of Talmudic-like commentaries. But it’s the story itself that’s always center stage. How the rabbi gets from one time and place (spiritual as well as geographical) to another makes up the bulk of this riotous ride of a novel, with alternating chapters rollicking back and forth between two main narrative strands.
The first is a compellingly imagined historic panorama, tracing the comically obstacle-ridden travels of the motley entourage of well-meaning dreamers and tough-minded outcasts who loyally shlep the still-frozen rabbi with them. As they head across Europe and the Atlantic Ocean before landing at Ellis Island, regrouping on New York’s Lower East Side, and then heading south to Memphis (after a brief detour to pre-1948 Palestine), from generation to generation these characters remain steadfast in their belief that they must not, cannot abandon the cumbersome casket that contains the frozen rabbi. Long after they have forgotten how he came into their possession, they lug him with them, uncertain if his presence is a blessing or a curse.
Stern’s genius as a writer lies in his ability to make this wonder tale of a journey double as a saga of the Jewish immigrant passage from the 19th-century ghettos of Eastern Europe to the 21st-century suburban sprawl of middle-class America. And that is where the novel’s second main storyline comes in — a contemporary tall tale all its own that serves as both send-up and parable of disconnected lives today.
Meet Bernie Karp, the hapless Memphis teenager who on a sweltering summer day in 1999 is rummaging through the giant storage freezer in the family basement when he accidentally comes across, buried beneath a mass of roasts and chops, a giant chunk of ice with the rabbi frozen inside it. (Ironically, the frozen rabbi — offhandedly described by Bernie’s clueless mother as a kind of good luck charm — is one of the few remaining Jewish artifacts in a household in which almost every trace of the family’s Jewish heritage has disappeared.) But no sooner has Bernie discovered this odd relic of the family past than a sudden power outage causes a literal meltdown of the freezer’s contents, the rabbi included. As the only witness to the rabbi’s emergence, melted and intact from the depths of the freezer, Bernie designates himself his rabbi’s keeper and becomes a religious seeker in his own right.
The more the stories of Bernie and the rebbe intersect, the more questions arise as to whose spiritual quest is authentic, whose false. Their cosmic-comic conversations mix what might be profundities with hilarious New Age double-talk, but they also underscore the fragility of belief and the elusive nature of what we call the soul. In these scenes, as throughout the novel, Stern’s juxtaposition of the vastly different (and sometimes not-so-different) cultural sensibilities of characters from divergent eras provides as much fodder for philosophy, as it does for satire.
Those unwilling to suspend their disbelief will find Stern’s premise beyond absurd — but its absurdity is also what makes it laugh-out-loud funny. Stern writes with the light agile touch of a master raconteur, and his characters spring from an imagination that seems as steeped in Sholom Aleichem, I.B. Singer and the Marx Brothers as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. It remains a mystery to Steve Stern’s many admirers as to why, despite glowing reviews for his highly acclaimed previous books, he has never received the wide audience he so richly deserves. Maybe “The Frozen Rabbi” will break the ice, at last.
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