Body and soul

In this gripping fantasy, a hassidic rabbi is frozen in the 19th century and becomes a New Age guru after being thawed out in modern times.

July 2, 2010 16:10
3 minute read.
A shadow of his former self. The rabbi soon become

hassidic hat 311. (photo credit: Illustrative photo)


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The Frozen Rabbi
By Steve Stern | Algonquin Books | 368 Pages | $24.95

If you have a taste for fantasy, folklore and freakish Yiddish expressions, then this novel is for you. Steve Stern has put together an imaginative story that breaks free from reality as it roams across the years from 1889 to 2002. Moving back and forth skillfully between actuality and illusion, Stern makes an elusive comment on reality that sometimes gets lost in his host of characters and in slippery details.

The story opens in Memphis in 1999 with the remarkable discovery by 15-year-old Bernie Karp that the bottom of his parents’ food freezer contains a block of ice with a well-preserved 19th century rabbi. His father explains that the rabbi is a “keepsake,” that has been “handed down from generation to generation.” He then gives Bernie a ledger written in Yiddish that supposedly explains the mystery. The trouble is that no one can decipher the Yiddish.

Turning back to 1899, the venue shifts to Poland where “Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, the Boibiczer Prodigy,” fell into a pond where he froze. Discovered by his followers, the solidified mass containing the rabbi is brought to the surface and taken to the local ice house for safekeeping. The hassidim venerate the place as a “sacred sepulcher” and they become known as the “Frozen Hassidim,” as they wait for their rabbi to burst out of the ice. Before that can happen, the threat of a pogrom causes the villagers to abandon their shtetl, taking the refrigerated rabbi along with them.

Eventually, through a series of unlikely incidents that are thoroughly spelled out, the block of ice with the rabbi is taken to America, arriving on the Lower East Side in 1907. Further complicated events land the frozen rabbi in an ice factory and his escorts then experience many convoluted adventures. Finally, the still frozen rabbi is shipped to the only surviving family member, Marvin Karp, who has a “retail emporium” in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the father of Bernie Karp whom we met at the beginning of the story.

The reader’s credulity is tested as Bernie brings the rabbi to life, reminding us that fantasy still has a strong appeal. Thoroughly thawed out, the rabbi soon becomes sufficiently acclimated to America so as to realize that he can do far better as an evangelist than as a traditional rabbi. He becomes a successful guru, running the “New House of Enlightenment” where he attracts many followers, seeking to save their souls. The story then limps to a somewhat puzzling conclusion, but by this time, persistent readers have been sufficiently entertained so that it really doesn’t matter.

Author Steve Stern, who was born in Memphis, lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he teaches creative writing at Skidmore College. He knew little about Judaism until, at 35, he was employed in an oral history project that focused on “the Pinch,” an old Jewish neighborhood of Memphis. As he interviewed informants, he became more and more interested in Jewish folklore and Jewish mysticism. He eventually became the chronicler of the lost Jewish ghetto in Memphis, leading him to write about dybbuks and golems in the Jewish dream world.

He has published several novels and collections of short stories, mostly based in the Pinch. Stern’s work is filled with Yiddishkeit, myths, angels, dreams and folk traditions. Although his last novel, The Angel of Forgetfulness was well received, most of his earlier writings earned a scattered reception. This new novel deserves more critical commentary and more readers.

The writer is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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