The Yiddish literary tradition is full of bizarre characters, offhand curses and incantations, self-deprecatory humor, and a deep sense of humanity. It’s a tradition spun by hearty survivalists who have been to hell and back and know how to laugh about it. Steve Stern’s THE FROZEN RABBI fits the mold quite well.
There are two stories here. The first concerns the nominally Jewish teen Bernie Karp --- overweight, boring and irritating --- stimulated only by food and pornography. In Memphis, Tennessee, he lives with his equally reprobate family, as uncaring, unpleasant and spiritually deadened as he. One day, while rifling through the basement freezer, Bernie discovers an old Chasid frozen in a block of ice. His father casually remarks that it’s a family heirloom, over a hundred years old, and lets the matter drop. And so it does, until Bernie is home alone for the weekend during a thunderstorm that cuts the house’s power, and the rabbi thaws. And so begins the rabbi’s --- a well-practiced, slightly batty mystic --- adventures into a consumerist America that treats enlightenment as both a commodity and a drug.
As Bernie wrestles with his newfound sense of Judaism, he studies the tract written by his grandfather that tells the second story of the novel: how the rabbi arrived in America from a tiny village in Poland, frozen all the way. This isn’t your classic immigrant story. The characters are all pleasantly mad, and events range from magical to nonsensical. But the story winds up, like so many immigrant tales do, in New York’s Lower East Side, depicted as an underworld and a fantasy, a home to gangsters and honest men. And yet this is the more grounded of the two narratives; unlike Memphis’s banal surreality, this is recognizable as the home of our grandparents (indeed, at one point the home of most Jewish families in this country).
This is a novel of the burdens of our past and the challenges of what it means to be Jewish today. If that sounds like every generic piece of Jewish fiction for the past several decades, you’re absolutely right. While Stern dresses his book up in flamboyant personalities, plots and language, this is the same story you’ve read before. THE FROZEN RABBI is something of a mashup of the grand Yiddish tradition. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Let’s take a closer look at that window dressing.
As the rabbi becomes the cynical Deepak Chopra of Memphis, Bernie begins his Jewish education in earnest and almost immediately delves into mysticism. Soon he’s having out-of-body experiences and exploring the bounds of the cosmos. But Judaism isn’t about life out there; it’s about what’s here on earth. It’s a lesson Bernie learns from two sources. The first is the rabbi, fascinated by modernity’s excesses (he is convinced he has died and that this world is a heaven for people of his time), embracing base material desires while shelling out two-bit enlightenment. The second is Bernie’s newfound girlfriend, who would like him to stay on earth just long enough for them to actually consummate their relationship. In both cases, it all boils down to sex, which may seem cheap and trite, but says something powerful about Jewish life.
Stern is quiet about who is in the moral right in THE FROZEN RABBI; he leaves it to us to sort that out through all the deceptions and manic adventures. So separating the bodily and the base from the high-minded and the spiritual becomes an impossible task, a kabbalistic riddle with no answer that entices us all the same. This is the core of what Stern has done with his book: he takes religion off its pedestal and encourages us to play with it.
This isn’t the most successful novel to tackle such themes. At times Stern gets ahead of himself, and the weirdness of his plot escapes him. Events become hard to follow, key pieces of information get lost in jumbles, and lines that are supposed to sound poetic fall flat. But that’s okay for this book, at once strange but comfortingly familiar. This is a story we have heard before, and one that needs to be told again. And for all its play and moral ambivalence, it does something that Jews can never afford to stop doing: reconnect us with our history.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 22, 2011
The Frozen Rabbi