Friday, September 10, 2010

In Thin Ice

By Chip Schrader
Book Review Editor
“The Frozen Rabbi” is New York novelist and National Jewish Book Award winner Steve Stern’s novel that spans three centuries and two continents. Rabbi Eleizer ben Zephyr’s travels also span this time and space, but he spent most of it inside an ice cube discovered by Salo Karp in 1890, a shrewd businessman who bargained with a peddler for his own wife.
Karp became devoted to the preservation of this artifact, and it would eventually be discovered by a fifteen-year-old descendant, Bernie, in his Memphis basement one hundred and ten years later. Upon his parents learning of their son’s discovery, and eventual thawing of the holy man, young Bernie Karp loses weight and interest in school. In place of this, Bernie learns the mystical scriptures through the Rabbi and develops the skill of traveling out of his body, a talent that captures the affections of Lou, a gentile girl who has a passion for anything forbidden.
The subsequent chapters document a woman with a tragic past crossing the ocean posing as a man with the frozen man in tow, echoing the Barbara Streisand film Yentl, and an industrious inventor’s chance encounter with him/her to start a business around something he invented that didn’t end up a disaster. This and the Rabbi himself, awakening to modern day Memphis hooked on trashy television, and a business idea to transform the spirituality of humanity make for a comic blaze. As the old Rabbi finds a way to raise mischief with his new practice, the novel indicates that it may be harder than ever to be a moral person in this day and age, or possibly, that moral flexibility was the whole reason the Rabbi vanished in the first place.
The first forty pages of this novel are hard work. Getting a grasp of the far flung subject matter, and the generous use of Yiddish and Final Jeopardy worthy vocabulary take time. But there is a rhythm that eventually catches the readers and their imaginations. The only thing to beware, a half an hour can pass and only fifteen pages might get read. With that said, it is a fantastic journey, and a half an hour well spent.
Such a bizarre premise for a book needs much further explanation, but it takes nearly four hundred pages to narrow it down to any plausibility. The earthy and bodily humor of Bernie’s adolescence adds only a little more spice to an already zesty dish as Stern references Freud and Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” tying this novel deeply into its Jewish literary roots. Not unlike the works of Roth, this novel rings with tremendous satire about modern life, lost innocence, and the loss of culture. A must read for Jewish fiction enthusiasts, and those who enjoy wit and carefully written fiction.
Photo caption: Cover image of “The Frozen Rabbi.” (Courtesy