Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern

Rabbi Eliezer Ben Zephyr, the Boibiczer Prodigy, is surely one of the most charming characters ever to grace the pages of a book. And the story line of this novel is as delightfully unexpected as its characters.

The story begins when young Bernie Karp of Memphis, TN comes across the body of a rabbi frozen in a block of ice beneath the pot roasts and chickens in his family freezer.

When he asks his father why they have a dead man in their freezer, his father replies that the dead man is a family heirloom: “Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition,”. Completely intrigued, Bernie is delighted when a power outage frees the old tzaddik, and hides him in the rumpus room for several weeks. These weeks are important for each of them. Bernie quickly learns the mystical Rabbi’s secrets, while the Rabbi obsessively watches TV and learns about the modern world. One observation: “ If a man to other men will sell his wife, is not obliged Reb Springer to cleave open his breast and tear out his farkokte heart?”

Through a series of flashbacks, it emerges that the rabbi, who lived in the village of Boibicz in1889, was in the habit of meditating near a small lake. While meditating, the holy man would leave his body and commune with the angels and God. While out of his body one day, a dreadful flood filled the area, and the body of the Rabbi was lost. A few years later, an ice cutter and his son found the Rabbi sleeping peacefully under the ice. His followers, in a flurry of indecision over his mortality, cut the block of ice from the lake and kept it in the local icehouse, run by Bernie’s ancestors.

While the block of ice and Bernie’s family travel through time, war, pograms and countries, always caring for their icebound charge, the modern story continues. The Rabbi, now thoroughly modernized, creates a New House of Enlightenment and almost overnight becomes a spiritual celebrity. Bernie, on the other hand, embraces the Rabbi’s old Jewish mysticism and starts leaving his body, often at inconvenient times. The kids at his school take advantage of this, and take to stuffing him in lockers, etc. until he is befriended by another loner, Lou Ella. Then his out-of-body experiences become inconvenient for another reason: “If you can’t take me with you, at least bring me something back”. The moral dilemma of the book comes from Bernie’s deepening faith as the Rabbi becomes a spiritual con artist. Yet Bernie believes in the old man, despite appearances. And in the end, they are united in a bizarre twist.

Funny’ absurd, and whimsical: of course. Full of Jewish history and traditions: naturally. Moving and often profound: sometime surprisingly. I loved Bernie’s family, and why each took on the care of the terribly inconvenient frozen charge. This is an absolute charmer of a book, and often asks some hard questions of faith. I haven’t read Steve Stern before, and that is an oversight I intend to rectify immediately

To Buy This Book

Publisher: Algonquin Books (May 11, 2010)

ISBN-13: 978-1565126190

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