The Frozen Rabbi, by Steve Stern. Published 2010 by Algonquin. Literary Fiction.
I'm at a little bit of a loss as to how to begin my review of Steve Stern's latest novel, The Frozen Rabbi. A novel that combines a fantastical story about an old-world tzaddik who, thanks to long-term cooling technology, winds up the head of a mega-cult in suburban Memphis, with a colorful and entertaining multi-generational immigration story, it's a lot of different things at different points.
It all begins when fifteen year old Bernie Karp, a Memphis teenager from an assimilated Jewish family, finds the crystallized sage in his basement freezer. From here the narrative alternates between the newly-thawed holy man's adventures and the story of how he came to that Memphis basement in the first place.
The reader meets Bernie's great-grandparents Shmerl and Jocheved, shares their unlikely but incredibly sweet love story and the sad adventures of their wayward son Ruby. As the Karp family and its icebound companion winds its way through Europe, America, Israel and back, we also follow the rabbi and Bernie's adventures in the present day. The rabbi adjusts quickly to contemporary Tennessee and prospers, starting a strip-mall new-age counseling center that balloons to a stadium-sized congregation. Not some straight-laced, modest philosophe, this ancient rabbi is an opportunist, a capitalist, and a ladies' man. Bernie, meanwhile, negotiates his relationship with kvetchy teen Lou Ella and becomes absorbed with kaballah, his own out-of-body experiences and his adolescent sexuality.
The Frozen Rabbi is as much fun to read as it sounds. Peppered with Yiddishisms and lively, colorful prose, even as strange as it gets sometimes it's quite delightful. And it does get strange, especially towards the end. I'd recommend it to readers with an interest in Jewish culture and literary readers looking for a walk on the magical-realism side. I really enjoyed following this family's wild adventure, right through one of the most bizarre endings I've ever come across. Stern has written a ribald, earthy and explicit tale about the search for meaning and the ultimate destiny of one family, which seems to be to return to the source from whence it came, but in a way I never expected.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.