Wednesday, August 4, 2010

REVIEW: The Frozen Rabbi, by Steve Stern

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.


Zibilee said...

This does sound very odd, but also terribly interesting. I am going to have to check this out because I always love a weird story. This was a great review, Marie. It made me feel really compelled to go out and grab a copy of this one. Thanks!

Sandra said...

I have this reserved for me from the library. Glad you enjoyed it. I look forward to reading it.

bermudaonion said...

This certainly does sound different, but I'm intrigued by the whole premise, so I'll probably give it a try.

Anonymous said...

What a great review, Marie. I liked the weird aspect and fantasy aspect of this story.

The ending, especially the last two pages...disappointed me, though.

Howard Sherman said...

Oy vay! A tzaddik with a cult-like following every rock star would envy starting out in a strip mall?

It does sound interesting and I can definitely see the humor potential.

A skirt-chasing tzaddik doesn't sit well with me, though.

Ok, ok. It's fiction so the author has artistic license, right?

I'm not so sure that would apply in this case. It's been said more than once that fiction has to be believable.

Sounds like a cute story overall. I may pick it up for a light read as I shift gears from dark reading to light reading.

Marie Cloutier said...

Zibilee, I think you might like it!

Sandra, let me know what you think!

Bermuda, I hope you do!

JewWishes, I know what you're talking about and I feel your pain. It was very strange. Your review sort of prepared me for it; otherwise I think I would have been even more perplexed.

Howard, this book definitely qualifies as FANTASY and if it's believability you're after, you're not going to like it much!

wisteria said...

What a bizarre sounding story, yet you make it sound appealling as you said it is funny. I can see why reviewing this one could be perplexing. Thanks, I was chuckling with your review.

Unknown said...

The author has a few other books out. so he has been around. I am not sure if I would pick this one up. I am not into fantasy. But, who knows. Thanks for the great review.