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by Steve SternDavid Plante

Pub Date: May 11th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56512-619-0
Publisher: Algonquin

Yes, this is indeed a novel about a frozen rabbi who thaws in the late 20th century after being found by Bernie Karp, of Memphis, Tenn., in his parents’ freezer.

Stern (The Angel of Forgetfulness, 2005, etc.) uses his absurdist fantasy to explore issues of faith, secularism and redemption. Bernie, in particular, is in need of the latter, for he’s a 15-year-old couch potato with no interest in or regard for his religious heritage. While the novel starts with the recovery of Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr from the deep freeze (Bernie’s father explains to his bewildered son that “they handed [the rabbi] down from generation to generation”), Stern alternates chapters chronologically, beginning in 1889 when the rabbi, a noted holy man in Tsarist Russia, would meditate by a pond in order to get closer to God. One day a storm came, the water rose, the rabbi continued to meditate and winter eventually arrived, resulting in his being encased in ice. From that point we trace both the history of the Karp family’s interaction with the frozen rabbi (in the early 20th century it helped that an earlier Karp had owned a large ice factory) and Bernie’s spiritual transformation as a result of his interactions with the Chasidic sage. Bernie begins to lose weight, to have out-of-body experiences and to become intellectually invested in obscure Jewish mystical texts. Meanwhile, the rabbi becomes fascinated with and impressed by life around the year 2000: “Shopping bazaars it’s got, and Dodge Barracudos and Gootchie bags made I think from the skin of Leviathan…but it ain’t got a soul.” The rabbi makes a radical attempt to ingest soul into this culture by establishing a “House of Enlightenment” in a strip mall in Memphis. As Bernie’s fortunes begin to rise—he even acquires a “trailer trashy” girlfriend sympathetic to his needs—so do the rabbi’s decline, resulting in a tragicomic conclusion.

An ethnic novel with universal implications.