Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Frozen Rabbi

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin, 2010).

I saw this novel by Steve Stern on the shelf and knew that I had to give it a try. It's not a breezy read, and it seems oddly dense in places, so it took me a little longer than usual to finish. I enjoyed it, mostly, until its bizarre and unpleasant finale.

In a novel that kept a more serious tone, the risible conclusion would have really stung, but Stern's story is so much of a weird, good-natured romp that it doesn't come off as shocking as it might. It's the century-plus long saga of Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, who, somewhere back in the old country in the 1890s, slid down a hill, unconscious, while enjoying an out-of-body experience (as you do), drowned, and was frozen in a lake. When he's later chiseled into a big block by industrious lads carving ice for food storage, he becomes a nearly-sacred relic, and the valuable property of a family who pass the burden along down the generations for protection and good fortune and loyalty.

I really enjoyed Stern's popping back and forth between the late nineties, when the rabbi gets thawed out, comes back to life, and finds his way into a nascent career as a highly successful Yiddish version of a Bakker/Falwell-televangelist, only drawing the ire of most of his peers in the modern community by trumpeting the pleasures of the flesh, and the long and bizarre journey of his keepers from eastern Europe to the slums of New York to Memphis, where he spent the last several years in a big deep freezer underneath stocks of beef liver and turkey. It's a romp, although not a particularly playful one, and while it's occasionally charming and silly, it's often dark and sad as well. The balancing act doesn't always work, and I really hated the ending. Recommended with big reservations.

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