THE FROZEN RABBI by Steve Stern

the-frozen-rabbiWhen a book starts out with:

Shoving aside rump roasts, Butterballs, and pork tenderloins in his quest, [15-year-old] Bernie [Karp] delved deeper among the frozen foods than he’d ever had occasion to search.  That was when having emptied and removed the wire trays, the boy encountered toward the bottom of the bin a greenish block of ice that stretched the entire length of the freezer.  Scattering individually wrapped filets, tossing packages of French fries, niblets and peas,  Bernie was able to discern beneath the rippled surface of the ice the unmistakable shape of a man.

When Bernie brings up the subject at the dinner table,

Mr. Karp cleared his throat.  “That’s our white elephant.  Like a heirloom.  Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement.  It’s a family tradition.”

Bernie’s mother, still playing with her food, offered acerbically, “He’s from your father’s side of the family;  they were always superstitions.”

“He’s a keepsake” — Mr. Karp’s tone was defensive — “that they handed down from generation to generation.”

With a gonzo opening like this, is it even necessary to read any more?  There is enough in just this to ponder for quite a while.  Quite a while.

We are taken back to 1889 in the Ukraine, when the Rabbi seats himself upon the banks of a horse pond and goes into a trance, as he is often wont to do, wherein he leaves his body and travels to, heaven?  maybe?    While he is entranced, the a sudden storm moves in, the pond water rises, covering the rabbi, and then freezes, and the rabbi is found by a local ice cutter, who cuts out a block containing the rabbi, and stores it in his icehouse.

The story takes us into the ghettos of Russia, follows the rabbi in his ice coffin to the Bowery district of NYC, the teeming home of the thousands of immigrants pouring into the country, back to modern day Memphis and the Jewish community there,  then introduces us to the turn of the 20th century underworld of New York,  back to Memphis where Bernie, always a lackadaisical student, has become obsessed with the ancient writings of the Jews, especially the mystical writings, and he learns he has the ability to disappear himself into trances.  We dabble in the underworld life of turn of the century New York. Then we move on the penal system of  the US, the Israeli settlement life in pre-WWII Israel, back to Memphis, where we finish up with what happened to the Rabbi.

And what happened to the Rabbi and to Bernie I am not even going to hint at.  When you read it, you will plotz.

 

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