Miles's Reviews > The Frozen Rabbi

The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern
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's review
Jan 17, 13

Read in January, 2013

The Frozen Rabbi, or as I found myself calling it several times a day, "Der Frozener Rebbe", is a great American Jewish story. We might say that the author's subject is the holy and the profane. In the course of this novel there is no doubt that every mystical and divine and folklorish reality is, and is not, utterly real, and that every profanity and lustful desire is, and is not, the ultimate truth. Steve Stern plays with our minds, making the reader believe, mocking his or her belief, making the reader lust, mocking his or her lust, and searching all the while for the point where ultimate being and ultimate earthliness meet in joyful nothingness and oblivion.

Stern draws on a full pallet of Eastern European and Lower East Side cultural references, Jewish mysticism, and Memphis, Tennessee lore to paint a picture of astonishing feeling, velocity and depth. Thugs, low lifes, cheats and whores - all there. Lies, robbery, rape and murder - all there. The gender ambiguous, and the abused, and the deluding and the deluded and the simple miscanim (the pathetic ones), all trapped in the helpless physicality of life in a body, are woven into the fabric of the tale. If there is a Jewish truth or a Jewish angle on reality that he doesn't apply to some corner of this story, I don't know what it is. Excursions to a kibbutz in the 1930s and a Tennessee State Penitentiary in the 21st century are also handled with a great sense of language and place. He paints with all the colors of Jewish... on a canvas of Elvis.

To relay plot elements of how der Frozener Rebbe (that holy man! that charlatan! that old goat!) came to be ensconced in his block of ice, and preserved from the late 19th century to the early 21st century before thawing out and creating cosmic havoc in Memphis, would be pointless. For that you should read the book. Suffice it to say that there are at least three or four generations of characters who unwind here, and in the telling we experience an intense cultural authenticity (manner of expression, details of daily life), all in service of a much bigger, funnier and weirder tale than any of the individual lives alone. For readers who don't know much about various aspects of Jewish culture, I felt that this book does a marvelous job of explaining what it is talking about without being the least bit didactic about it. For those who are Jewishly familiar, I think you will be impressed with how well the author tells this vernacular American story, this Memphis Tennessee story, with an informed Jewish voice. Stern's similarity to Eastern Europeans like Isaac Bashevis Singer or Chaim Grade is easy to see, but he inhabits an American Jewish cultural position with a persuasive indigeneous authenticity. (Persuasive indigenous authenticity? Is that even a thing? Der Frozener Rebbe would surely permit it!)

I wouldn't say that this story has a didactic point, or even any point at all. Like the Rebbe perhaps it points beyond itself. Perhaps laughter is its mystical potion. Perhaps it exists to enable us to experience the joy of being alive, even when being alive hurts.

Read, read, read this book. Transmigrate your souls. Let the heavens and earth be joined in holy fleshly union.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Leora Dang. I'm inspired!

message 2: by Anne (new)

Anne I have it on HOLD! Thanks for the suggestion.

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