Steve Stern: The Frozen Rabbi
But spirituality and the values of the marketplace don’t get along, Stern means to say. You’ve heard that one before, yes? Except few writers complicate that question as deeply as Stern does in The Frozen Rabbi, especially in its morally tangled final pages.
Early in Steve Stern’s 1996 short story “The Tale of a Kite,” the narrator hears some astonishing news: According to his son, a local rabbi has the power to levitate. The narrator is Jewish but not devout, so he’s outraged that his 12-year-old boy is seduced by such mystical nonsense. Even after seeing the rabbi float before his eyes, he still isn’t convinced. We, the readers, though? We believe. Stern’s charming satire succeeds by giving the rabbi a quiet nobility and by making the narrator into a comic, foolish figure —— not just for denying what he plainly sees, but for his religious hypocrisy. Here is the kind of man who’s angered at his son’s faith but convenes with his fellow Jewish businessmen to fume about it.
“The Tale of a Kite” is a very Stern-ian Stern story, typical of the kind of fiction he’s been writing for the past three decades. It’s funny, tinged with magical realism, concerned with the particulars of Judaism, and fixated on the collision between millennia-old spiritual traditions and contemporary American life. (It also takes place in Memphis, where most of his fiction is set.) This is no recipe for commercial success. In 2005 the New York Times ran a feature about Stern and his career, which has been long on critical acclaim but short on sales. The novel he was promoting at the time, The Angel of Forgetfulness, seemed poised to change his fortunes, thanks to especially glowing reviews and the support of a major publishing house. No dice: Apparently the audience for smirking literary fiction about Jewish-American life is limited to Elkin, Singer, and the “funny” Roth of the 1970s.
Critics may mourn this, but Stern seems unfazed. His potent, slyly provocative new novel, The Frozen Rabbi, insists that commitment to a theme isn’t the same thing as being in a rut. In essence, the novel is a super-sized version of “The Tale of a Kite,” expanded to address themes of assimilation, love, and anti-Semitism. And like that story, it’s built on an absurd yet appealingly simple premise. Bernie Karp, a 15-year-old boy, discovers that the freezer in his parents’ basement contains the body of a rabbi who’s been encased in ice for more than a hundred years. He’s good as new once he thaws out, and once defrosted he becomes a quick study of American pop culture folkways, thanks to deep gulps of daytime television. Soon, a sort of transference of spiritual commitment occurs: As Bernie becomes obsessed with cabalistic lore, Rabbi Eliezer transforms into a spiritual scam artist, courting fame at the expense of his own faith.
Stern doesn’t sweat the impossibility of this premise, and he needn’t —— he’s admirably skilled at inventing a world in which a rabbi could inhabit a freezer for decades and emerge intact. “Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition,” Bernie is told by his father after the discovery is made. It’s a laugh line, a hint at the kind of joshing Stern will deliver at the rabbi’s expense throughout the novel: With alliterative joy, Stern makes him a “refrigerated relic,” a “hand-me-down holy man,” a “frozen phenom” in a “sloshing sarcophagus.” After he becomes a Memphis celebrity who seems more interested in bedding the women at his betmidrash (study hall) than practicing religion, he writes a memoir with the punning title The Ice Sage. Stern’s light touch with the rabbi provides the novel’s comic relief, but to a purpose: Stern is drawing a bright line between religious commitment in the past and commitment in the present, tracking Eliezer’s decadence against the hard struggle of Bernie’s ancestors. As his story moves from 19th Century Europe to the 20th Century Lower East Side to Israel to a contemporary Memphis Jewish enclave, Stern wants to show how faith can survive under persistent threat.
At times Stern will go so deep into the weeds of serious family history that we’ll miss seeing Eliezer more often, reprobate though he is. But Stern justifies his epic scope, and especially in the case of his depiction of Bernie’s great-grandmother, Jocheved. We meet her early in the book as she’s raised in the Polish ghetto of the early 1900s, eventually growing up to be an attractive young woman who beaten and sexually assaulted. She escapes this horror by disguising herself as a man, Max, and traveling in New York, and Stern makes her so wholly male that it’s easy to forget she’s a woman. The metaphor Stern is working isn’t hard to tease out: Jocheved is frozen by a culture of anti-Semitism, and she eventually needs to “thaw out” into herself. As if to drive the point home, she was assaulted while selling ice cream and returns to it with her business partner, Shmerl, who’s made a bundle after inventing a mechanical ice-making process. But when Jocheved finally outs herself as a woman at the same time Shmerl confesses his love, Stern artfully makes the moment a statement on love and spirit too, and delivers a great joke besides:
Then both of them were sobbing feverishly, the girl for her joyful reunion with the lost daughter of Salo Frostbissen, [Shmerl] for the gift of a transformation that he alone, wizard that he was, had effected: for he had caused by simply wishing it the metamorphosis of his beloved companion into the woman of his dreams.
Shmerl has no such mystical powers, of course. But Stern doesn’t deny mysticism, and he has a knack for integrating it into his storytelling as plain fact. Back at the betmidrash, women are levitating (“a few showing shadows under their tushies that revealed them to be sitting in midair”) and Bernie has discovered he’s capable of leaving his own body, albeit at inopportune moments —— like when he’s having sex with his girlfriend. This leaves the girlfriend frustrated, and not a little jealous. After one such moment, Stern writes:
Looking back from the stratosphere with a thousand eyes, Bernie glimpsed the frustrated diminution of his desire and heard the girl saying before he surrendered himself to eternity, ‘If you can’t take me with you, at least bring me something back.’
Yet this collision of sex and spirituality isn’t entirely a joking matter: It deepens Bernie’s faith, even while it distances the Rabbi from his own. Bernie hits the books and figured —— hopes —— that Eliezer is doing “aliyah tzrichah yeridah, descent for the sake of ascent.” But the rabbi’s self-debasement involves no upward climb. “I don’t like to embarrass with too much Jewish stuff the goyim,” the rabbi tells Bernie. And so we’re back in the territory of “The Tale of a Kite,” where a Jewish business leader is willing to sacrifice his belief, so long as he can preserve a veneer of being “cultured.” Stern inhabits the mind of Bernie’s father for a moment to put the point more bluntly:
It was important to him that he not be perceived as in any way un-American, an unease that perhaps had its source in having been born abroad…. That’s why he was relieved when the relic from the deep freeze —— notwithstanding the perversity of its defrosting —— had adapted to the climate of these interesting times, and that its message, while retaining its spiritual essence, did not contradict the basic values of the marketplace.
But spirituality and the values of the marketplace don’t get along, Stern means to say. You’ve heard that one before, yes? Except few writers complicate that question as deeply as Stern does in The Frozen Rabbi, especially in its morally tangled final pages. Stern ends on an deliberately unstable note, but what’s clear is that the rabbi was more spiritually generous encased in ice than after he was defrosted —— indeed, the closing indicates how easily religious traditions can be twisted and shattered, not just by a lot of daytime television but by a deliberate ignorance of the tradition TV zapped out of us. Though Stern has written a comic novel, it searches hard for a definition of faith. Here’s what he comes up with: It’s stubborn. It’s enchanting. It’s a source of sustenance. Sex is tied up in it, and a lot of it is damn funny when you think about it. But one thing it isn’t is assured.