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The Frozen Rabbi Hardcover – May 11, 2010

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; First Edition edition (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 156512619X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565126190
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (77 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,227,770 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Stern’s uproarious and trouncing romp through the anguish and ironies of the Jewish diaspora matches mysticism with mayhem, beatitude with organized crime, creativity with crassness. The madcap, at times, surreal action revolves around Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, whose out-of-body journeys to the realm of the divine result in his being frozen in a block of ice in the Jewish Pale in 1889, a frigid relic that becomes one family’s problematic inheritance. In scenes of vivid drama and burlesque comedy on the same epic scale as Stern’s Angel of Forgetfulness (2005), the rabbi-on-ice is transported through a pogrom and across the Atlantic under the guardianship of a raven-haired woman protectively disguised as a man, who finds sanctuary with the sweet-natured, hunchbacked inventor Shmerl Karp in the roiling Lower East Side. Finally, in 1999, the “great thaw” brings the reanimated rabbi and misfit teen Bernie Karp together in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee, where the holy man, enthralled by America’s TV-stoked capitalism, opens his profitable and controversial House of Enlightenment. Stern elevates his virtuoso storytelling and whirling magical satire to cosmic heights in this lovingly irreverent and revelatory novel of the timeless conflict between the sacred and the profane, and the perpetual search for home and meaning. --Donna Seaman


A recent article in The Jewish Review of Books (Spring 2010) lamented the paucity of Jewish fantasy books. While there are no lions symbolizing deities, we now have The Frozen Rabbi. Eliezer ben Zephyr, a nineteenth century mystic, was in a meditative trance when bad weather struck, submerging him in a newly formed pond, where he froze. Bernie Karp is a twenty-first century teenager who discovers ben Zephyr in the freezer in his parents’ basement. When he questions his parents, he learns that the rabbi has been handed down through the family as a sort of talisman. An equally fierce storm hits Memphis, knocking out power, and when Bernie checks on the rabbi, he has defrosted.  The book starts with Bernie’s discovery of the rabbi, and proceeds in alternating chapters, catching the reading up on how the rabbi got to Bernie’s basement, then continuing with Bernie’s changing life and the Rabbi’s endeavors.  Rabbi ben Zephyr acquaints himself with modern society by watching television all day. He then decides that America is lacking spirituality and convinces Bernie’s father, an appliance salesman, to finance the rabbi’s “House of  Enlightenment,” where he will “peddle be-a-ti-tude,” and “also sell a few specialty items on the side—books and talismans, red string to ward off the evil eye, everything marked up and elegantly repackaged of course.”

Out of the most bizarre circumstances, things seem reasonable, and part of what makes this book so enjoyable is seeing how Mr. Stern gets his characters from one place to another and how the absurd starts to make sense.  Without giving away too much of this romp through modern Jewish history, the rabbi, suspended in ice is passed down, almost like a mesorah. “Yosl King of Cholera from Boibicz, who married Chava Babtcheh, her that died from giving birth to Salo that they called him Frostbissen, who married the sharp-tongued Basha Puah who begot in Lodz first the twins Yachneh and Yoyneh, who ran away to Palestine, then me, Jocheved, who begot in America with my poor husband Shmerl your father Ruben Karp, who was in the Yichud a holy terror before he got wed to his wife that was shlangbissen, snakebit after already she begot you…” The rabbi’s story starts in Eastern Europe, where he is adopted by Salo the iceman. The rabbi then arrives in America, and spends time on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. This part of the book was a little slow, as the scene is set for the next guardian of the rabbi.  Bernie learns more by reading his Grandpa Ruby’s diary, which includes a stint in the nascent state of Israel (for Ruby, not the rabbi). Once Ruby returns to Memphis with his orphan son, the past catches up with the present very quickly, with Ruby’s son Julius taking over the appliance business, marrying Yetta, and soon after fathering Bernie and his older sister, Madeline. How does the rabbi stay frozen all this time?  That’s the part of the plot that includes inventions, train transport, and contraband.  

Most of all, this is a book about transformation and façade.  While the rabbi dresses the part and looks like an ancient grandfather, sex plays a major part in his outlook.  As he professes to bring spirituality to the masses, it is definitely a commercial venture that includes his memoir, The Ice Sage. Like his ancestor before, Jocheved, who transformed her outward appearance so the extent that it affected her internal working, Bernie also changes.  Like Grandpa Ruby, who was at the same time a fearless fighter and a social outcast, Bernie also lives on the edge. He grows from an overweight, apathetic teenager into one whose soul can leave his body and ascend to mystical heights. He researches Jewish history, learns Yiddish, and acquires a girlfriend, who is attracted to him for his ability to leave his body. By the end of the book, he feels comfortable in neither the physical nor the spiritual world, and while the epilogue is quite shocking, I couldn’t imagine this book being neatly wrapped up with a happy ending.While the idea of a rabbi frozen in the 1890’s defrosted  over a hundred years later is interesting in itself, the novel has much to offer. The main characters are developed well, and the alternation between third and first person gives perspective while allowing them to “speak for themselves.” There is a strong sense of place, particularly the Lower East Side of the turn of the century and in the graphic description of a pogrom in the shtetl. The language is what makes this more of an intimate history than a story, with the rabbi’s “yinglish” making him  sound both wise and wacky at the same time:  “So step kvetching and start yentzing [having sex]; this is my advice that I give to you free of charge.” Bernie, as an awkward teenager has little to say, but his internal moments chronicle his spiritual development. In more somber moments, the narration can be poetic, with “trees stooped like peddlers under haversacks of heavy snow.”  So, to paraphrase Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, “This is heaven already on the planet of Earth. It’s all in the book…which it’s twenty-four ninety-five retail.”  Go and learn!

--Kathe Pinchuck, MLIS, has worked in both synagogue and public libraries. A frequent reviewer for the Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter, she is past chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee.

“[A] wonderfully entertaining, inventive new novel that evokes Amy Bloom, Michael Chabon and Isaac Bashevis Singer . . . Laugh-out-loud funny, the sort of humor that takes you by surprise.” —

“A funny, profound and virtuosic work . . . this fast-paced romp through history . . . is a rare enchantment.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“In the 25 years since [Stern] published his first book, younger Jewish writers have run with a similar shtick . . . In Jonathan Safran Foer, you see Stern’s fanciful English, in Nicole Krauss his magic realism, in Michael Chabon his updated golems and gun-toting shtarkers. But Stern was there first, and with The Frozen Rabbi it feels like he may be last too: this is a novel so rich, full, funny, dense and exhausting, it feels like there may be no more Steve Stern books left to write—by him, or anyone else.” —The Toronto Globe and Mail

“Among the wonders awaiting the reader of Steve Stern’s exuberant new novel . . . is one of sheer logistics: How did he get all of this in here? The book’s 370 pages are packed to bursting with epic adventure and hysterical comedy, with grim poignancy and pointed satire, as Stern repeatedly shifts time and tone to craft a wildly entertaining tale.” —The Washington Post Book World

Customer Reviews

Some parts kept me reading, and at other times I felt like not finishing the book.
Bernice Weisgrau
Not being Jewish, or knowing Hebreww or Yiddish, I was very disappointed not to have appropiate translation of the many instances where those languages were used.
I was very disappointed that the rebbe appeared to have no desire to encourage the spiritual development of Bernie; this is totally out of character for a rabbi.
E. Bailen

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By shanarufus on June 4, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Hard to rate this book because at least 2/3 of it was 6 stars, the other 1/3 didn't hold me fast. I had never read Steve Stern before and now I have put all his novels on inter-library loan. He is brilliant--brillliiiiant. His writing is crisp, intelligent, hilariously funny, original, and zany, too. My library places this novel in the fantasy category. I think of fantasy as vampires, zombies, aliens and all that totally stupid stuff that is the current rage--when will it be over I ask the universe every night.

The frozen rabbi himself dates from the 18th century. For 300 years he has been sealed in ice and transported from one eastern European location to the next until he makes the voyage to the Lower East Side and then on to Memphis, Tennessee. The book has alternating chapters--the historical periods of several centuries, the most pages given to the period of 1880 or so to 1920s, and contemporary times when the rebbe comes back to life and lives with a family in Memphis.

I loved loved loved the chapters from the past. We have pogroms, we have a girl disguised as a boy in order to escape certain death, we have the Jewish mafia, and we have an unlikely and tender love story. We have kabbala and numerology, we have kreplach and pickled herring. The contemporary chapters paled by comparison for me. A friend is reading the book right now as I type, and he loves both sections equally. He finds the rabbi-cum-entrepreneur falling in love with game shows and soap operas on TV, and via this medium learning English, the best part of the book.

Perhaps another reviewer who is a better writer can adequately describe the language of the book. There's a lot of Yiddish, only haphazardly defined.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Jim Palmer on July 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I first ran across Steve Stern when I found "Lazar Malkin Enters Heaven" in the half-price bin at Barnes and Noble, where it didn't deserve to be, years ago. Ever since then, I've been watching his work carefully, and I'm glad I do.

In "The Frozen Rabbi," Stern returns to the vanished, quasi-mythical Jewish Memphis that he's been painstakingly reconstructing ever since "Lazar Malkin" with this story of 15-year old shlub Bernie Karp, and his accidental discovery of a Hasidic rebbe in a block of ice in his apathetic and assimilated family's deep freeze. The discovery sets off a rollicking account of how the ancestral Karps obtained and shlepped the old boy from Russian shtetls to the crime-sodden ghettos of Lodz and the Lower East Side, to British Mandate Palestine and ultimately to Memphis. Stern juxtaposes the historical account with the modern-day mayhem that the thawed-out holy man wreaks upon Bernie and his family when, intoxicated by the lascivity and commercialized banality of modern American spirituality, he gleefully fires up his own "name it and claim it" born-again cult, equal parts Jewish Renewal movement, Jim Jones, and Tammy Faye Bakker.

Stern's accomplishment is spin what could have been a clunky metaphor--a rabbi frozen in a block of ice as the Karp family's own Jewishness, with both its burdensome inconvenience and obligations and its rich vibrancy--into a compelling yarn. He deftly uses the symbolism of ice's dual nature--something that both petrifies and preserves--to shape the family's character, livelihoods, and destinies throughout their generations of the rabbi's stewardship, and does so amazingly entertainingly.
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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on June 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
The Yiddish literary tradition is full of bizarre characters, offhand curses and incantations, self-deprecatory humor, and a deep sense of humanity. It's a tradition spun by hearty survivalists who have been to hell and back and know how to laugh about it. Steve Stern's THE FROZEN RABBI fits the mold quite well.

There are two stories here. The first concerns the nominally Jewish teen Bernie Karp --- overweight, boring and irritating --- stimulated only by food and pornography. In Memphis, Tennessee, he lives with his equally reprobate family, as uncaring, unpleasant and spiritually deadened as he. One day, while rifling through the basement freezer, Bernie discovers an old Chasid frozen in a block of ice. His father casually remarks that it's a family heirloom, over a hundred years old, and lets the matter drop. And so it does, until Bernie is home alone for the weekend during a thunderstorm that cuts the house's power, and the rabbi thaws. And so begins the rabbi's --- a well-practiced, slightly batty mystic --- adventures into a consumerist America that treats enlightenment as both a commodity and a drug.

As Bernie wrestles with his newfound sense of Judaism, he studies the tract written by his grandfather that tells the second story of the novel: how the rabbi arrived in America from a tiny village in Poland, frozen all the way. This isn't your classic immigrant story. The characters are all pleasantly mad, and events range from magical to nonsensical. But the story winds up, like so many immigrant tales do, in New York's Lower East Side, depicted as an underworld and a fantasy, a home to gangsters and honest men.
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More About the Author

STEVE STERN's fiction, with its deep grounding in Yiddish folklore, has prompted critics such as Cynthia Ozick to hail him as the successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer. He is the author of critically acclaimed books such as Isaac and the Undertaker's Daughter, winner of the Pushcart Writers' Choice Award; The Wedding Jester, which won the National Jewish Book Award; The Angel of Forgetfulness, one of The Washington Post's Best Books of 2006; and, The North God. Stern currently lives in Balston Spa, New York, and teaches at Skidmore College.

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