Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 9, 2012

Steve Stern, _The Frozen Rabbi_

A nerdish teenaged Jewish boy living in Memphis, searching his family's deep freeze for a piece of liver in which to masturbate á la Alex Portnoy, discovers a frozen Hasidic rabbi. Alternating chapters in Stern's wonderful novel lay out (a) how the frozen rabbi wound up in a suburban Memphis deep freeze and (b) what happened when he was thawed out.

Stern's evocations of a century of Jewish milieus (and a century of slow assimilation) are brilliant, especially thanks to his unequalled gift for the depiction of luftmenschen. The novel's comic/satiric vein -- the thawed rabbi opens a New-Age-ish spirituality center and more or less immediately succumbs to temptations of every kind, while the teenaged boy discovers he has the makings of a tzaddik -- is a tad more predictable but still enjoyable.

Jewish as it all is, the novel's conclusion left me thinking of Greene's The Power and The Glory and its trio of miracles proving the sainthood of the whiskey priest. Stern's final pages, even with one more bit of Rothian outlandish outrageousness at the very end, likewise beautifully conjure miracles and sanctity.

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