diaTribe Review: The Frozen Rabbi Surprisingly…Really. Good.

I reached into my carry-on and pulled out the two books I had packed to keep me entertained for the 10+ hour flight to Tel Aviv. The other book was the obvious choice: a short 263 pages with pictures at every chapter break and a luscious red cover. I chose, instead, The Frozen Rabbi ( Algonquin Books, May 2010; $24.95), a 384 page hardcover that looked…ok? I wasn’t convinced that the story of how a nineteenth-century rabbi from a small Polish town ended up in a freezer in suburban Memphis at the end of the twentieth century was going to be a better distraction than the not-really-blockbuster movies I had at my disposal. But I set to reading in an eat-your-veggie-first frame of mind.
I still wasn’t convinced after the first paragraph, in which 15-year-old Bernie digs through his parents’ basement freezer in search of a piece of liver to reenact a scene from Portnoy’s Complaint and finds a greenish piece of ice enshrouding an old man. But by page three, when Bernie’s father explains that “Some people got taxidermied pets in the attics, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition.” I was ready to laugh. Out loud. In a plane full of people. And I kept turning the pages.
Stern craftily weaves the stories of the rabbi and those charged with guarding the block of ice containing him for over a century, as the narrative bounces between time and place – 1800’s Poland to 1990’s Memphis to New York at the turn of the last century and even to a young Israel. Stern also skillfully balances humorous situations and dialogue (the defrosted rabbi proclaims: “a betmidrash, a study house I will establish, that they can come in it, both yehudim and goyim, and be born all over again. I got already my eye on a little place by the Rebel Yell Shopping Plaza”) with heartbreak and misfortune. It is clear that the characters whose destinies are tied to the rabbi’s are both blessed and cursed by the yoking.
Despite a plot line that had me on my toes, it took me longer to read the book than I expected. And I was thrilled by that. While I can usually chew through a book of this length in two days, it took me a few weeks to get through The Frozen Rabbi. Stern packs the pages – not so densely as to make the experience burdensome but enough to make you realize that this isn’t a throwaway novel. And just as I was getting to the point where I was ready for it to wrap up, it did. In a tidy, but unexpected, manner.
The Frozen Rabbi made me long for my days as an English major when reading a book was always followed by a good discussion with others who had read it (I settled for Ben Marcus’ New York Times review). I walked away from it with a little bit of an author crush on Steve Stern and the wish that I could sit in on one of his classes at Skidmore College. And I remembered that eating your veggies is good for you.
*The FTC made me do it: Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary copy of the book in the hope that I would mention it on TC Jewfolk. But getting the book for free doesn’t mean that I was obligated to give a glowing review. I wouldn’t recommend anything that I don’t think you’d enjoy. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Blah, blah, blah…