Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Is It Kosher, I Wonder? ( Melt Show)
The Karp family are hiding something in their freezer, and it isn't large thick slabs of glorious bacon ; although if certain accounts are to be believed it may taste something like pork. Fifteen year old couch potato Bernie Karp ( the novel's primary protagonist) happens upon his family's heirloom whilst searching for an attractive piece of meat which he intends to put to use in a rather inappropriate manner. Hunger pangs emanating just south of his stomach Bernie comes face to face with a fully grown man frozen in a block of solid ice.
The next night at the dinner table Bernie mumbles about the 'old man in the meat freezer'. Bernie's father explains "Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It's family tradition." The way in which this scene plays out serves as a good example of the kind of comedy Steve Stern is capable of delivering, which he does with some frequency. It's situational and at times ironic . Chapters then alternate between Bernie's story and several of his ancestors whose adventures document the travels of the Rabbi who remains burdensome, yet sacred cargo for five generations. These interludes are quick glimpses at the changing times and the immigrant experience in general, and sometimes more specifically the Jewish experience.
Perplexed Bernie wants to know more about the Rabbi who is supposed to bring good luck - yet the journal of his grandfather, which explains the rabbi's past, is written in Yiddish. Bernie can't make heads or tails of it, until lighting strikes, quite literally. Once again when Bernie is left at home to his own devices fate intervenes. A flash flood hits and the power goes out. When the storm subsides Bernie is startled by a noise from the basement. He goes to investigate and finds the Rabbi , fully-thawed, half-naked, and inexplicably alive.
Initially worried about his parents' reaction Bernie hides the Rabbi in the family rec room. A place his parents never bother to venture. The two begin to tutor each other in their respective languages. With little else to do the Rabbi also gets a crash course in modern times and American society by watching television. An education which proves to have profound effect on the holy man's faith and philosophy. Bernie too undergoes a significant transformation. He begins having out-of-body experiences which are at first alarming but ultimately euphoric for the young boy. The new studious nature with which Bernie adopts in imitation of his mentor has drastic physical consequence as well. The formerly chubby cheeked layabout begins to lose weight and pimples. This garners suspicion from his parents, but also attracts the attention of a girl – Lou Ella, who is intrigued by his spiritual episodes and believes she can help trigger them. This story of young love is paralleled again and again within the history of the Karp family. The previously mentioned chapters show a cycle of ascendancy, fall, and redemption. These chapters are engaging if brief. Still Bernie and the thawed Rabbi's story remains the central plot.
Parts of this book feel like a classic coming of age novel, and in some ways it may be – only on a larger more expansive scale than the one most first consider. Stern's breadth of imagination is impressive throughout. It's a whimsical take on Yiddish folklore which rightly draws comparison to Micheal Chabon. Stern's 2005 effort The Angel of Forgetfulness won the National Jewish Book Award which is now on my to-read list. This story poses questions of fate, faith, discovery, and heritage. The Frozen Rabbi is easily one of the most surprising books I've read this year.