Rabbi Eliezer, a great sage, is accidentally frozen in a block of ice in Russia in 1889. He remains thusly preserved for over a hundred years until he is inadvertently thawed out and reanimated during a power surge in Memphis, Tennessee in 1999. His unwitting rescuer is Bernie Karp, an overweight socially awkward Jewish teenager who has found the frozen rabbi in his parents’ basement chest freezer. How Rabbi Eliezer came to be stored in that freezer, and what happens (to him and to Bernie) after he is defrosted is the plot of this book.
This book joins a list of my favorites of this genre (Jewish magical realism?), including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, The World to Come by Dara Horn, and A Blessing on the Moon by Joseph Skibell. It combines fantasy, humor, mysticism, history, tragedy, and adventure all in one pot. But this recipe also has some negatives: as sometimes happens in books like this, Stern gets carried away and tries to cram in too much. At times the book staggers under its own weight.
We talked about The Frozen Rabbi at my book club this week. Most everyone agreed that it was too long and too messy but we disagreed about what parts or characters we would cut. Most of us admitted to skimming sections but again, not the same sections. And we were all baffled by the ending which was just plain weird. We decided that this book is greater than the sum of its parts; individual sections are overly long or disturbing, but they add up to something really good.
(Book 4, 2012)