Chapter 16: Tradition on ice

Monday, September 5, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Paul V. Griffith Chapter16.org
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Steve Stern (Photo courtesy Sabrina Jones) 

Novelist Steve Stern has become the ad hoc spokesman for the Pinch, a long-ignored Memphis neighborhood that was once that city’s Jewish ghetto. Like his previous work, much of Stern’s latest novel is set in the Pinch, its rich and conflicted history providing the ideal locus for the author’s tale of shamanistic self-interest and tradition gone awry. In The Frozen Rabbi, an ancient holy man, who was frozen while in a meditative state, comes under the care of a family of secular Jews who have lost contact with both their tradition and each other. When the rabbi is accidentally defrosted, he takes the Karp family’s lethargic son as his disciple. As the boy struggles to reach spiritual enlightenment, the rabbi reinvents himself as a modern-day self-help guru whose contradictory prescription for happiness treads on scandalous ground. 

Stern is a Memphis native who teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. His 2000 collection The Wedding Jester won the National Jewish Book Award. And his novel The Angel of Forgetfulness was named one of the best books of 2005 by The Washington Post. The Frozen Rabbi was published in 2010 and has just been released in paperback. In a recent email exchange, Stern answered questions from Chapter16.

Chapter 16: Is the Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr entirely fictional? I’m wondering if you based the character on a similarly provocative and entertaining rabbi — perhaps from history or your own childhood.

Stern: Rabbi ben Zephyr is perhaps not an altogether pure invention. In Yiddish folklore, as in every other, there is the figure of the trickster, the scoundrel and deceiver who profits from the gullibility of willing dupes. It’s a role in which the prophet Elijah is often cast, who returns to earth from paradise in a variety of disguises. His tricks seduce the sinful into receiving their just deserts; though just as frequently the deserving might receive from his bag of tricks a miscellany of blessings — sometimes even enlightenment. This was the kind of archetypal character I had in mind when I conceived the rabbi, though he’s admittedly a bit stingy in the blessings department. I also had in mind the so-called Kabbalah Centers that have proliferated all over the planet and have been made popular by the likes of Madonna and other celebrities. These institutions, staffed by charlatans, have managed to traduce a prodigious mystical tradition, stripping it of all complexity and numinous dimension. What remains is a de-Judaized, New Age, feel-good exercise in hedonism with virtually nothing in common with authentic Kabbalah.

Along those lines, are there any similarities between you — or someone you know — and Bernie, the Karp family’s long-suffering, adolescent son? 

Well, Bernie Karp and I both have acne. Beyond that, there’s the fundamental ignorance of Jewish heritage that we both shared. Bernie’s participation in the defrosting of the frozen rabbi is his entrée into the past. His developing intimacy with the rabbi’s origins is his introduction to the drama of the Diaspora and the long comet’s tail of history and culture that drama involves. Thereafter, his consciousness must expand exponentially in order to accommodate that experience. 

I had what I think of as an analogous experience in the mid-’80s when, working for a folklore center in Memphis, I discovered the locus of a vanished Jewish ghetto community. Through oral history interviews with the survivors of that community, I was able to reassemble a world that (thanks to my upbringing in a Reform synagogue that had more or less covered its tracks with regard to the past) I hardly knew anything about. Bernie’s sense of wonder in the presence of the thawed holy man is meant to duplicate my own awe at reviving the old North Main Street community. It was for me an experience tantamount to — if you’ll forgive the hyperbole — raising a lost continent out of the sea. 

The Frozen Rabbi presents its readers with a kind of reverse Enlightenment, whereby the utilitarian advances of the modern age are supplanted by the superstitions and magical properties of the past. Modern culture has cool stuff, “but it ain’t got a soul,” says the rabbi. Are you aware of a particular strain of rabbinic scholarship that supports this view? 

There’s nothing very new in the rabbi’s assessment, or under the sun. Ever since the invention of the self and all the “-ishness” that followed hard upon, the philosophers and theologians have been telling us that technology and materialism have usurped the role of the spiritual in human life. The Jews have no monopoly on this attitude, and in acknowledging it the rabbi is merely stating the obvious. But rather than attempt to restore the souls of his adherents, Rabbi ben Zephyr pursues an entirely antinomian strategy; he embraces the fallen world with an unholy zeal. Offering quick-fix enlightenment and a soupçon of magic, he cultivates a following he can exploit for his own lascivious and material ends. In this way, he enjoys compensation for what he missed during a lifetime of piety and righteousness. Remember that when he was frozen, his soul remained aloft while his body was left to endure a long period of suspended animation. As a consequence, it becomes Bernie’s self-appointed mission to replace the rabbi’s AWOL soul with his own.

The Frozen Rabbi makes a lot of “Yinglish” and Yiddish black humor — at one point, for example, as the rabbi hovers close to death, a follower asks if he’s comfortable. “I make a livink,” the rabbi replies. What distinguishes Jewish humor from its WASPier counterparts?

Volumes have been written on this subject, and I doubt I have anything new to add. I suspect that in these assimilated times, the distinction between gentile and Jewish humor has become pretty blurred — but if you’re talking specifically Yiddish humor, the distinction obtains. The humor generated from the Diaspora experience was bred in a language with a built-in sense of irony. You can hear it in the rhythms and inflections of every spoken phrase. Irony was a natural function of a language that evolved in a world defined on the one hand by oppression, persecution and poverty, and on the other by a natural intimacy with the sacrosanct. To maintain one’s religious faith in the face of such a hostile environment is to preside over the marriage of irreconcilable opposites, a rocky relationship at best and one that seldom achieves wedded bliss. (Morris: “How come I never know when you’re having an orgasm?” Ethel: “Because you’re never around.”) 

To read an uncut version of this interview — and for more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.