If there’s such a genre as Yiddish magical realism, this must be it. Ranging from a shtetl in Poland in the 1890s to New York’s Lower East Side in the teens to Memphis at the turn of the millennium, this wild tale follows a mystical rabbi and his caretakers from the old world to the new.
It all begins when the rabbi, deep in a trance, sleeps through a flood and subsequently gets frozen into a block of ice. One of his followers takes responsibility for guarding the body. His congregation’s belief in him is strong enough that they’re not quite willing to sit shiva for him and declare him dead. When pogroms begin in the rabbi’s village, his flock escapes to America, and he comes along with them. There are multiple twists and turns along the way, but he winds up in a deep freeze in a Memphis basement, and might have stayed there undisturbed among the brisket and hamburger forever, if not for a power failure.
Here’s a sample from the first chapter:
Sometime during his restless fifteenth year, Bernie Karp discovered in his parents’ food freezer-a white-enameled Kelvinator humming in its corner of the basement rumpus room-an old man frozen in a block of ice. He had been searching for a slab of meat, albeit not for the purpose of eating. Having recently sneaked his parents’ copy of a famously scandalous novel of the sixties in which the adolescent hero has relations with a piece of liver, Bernie was moved to duplicate the feat. No stranger to touching himself, he hardly dared to dream of touching another, so inaccessible seemed the flesh of young girls. His only physical intimacy so far had been with his mother’s Hoover, innumerable pairs of socks, and his big sister’s orchid pink underpants retrieved from the dirty clothes hamper in the bathroom. Then he had come upon the novel he’d once heard his parents sheepishly refer to as the required reading of their youth. Not a reader, nor much of an active participant in his own uninquisitive life, Bernie had nevertheless browsed the more explicit passages of the book and so conceived the idea of defrosting a piece of liver.
To see Stern get the rabbi from one generation to the next is a delight. It’s hilarious and tragic by turns, one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year.