Walking in Memphis

I need to see Tennessee. Not as much as I need to visit Virginia, but Memphis is definitely a destination. The Tennessee Titans (my favorite NFL team) play in Nashville, so I would want to get over to the Music City as well (preferably in the fall), but there is something going on in Memphis. At least that’s the impression I get from reading The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern, who is from Memphis and now teaches in upstate New York. A (very) good amount of the back story takes place in New York City as well as the traditional Jewish settlements in the Russian Pale and Eretz Israel, but the real action is in modern Memphis.

That’s where fifteen year old Bernie Karp discovers his family’s peculiar secret in the basement freezer. The Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr was in a state of transcendent meditation when his body was submerged and frozen by a freak storm. The only heirloom of the Karp family to survive the upheaval from Poland to America, the former Boibiczer Prodigy emerges from his suspended trance in new surroundings that are equal parts Gan Eydn and Gehenna. The tzaddik’s passage through time is remarkable, although the frozen rabbi serves primarily as a device for propagating the mystical transformations of a long line of Karps, including Bernie.

References to prominent Jewish texts and Yiddish terms abound, but Stern wields them with such fluency that they never become recondite. For a multiple award winning author (National Jewish Book Award) with multiple books published (The Angel of Forgetfulness), Stern is underappreciated (The Frozen Rabbi ought to have been an Indie Next pick for May). His writing has been compared to Michael Chabon’s, and it’s an apt comparison. There are elements reminiscent not only of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, as promised, but of Gentlemen of the Road as well. Phoebe Gaston, a book rep and friend who knows I have a weak spot for Chabon and writing that won’t tolerate a weak constitution, made that very comparison when she pitched The Frozen Rabbi to me. She knows her books and her audience! This is not a book for the faint of heart; credit Steve Stern for writing the book he wanted to write, and credit Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill for publishing it.

In June I will be in North Carolina, home of Algonquin. To be in such close proximity to both Tennessee and Virginia without the time to go to either state will be excruciating. If only I could learn to send my soul aloft, as Bernie and the Rabbi do, I could cover more states, mental and physical!

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