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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 1, Part 2

As pond waters deepen, so too does our mystery

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Illustration by Paul Rogers

1889-1890.

When the holy man Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr, the Boibiczer Prodigy, wished to get closer to God, he would sit, or rather lie, by a certain pond in the woods outside his village. There, using techniques described in Gedaliah Ibn Yahya’s Girdle of Abimelech, he would meditate on the letters of the Tetragrammaton until he entered a trance. In his youth he had been acclaimed for his public demonstrations of memory, his ability to recite passages of Talmud both forward and backward, and his feats of what the uninitiated called magic. But now in his twilight years he was far beyond such exhibitions, and preferred to exercise his powers in solitude. He would lie upon his back on the mossy bank of the pond, his clasped hands cradling his head as the Girdle prescribed, while his neshomah, his soul, ascended to the Upper Eden. There his soul sat in bliss among the archons studying Torah. Once, however, during one of his more intensive meditations—this was in the blustery month of Sivan, just after Shavuot—there came a mighty storm. With his soul aloft, his body, frail as it was, remained insensible to the moods of the terrestrial world; and so, while the storm raged and the torrents battered his meager frame, Rabbi Eliezer continued his meditations in peace. The drenched earth on which he lay turned to mud and the water of the shallow pond began to rise, inundating his legs to the waist, creeping over his chest and chin and ultimately submerging his hoary head.

Previously the sage had depended on the shulklapper summoning the faithful to prayer to signal the reunification of his body and soul, but the deluge had muted any noises from above the surface of what was quickly becoming a lake.

As their rebbe’s retreats were fairly routine, Eliezer’s small band of disciples had grown accustomed to the old man’s frequent absences, but that he should stay away for so long in the wake of such a terrible storm seemed to them a distinct cause for worry. After several days, a party of Rabbi Eliezer’s Chasidim, their earlocks streaming, gabardines flapping like crows’ wings, began combing the pastures and thickets known to be the tzaddik’s special haunts. Deracinated trees with roots like hydra heads, the bloated carcasses of drowned hogs, and roofless peasant huts were what they found, but no Rabbi Eliezer. Some of his followers even passed in the vicinity of the pond that had overnight turned into a considerable body of water, under-neath which lay the Prodigy in his mystical transports. When weeks had passed without a rumor of their leader’s whereabouts, the Chasids reluctantly called off the search; they tore their garments, beat their pigeon breasts, and sprinkled ashes over their heads but refused to say Kaddish, contending one and all that their rebbe would one day return.

The seasons changed, the russet and gold autumn supplanted by an alabaster winter, while Rabbi Eliezer continued his submarine meditations. The ground was blanketed, the trees stooped like peddlers under haversacks of heavy snow, and still the rebbe’s body remained impervious to decomposition. It was the time of year when the industrious widower Yosl King of Cholera, accompanied by his feckless son, Salo, dragged his sledge across the snowfields to the banks of the Lower Bug to harvest ice. (He’d been an orphan, Yosl, whom the town had married off to another orphan during a plague in the hope of assuaging God’s wrath—hence his name.) This year, however, Yosl had heard from the cheder boys, who skated the horse pond on Baron Jagiello’s estate, that summer storms had increased the pond to the size of an inland sea. After investigating, Yosl went hat in hand to the baron and begged permission to carve ice from his lake in exchange for replenishing the estate’s own supply free of charge. An agreeable man when it served his interests, the baron gave Yosl the go-ahead, and the ice mensch set out across the fields, trailed by his son.

When they arrived at the swollen pond, a few truant Talmud Torah boys were already there, their wooden skates describing wobbly spirals and arabesques on the jade green surface of the ice. Abandoning his sledge, Yosl trod the ice in his hob-nailed boots to test its thickness and then, satisfied, began to cut a trench with his axe. He called to his son to bring him the double-handled ice saw, but Salo, as timid as he was lazy, ventured only to the edge of the lake to hand his father the tool.

“Amoretz!” Yosl complained to the iron gray sky. “He puts his shoes on back-wards and gets from walking into himself a bloody nose.” But that was the extent of his indictment, since Yosl had long since abandoned any real expectations of his son’s usefulness. The boy’s fear of almost everything in existence seemed to exempt him from life itself, let alone work, and sometimes his father wondered if Salo, whose mother had died in childbirth, had ever been entirely born.

While his father labored, Salo dawdled at the margin of the lake, ashamed as always to be hanging back but convinced that the ice would not support his lumpish weight. Occasionally, however, he might dare himself to rest the ball of a foot on the crusted surface, rubbing a circle as smooth as glass with the sole of his shoe. But rather than steal a glance through the polished porthole, lest it reveal something unpleasant, Salo usually turned away without even looking. At one point he did catch sight of a fish like a monarch’s wing suspended in a sunless world where time stood still. And again, unable to resist a peek after rubbing another circle, he saw the face of an old man with a yellow beard.

“Papa!” cried Salo in terror.

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The Frozen Rabbi: Week 1, Part 2

As pond waters deepen, so too does our mystery
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