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Man Out of Time

Discussing ‘The Frozen Rabbi’ with author Steve Stern, who’s stuck in the Jewish past

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Steve Stern

Illustration by Paul Rogers

Novelist Steve Stern wasn’t raised in a traditional Jewish home—indeed, he says, his childhood in Memphis was virtually devoid of “heritage.” But he has made up for that as an adult, delving deeply into Jewish history, fiction, liturgy, and mysticism in his work. All of that comes into play in The Frozen Rabbi, his ninth work of fiction, which Tablet Magazine begins serializing today. The story begins in the basement of one Bernie Karp, a pimply and spiritually bereft teen who, intent on pleasuring himself in the liver-aided manner of Alexander Portnoy, gets distracted when he discovers at the back of the meat freezer a 19th-century rabbi from the Pale of Settlement. From there, we are transported between the past and the present, along the way encountering shtetl kabbalists, Lodz peddlers, Lower East Side gangsters, New Age hucksters, and more. Stern spoke to Vox Tablet about Charles Dickens and Isaac Bashevis Singer, libel suits, and how he came to write this comic-tragic tale of modern European Jewry. The Frozen Rabbi will be published in May.

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Lauren Pak says:

Mr Stern,
As my gramma often says “Word pulls word.” I, too, am tortured by a murky Judaic heritage. Rarely, my grampa chilled me to the bone relating how Cossacks would come and “split open your head with a sword like a melon,” rendering surveillance paranoia if you covered your head, etc.
Re: interviewer’s query on pessimism, I applaud your adept dodge of that bullet as making this call belongs squarely with the reader. When I lived in Memphis married to a Jewish musician we were told that we’d have enjoyed living in The Pinch, so I appreciate your stories.
Did you draw inspiration for TFR from the words of The Kotzker Rebbe? Not surprised at the echoes of Jewish names in your early writing as,”The yolk of Israelite Law is always upon the shoulders (of the Aboda Zara).
Jocheved’s trajectory is similar to my own as the daughter of a big-hearted schlmiel married to a Cruella DeVille. Anthropologists would say that Joheved’s forced adaptation breeds intelligence which is the upside of the degradation and horror inherent in the human condition. Liked the foreshadowing of Bernie’s desire to merge w/EbZ when Salo “..imagines himself staring back through the tzaddik’s eyes..world merely figments in the rebbe’s dream.”; his gratitude for the awesome beauty of life and a deepened sense of an omnipresent God. Viewing instead the provocateur trickster, I was not appalled by corruption of the rebbe due to his role as a useful conduit between man and God. Personally I am a walking ethnic joke: What happens when a Hungarian Jewish Gypsy marries a Laplander Ice Queen? The combustible fusion known as me. Since “Humor is always ‘instead of’ ” it can get one over the next hill but provides no lasting fix.
P.S. As my surname is a Hebrew acronym, you may use it without litigation concerns if you wish– there are so few of us PAKs left, most having ended-up in pogom-related mass graves. So I’ll let you go now, but first best wishes on your next endeavors and kudos for the last one!

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Man Out of Time

Discussing ‘The Frozen Rabbi’ with author Steve Stern, who’s stuck in the Jewish past

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