Illustration by Paul Rogers

The Boibicz icehouse was a windowless granite grotto dug into the northern slope of a hill at the edge of the village by giants or fallen angels in some antediluvian age. That was the legend, anyhow. All Yosl Cholera knew was that he’d inherited the icehouse after the death of Mendel Sfarb, its former owner, whose family claimed to have had it in their possession since the Babylonian Exile. The business was Mendel’s guilty gift to the orphan who had been his ward and virtual slave from the age of six. From outside, the sunken structure with its domelike stone protrusion resembled an age-encrusted tomb, which made it a most suitable repository for the Boibiczer Prodigy; it was a place where his body could lie in state, so to speak, resistant to decay until such time as he saw fit to come forth again—or so his followers maintained. Much to Yosl’s annoyance the Boibicz Chasidim insisted on honoring their rebbe’s resting place as they would a sacred sepulcher: They warbled their prayers (excepting the prayer for the dead) at its entrance, placed messages in the cracks between its stones, and took turns inside cleaning the sawdust and flax that collected around the holy man’s transparent berth. Though they cautioned one another not to diminish its mass, they discreetly shaved slivers from the block of ice, which they sweetened with dollops of honey and devoutly sucked. Since they refused to acknowledge the Prodigy as officially deceased, the Chasids were unable to elect a successor and thus came to be known for their veneration of the refrigerated rebbe as the Frozen Chasidim.

Diverting as were the antics of credulous fanatics, however, the inhabitants of Boibicz had other concerns to reckon with. Edicts and ukases were being issued by the imperial government in such dizzying succession that what was permitted in the morning was often forbidden by afternoon. The most recent stated that, for their own good, the Jews would be barred from leasing inns, taverns, and shops in the villages outside the Pale of Settlement.

In addition, no new Jewish settlers would be allowed in the villages and hamlets within the Pale, a decree that often stranded merchants returning from business trips or families from High Holiday worship in nearby towns. The Byzantine logic of these laws defied the understanding of even the most learned Talmudists, but as a consequence, many longtime citizens of Boibicz had begun to find themselves homeless, and for those still in residence the writing was on the wall. Eventually the Jews came to anticipate a wholesale exodus from a place that had been a home to their families for generations, though at that prospect they continued to drag their heels. In the end it took a delegation of their neighbors, chaperoned by a regiment of Cossacks dispatched by the government and operating under the blind eyes of the local police, to expedite their departure.

For all the chaos that erupted on that winter morning just after the Festival of Lights, the perpetrators went about their business almost mechanically, though the violence was no less savage for being deliberate. Without fanfare they entered the dingy Jewish quarter and smashed the shop windows, hauling out bolts of cloth, pedal-driven sewing machines, spirit lamps, unplucked chickens, anything that fell to hand. They defecated in the synagogue vestibule and wiped their goosefleshed behinds with the torn vellum scrolls of the Torah. Feivush Good Value, melammed and tradesman, they hanged from his own shop sign by his patriarch beard; they swung Shayke Tam, the idiot, by his heels, squealing because he thought it was a game, until his feeble brains were splattered across the shtibl wall. Those who fled to the woods were hunted down and beaten to splinters, though most who stayed put survived, among them Yosl Cholera’s son Salo, who’d taken refuge in the icehouse.

The fact was, he had scarcely strayed beyond the shadow of the icehouse since the day he’d stumbled upon Rabbi Eliezer ben Zephyr suspended beneath the surface of the lake. Though the frozen rebbe was scrupulously looked after by his followers, Salo, having taken a surprising interest in his discovery, had conceived the idea that the holy man was his own personal charge. He kept his ears alert to the stories the disciples told one another of the Boibiczer Prodigy’s wondrous feats of piety, and when no one else was about, the artless boy (in age already a young man) took his turn sitting vigil beside the block of ice. He admired the old man’s tranquility while expecting, like his disciples, that at any moment the ice might yawn and crack open and the rebbe irrupt from his slumber. It was an event he had no desire to hasten, however, so easeful was the waiting. To show cause for his hanging about the ice grotto, the boy made gestures toward helping his father, but when the King of Cholera realized it was the frozen rabbi rather than the entrepreneurial impulse that enlivened his son, he dismissed the boy once again as a lost cause. Moreover, Salo’s chronic attachment to the icehouse had been noted by his waggish peers, who gave him the nickname of Salo Frostbite, which stuck.

So it was that, on the morning of the pogrom, Salo was seated on a cabbage crate, gazing at Rabbi Eliezer’s slightly distorted features, their beatific peacefulness having invaded his timorous heart.

Check back tomorrow for the next installment of The Frozen Rabbi. Or, to get each day’s installment of The Frozen Rabbi in your inbox, sign up for the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest, and tell your friends.