Yiddishland Comes to Memphis: A Review of Steve Stern

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August 24, 2010

In the interest of full disclosure, let me admit that I’m a card-carrying member of the Stern gang. Not the Zionist paramilitary group that fought the British during the days before Israel became a state but, rather, the hearty band of literary critics who have been following Steve Stern wherever his wacky, altogether wonderful imagination has taken him.

By all the usual measures, Steve Stern has piled up an impressive number of literary prizes (including a National Jewish Book Award), prestigious fellowships, and rave reviews. What he hasn’t done, alas, is sell books in sufficient numbers to attract — and keep — a major publisher.

What accounts for this odd — and unfair — turn of events? I haven’t a clue, although I’m told that successful writers have three things going for them: talent, timing, and luck. Of Stern’s talent there is little question. And he has proven, over nearly three decades at the writing desk, to be a good steward of his gifts. When well-meaning editors try to nudge him toward accommodations that might greatly expand his readership, Stern steadfastly ignores their advice. He is his own man and if the often-wisecracking writer can be believed, he enjoys nothing more than the chance to lose himself in the worlds, and pages, he creates.

As for timing, there may be some truth in pointing out that Stern is a Yosl-come-lately where his brand of Yiddish magical realism is concerned. Had he launched his career in the mid-l950s, as Bernard Malamud did, perhaps he would have made a bigger splash, especially with the likes of Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe around to write attention-grabbing front-page pieces for the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

But a belated arrival on the field hasn’t stopped Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” — a what-if novel about Yiddish-speaking Jews forcibly transplanted to (of all places) Alaska — from being a runaway success. And while Chabon is, at best, a Yiddish practitioner of the faux sort, Stern knows, (really knows), Yiddish. Ironically, however, this may be to Stern’s disadvantage. Chabon is able to give his readers a “tam” (taste) of Yiddish without giving them an overdose. Stern, by contrast, not only heaps up generous portions of the Real Yiddish Goods but also often folds them up and inside one another. The result is a Yiddishland that looks as if it was fashioned from onion skins or Russian nesting dolls: delicate, inter-dependent, and breathtakingly beautiful.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1947, Stern spent an extended post-college wanderjahr traveling the world before ultimately ending up back stateside in a hippie commune, hardly different from many others who donned granny glasses, bell-bottoms and Birkenstocks, and who knew all the words to “The Age of Aquarius.” What changed everything was a job he accepted at a local ethnic center in Memphis. There he discovered the Pinch, or the Jewish ghetto, where Russian-Jewish immigrants lived above their mom-and-pop businesses. To collect their stories, Stern had to master Yiddish so that he could appropriate their tales before this group of living witnesses died off. For Stern, the Pinch was akin to a lost Atlantis, a place where time stood still and wonder-working rabbis levitated themselves above the city. As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, he became an archeologist, an ethnicist, a creative writer, and (gulp!) a serious person.

Granted, Stern remains something of a scamp. In the same way that the stiff-as-a-board T.S. Eliot could not entirely resist the siren songs of London’s music halls, Stern cannot entirely turn his back on jokes that more proper types regard as groaners. In The Wedding Jester, the dybbuk of an old-timey Borsht Belt comic invades a contemporary counterpart and forces him to shpritz moth-eaten material, some of it very familiar, some of it decidedly not. Stern’s latest novel, The Frozen Rabbi, pays an ongoing homage to the impulse by telling the story of two cannibals who were eating a circus clown. The etiquette of book reviewing prohibits me from revealing the punch line but take my word for it, Stern’s comic cannibals are very funny indeed.

In addition to “bad” jokes, the complicated plotlines of The Frozen Rabbi include countless daring, last-minute escapes, threats (mythic and otherwise) from fire and from ice, a cross-dressing heroine, and bone-wearying journeys via wagon, steam ship and train. In the process, Stern appropriates bits-and-pieces from a wide variety of literary genres and forces them to share floor space with two very unlikely protagonists: Rabbi Eliezer Zephyr or “the Boibiezer Prodigy,” a nineteenth-century Polish Kabbalist, and Bernie Karp (formerly Karpinsky), a sixteen-year-old American wannabe.

Stern has always been a fabulist of the first water so it hardly comes as a surprise that his dreamy rabbi has a habit of falling into trances and losing himself in the forest. On one such occasion, a sudden storm blows up and the rabbi is swept away by a flash flood. Later, winter sets in and he is frozen solid. But not to worry—in the same way that Franz Kafka convinces us that Gregor Samsa awakens one morning to find himself transmogrified into a beetle, Stern can tell us how Rabbi Eliezer is able to remain in suspended animation for nearly 125 years, until a power outage in Memphis melts the ice and the rebbe, only a bit worse for wear, returns to life.

Prior to that moment, one turns the pages of The Frozen Rabbi and cannot help but compare those entrusted with the rabbi’s care (it is simultaneously a burden and a “tradition”) with the tragic-comic Bundrens of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Both writers know full well how futile and how comic are the rituals surrounding death, but both writers also know how important even off-kilter traditions can be.

Throughout all the oscillations, Stern’s sentences, as infectious as they are pyrotechnical, move the reader relentlessly forward. I am hardly the first critic to marvel at the sheer dazzle Stern can produce, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, page after page. Here, for example, is what happens when Bernie brings up the now defrosted rabbi to the family dinner table:

A solitary, petulant kid, his chubby cheeks in their first flush of cystic acne, Bernie was unaccustomed to any kind of galloping. But the next day he returned to the basement to determine if he’s seen what he’d seen, and that night at dinner, ordinarily a somber affair during which his father related his business woes to an indifferent wife, Bernie muttered, “There’s an old man in the meat freezer.”

Bernie’s mother keeps a level voice and calls what he’s discovered “the thing… . You know, the white elephant.” Ever the literalist, Bernie cannot understand: the old guy hidden at the bottom of their rec room freezer was decidedly not an elephant. Mr. Karp, whose family has been protecting the frozen rabbi for generations, puts it this way: “That’s an expression, white elephant. Like a heirloom. Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic. We got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It’s a family tradition.”

Ultimately, the thawed rabbi and the lumpish teenager change places —Rabbi Eliezer learns a passable Yinglish by watching daytime television and Bernie picks up enough Yiddish to make his way upward to the rabbi’s mystical realms. For all the high jinks, Stern is out to make a serious point about assimilation in America and what part Jewish history plays, or does not play, in contemporary American Jewish life. But I hesitate to say more because Stern is hardly a ham-fisted writer who confuses editorial bromides with fiction making. If Bernie ends up with intimations of a world he can dream about and levitate toward, perhaps that is enough, after all.

The Frozen Rabbi. By Steve Stern. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 370 pp. $24.95.

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