The Frozen Rabbi - By Steve Stern Page 0,1

“He’s from your father’s side of the family; they were always superstitious.”

“He’s a keepsake”—Mr. Karp’s tone was defensive—“that they handed down from generation to generation.” He squared his weak shoulders as he tried to summon some pride for an object whose existence he had clearly forgotten till now.

Annoyed, Madeline pushed her chair from the table, blew at a wisp of primrose hair that fell instantly back into her eyes, and flounced resolutely out of the dining room. Moments later a shriek was heard from downstairs, and Mr. Karp cringed. “He came with a book, the rabbi,” he said, as if the literature conferred some official distinction. “Yetta, where’s the book?”

“There was a book?”

Heaving a sigh, Mr. Karp readjusted his glasses and got purposefully to his feet, departing the room just as Madeleine emerged from the basement, her robust complexion gone deathly pale. “I, um, no longer want anything to do with this family?” she declared interrogatively.

“Here it is,” announced Mr. Karp, squeezing past his busty daughter to reenter the dining room. “It was in the bottom drawer of the dresser, under my Masonic apron.” Proprietor of a prosperous home-appliance showroom, Mr. Karp was a joiner, an affiliate of local chapters of the Masons, the Lions, and the Elks, his enrollment dating from a time when Jews were not always welcome in such organizations. His prominence and civic-mindedness, however, had earned him the status of an honorary gentile. He had even managed to secure his family a membership in an exclusive Memphis country club, which (with the exception of Madeline, whose endowments gave her entrée everywhere) the family seldom used.

Mr. Karp handed a limp ledger book of the type in which accounts are kept to his son, who began indifferently thumbing the pages. Instead of figures, the pages were covered in an indecipherable script that resembled clef signs and fishhooks.

“The book explains where the rabbi came from,” continued Mr. Karp with authority. “My papa wrote it all down himself. Problem is, he wrote it in Yiddish.” He may as well have said Martian. Then he added somewhat apologetically, “He’s supposed to bring luck.”

What kind of luck? Bernie wondered as he carried the ledger to his bedroom, a boneyard of aborted hobbies—the unpainted husks of model cars, the broken clear plastic trunk of a Visible Man, a PlayStation gathering dust. Though his only real enthusiasms to date had been a fondness for overeating and his late penchant for erotic fantasy, he idly perused the ledger’s scribbled pages. When they refused to give up one jot of their meaning, he stuffed the book under his mattress alongside Madeline’s panties and fell promptly into a dreamless sleep.

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