February Reading

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Here’s What I Read in February

1. The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern

Since I have been teaching at the Hebrew Academy, I’ve given myself a crash course in Judaic Studies.  However, I probably would have chosen to read The Frozen Rabbi by Steve Stern regardless of where I was teaching.

Stern is a native Memphian and an alum of Rhodes College, my alma mater.  In the afterword of The Frozen Rabbi, he states:

I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, at a time when the small Jewish enclave of that southern city practiced the art of being invisible.  The rabbi wore ecclesiastical robes; there was a pipe organ, a choir loft, and a liturgy practically divested of Hebrew.  I grew up virtually untouched by heritage (my joke was that I thought I was a Methodist until the age of thirty)… When I washed up again in Memphis around 1980, bereft of resources, I took a job at a folklore center.  I was assigned to research the roots of the local Jewish community that had once thrived along North Main Street in a district called the Pinch.  The area had long since become a blighted urban wasteland.  But in seeking out the survivors of that old ghetto and harvesting their memories, I was able by degrees to reconstruct the neighborhood.  It was a task through which I came to feel–please forgive the hyperbole–as if I were salvaging a lost continent from its wreckage in the past; it was the most important effort of my life. (Stern)

(I’m not positive, but I believe that the “small Jewish enclave” he speaks of is the building, now a destitute charter school, where I had a classroom for four years.)

My mock-rabbinical beard: before and after.

Stern visited Rhodes when I was a sophomore, and I had the opportunity to hear him read “Tale of a Kite”from his collection The Wedding Jester.  The “Tale of a Kite” is an unforgettable story about a Jewish father living in the Pinch who can only watch helplessly as his son begins to pull away from him and into frightening, magical adulthood.  The Wedding Jester won the National Jewish Book Award, but the first story is more than anyone should need.

All this is to say that I might have read The Frozen Rabbi even if I hadn’t been hired at the Jewish academy, begun trying to learn the Hebrew alphabet, and grown a mock-rabbinical beard, which I just shaved, you’ll be glad to know.

The Frozen Rabbi is a hilarious, sprawling story of a rabbi who becomes literally frozen in an Eastern European pond in 1889.  The novel then concerns itself with two entwined stories–first, the rabbi’s long journey across the continent and century until it lands in suburban Memphis, and, secondly, the tale of his thaw and ascendancy as a new-age guru and entrepreneur.  Mixed in somewhere is the character of Bernie Karp, the overweight suburbanite who finds him in his father’s basement freezer, and his own transformation into a thoughtful, thinking human being.

Stern crams his book full of humor, irony, and knowing allusions to all things classical, Christian  and Hebrew.  And, even though my vocabulary of Orthodox Judiasm has developed quite nicely since I started teaching at the academy, there were plenty of jokes and words that sailed over my head.  Gesheft?  Mameloshen?  Dveykuss? I haven’t the faintest idea what those words mean and no doubt should have looked them up, but I was having too much fun to stop.

The Frozen Rabbi sagged a bit in places, especially when the fate of the waterlogged old rebee becomes less interesting than the characters who cart him from place to place in both the Old World and the New.  The ending suffers a bit from an anticlimax, also, but it is an impressive, substantial effort from a writer more people should read.

2. Texts by or about Franz Kafka:

  • Give it Up! And Other Short Stories by Franz Kafka, illustrated by Peter Kuper
  • “The Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka
  • “‘I Always Wanted you to Admire My Fasting’ or, Looking at Kafka” by Philip Roth
Illustration by Peter Kuper

I took a little break between Steve Stern and my reading for grad school to read a little by and about another Jewish author, Franz Kafka.  First came Give it Up!, illustrated by Peter Kuper.  You  may have seen Kuper’s work with Kafka’s short stories–his adaption of “The Metamorphosis” shows up in literature books from time to time.

“The Metamorphosis” isn’t included in this book, which was an enjoyable way to spend ten minutes, but did not tell me much about Kafka or his works.

Unsatisfied, I read “The Hunger Artist,” one of Kafka’s most famous stories, and one that I had never read before.  Like Gregor Samsa, the Hunger Artist is a misunderstood young man whose efforts to connect with other human beings only cause him more alienation and disillusionment.  Like Samsa, he dies a death void of meaning and is forgotten by a nightmarish world.  Awesome stuff!

Finally, I read “‘I Always Wanted you to Admire My Fasting’ or, Looking at Kafka,” Philip Roth’s essay that he wrote for his students at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1970s.  The essay in a good introduction to the short, frustrated life of Kafka.  I read this while eating a roast beef sandwich.

3. The Way of the World by William Congreve

I read The Way of the World for 18th-century British lit class, and would not likely have ever read it otherwise.  The Way of the World is the greatest example of the 18th century comedy of manners, a genre that mocks the lifestyle of the wealthy by presenting exaggerated, but essentially realistic, portrayals of the upper class.  An example of comedy of manners that we are more familiar with is a show like Seinfeld.

The Way of the World was tortuously complicated, with pairs and pairs of lovers who were either cuckolding, cheating, tricking, fooling, or robbing one another.  The upper crust of early 18th century England seems to have been just as fickle and ridiculous as yuppies living in northern Manhattan, circa 1994.

4. Oronooko, or, the Royal Slave.  A True History by Aphra Behn

Also on tap for my class was this “novel,” or “proto-novel,” or “romance,” whatever you would like to call it.  I thought I had an idea of this text before I started it, but it turns out that my conceptions were all wrong.

I thought it was a typical slave narrative that bared the injustice and inhumanity of the slave trade, similar to “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano.”  Instead, it is a fictional romance about Oronooko, a prince of Africa (and himself a slave dealer), whose jealous grandfather betrays him onto a slave ship bound for Surinam. Along the way, he has to free a damsel who has been sold into slavery herself, rather like Django Unchained.   In the end, Oronooko is dismembered in the most brutal way, and the white slave masters go on with their lives.

Aphra Behn is often thought of as a proto-feminist or proto-abolitionist, but a closer look at this work reveals that both of those titles are reductive.  She was a savvy writer, the first woman to ever make a living at it, and “among the most versatile writers of her time” (Damaria).

5. Miscellaneous
(as part of my graduate class or the works I have been teaching in my English classes.)

  • A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” and “Song” by John Donne
  • A Satyr Against Reason and Mankind by John Wilmont, Earl of Rochester 
  • “Signior Dildo” and “The Imperfect Enjoyment” by Joh Wilmont, Earl of Rochester
  • “The Disappointment” and “To the Flair Clarinda” by Aphra Ben
  • “Ode of Wit” by Abraham Cowley
  • “Wit’s Abuse” by Anne Wharton
  • Fantomina: or, Love in a Maze by Eliza Haywood
Works Cited:
Stern, Steve. The Frozen Rabbi. The book is in my car, so this is all you get for now.

British Literature, 1640-1789: An Anthology, 3rd edition,
ed. Robert DeMaria Jr.  Blackwell,


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