The Mystic Adventures of Rodger Kamenetz

‘The Missing Jew’
Rodger Kamenetz (Owen Murphy)

The Jews’ history was huge and murky
no room for it anywhere in Europe.
If only the Jews could inherit Texas
it might be big enough to hold their past.

 

The Jews who went out West
wore cowboy hats
like Cousin Dan from Oklahoma
who showed up at my grandfather’s funeral
by uncanny instinct
in his cowboy hat and boots
and just sat in the living room
while we stared.

 

—“The Invisible,” Rodger Kamenetz

In an author’s note on this enlarged collection of his first book, American Jewish poet Rodger Kamenetz writes of being “acutely aware,” in 1976, that his earliest works “had chosen me.” In his description, the creative moment was instantaneous:

The poems came out in a rush, typed on an old Royal standard typewriter on a continuous scroll. They were not then written on cut pages meant to be published in periodicals, they were an unrolling, ongoing noisy family of poems demanding to join the family.

That scrolling, which followed the deaths of his paternal grandparents, left Kamenetz with an uneasy feeling about an opaque ancestral map, “a missing world of Jews from the Old Country.”

In the great silence which is the desert
at the center of Jewish learning
which is no paradise
all the laws, written and unwritten
have their common root
in the Tree of No Knowledge.

Many years later, the poet located towns bearing the Kamenetz surname in Ukraine and Belarus.

The arc of this poetry collection, which spans more than four decades, creates a viewfinder on the evolution of Kamenetz, now seventy-two years old. The search for origins that had charged his early poems later opened, during his forties, into an ongoing spiritual odyssey that remains relatively rare among American writers—the mystic’s quest for God. Kamenetz’s journey quakes with Christian echoes, yet his baseline is the Kabbalah, the ancient mystical teachings of Judaism.

Kamenetz, who lives in New Orleans, has produced seven books of poetry, five nonfiction works, and numerous essays. Since retiring several years ago from his position as a professor of literature at Louisiana State University, he has worked as a dream analyst, generating essays on what he considers a sacred essence imbued in the story fragments embedded in sleep.

The turning point in Kamenetz’s career came with his 1994 bestseller, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India, which the documentarian Laurel Chiten later turned into a PBS film. The book recounts a historic dialogue between Jewish rabbis and the Dalai Lama; it appealed to Jewish audiences hungry for deeper spirituality. Those urges, Kamenetz surmised in 1997, stemmed in part from aftershocks of the Holocaust: “It was hard to find Jewish teachers who weren’t angry at God. And if you are angry at God, you can’t teach the deeper, sweeter parts of Judaism.”

Sweetness surfaces in the later poems of The Missing Jew, written since the mid-nineties. They show Kamenetz’s leap from the unknown provinces of a young poet to the broader vistas of hope experienced by the older writer. Consider the following lines, in which we hear Kamenetz speaking to the nineteenth-century Ukrainian Hasidic master and mystic, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav:

Reb Nachman, look at me now. I’m trying to dance.
Even from heaven where you study all day with the sages,
It must be amusing to see my bony knees knocking,
My knobby ankles’ shining thin skin—it’s a kind of dance
We make here when we tremble or shiver.

It was hard to find Jewish teachers who weren’t angry at God. And if you are angry at God, you can’t teach the deeper, sweeter parts of Judaism.

The Jew in the Lotus emerged from a journey with a group of rabbis to Dharamsala, India, where Tibetan Buddhists led by the Dalai Lama had established a home in exile. Kamenetz, his wife, the novelist Moira Crone, and their two young daughters had recently been traumatized by the death of their infant son. That aching loss shadowed Kamenetz’s travels. The Jew in the Lotus explores meditation as a response to suffering, the immense spiritual wounds inflicted by the murder of two-thirds of all European Jews during World War II, and the Tibetan diaspora after the region was seized by the Chinese dictatorship. “Destroying Tibet’s religion has been a key Chinese policy,” Kamenetz wrote. “Monks and nuns have been singled out for public humiliation and torture.”

At first, Kamenetz wasn’t entirely confident about his encounter with the Buddhists. “I had hardly ever been what one could call a spiritual seeker,” he conceded.

I was deeply interested in Jewishness—as culture and history. But I wasn’t looking to Judaism—the religion—for answers to my deepest problems.... I presumed that the participants in this dialogue would have strong religious commitments. I would be standing outside of that.

But it was the Dalai Lama who said to his Jewish visitors: “Tell me your secret—the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” Kamenetz was moved. About a history that included more than two millennia of exile, persecution, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and pogroms before the Holocaust, he wrote, “Few outsiders have ever looked upon this survival as much of an accomplishment…. The idea that Jewish history, with all its traumas, is relevant to another exiled people was inspiring.”

Buddhism is a religion without any central god. It focuses instead on the elevation of the mind, how humankind purifies suffering—which emerged as the central reference point between the rabbis and the Dalai Lama. One chapter in The Jew and the Lotus follows a wide-ranging discussion of angels. “Visualizing a world in which every blade of grass growing has a cheering section of angels is a powerful help,” noted Kamenetz drolly:

Logically, angels are either real or not real. But in the world of intuition, that logic no longer applies. Beautifully and profoundly, the image of two angels in dialogue captured the essence of the exchange between Rabbi Schachter and the Dalai Lama. Together they had raised the dialogue between Jews and Tibetans from the world of knowing to the world of intuition...a very high place to be.

 

The Jew in the Lotus explores meditation as a response to suffering.

Rodger Kamenetz grew up in a large Baltimore family. His father was a successful pharmacist, and the family attended a “cruise-ship synagogue with a pair of rabbis at the helm,” as Kamenetz told interviewer Arline Klatte years later. “It was wonderful in some ways. It was liberal and socially engaged.”     

Kamenetz began writing poetry at fifteen. That year, in 1965, after tutoring Black students in a synagogue program, he marched with demonstrators to Washington D.C. to protest the death of an activist minister in Selma, Alabama. He was perhaps the sole protester during the civil-rights era to recite T. S. Eliot’s  “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” while marching. “Maybe I took pleasure in knowing Prufrock was even wimpier with women than I was,” he noted in a 2016 essay defending Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature. “I could mock Prufrock’s waspy tea party social life, his gentlemanly repression.” But Eliot’s verses also showed Kamenetz that poetry had an even greater potential:

I never realized before how a poem could not just be a lyrical statement, but an entire world. The raw modernity of the diction was refreshing...the mix of high and low culture: “sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” and “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.”

In 1966, Kamenetz entered Yale at age sixteen. His output quickened as he went on to earn a master’s degree in writing at Johns Hopkins, followed by another master’s in 1975, this time in comparative literature at Stanford. Elation came as he followed Dante through the Commedia, reading the great epic in the original Italian; he also experienced a growing anger at T. S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, reflected in poems like The Waste Land. That reality soon supplanted Kamenetz’s adolescent zeal. When he met Charles Reznikoff at Stanford, the senior Jewish poet replaced Eliot as a stylistic influence.

It took Kamenetz many years to work through his anger over Eliot’s spiteful language. Eventually, he arrived at a place of literary detachment, publishing The Lowercase Jew in 2003. As a touchstone, Kamenetz cites Eliot’s poem “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar.”

But this or such was Bleistein’s way:
A saggy bending of the knees
And elbows, with the palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese.

 

A lusterless protrusive eye
Stares from the protozoic slime
At a perspective of Canaletto.
The smoky candle end of time

 

Declines. On the Rialto once,
The rats are underneath the piles
The jew is underneath the lot.
Money in furs. The boatman smiles.

Seizing on Eliot’s aversion to spelling “Jew” with a capital “J,” Kamenetz in his volume’s title poem puts Eliot on trial in a heavenly court.

Bleistein here, pardon the cigar,
Remember me, palms turned out,
Chicago Semite Viennese?

Like I’m some kind of ape?
You didn’t like my baggy pants.
Now I’m here to take your measure.

 

To prosecute is dreck, but I got assigned.
You think God don’t got a sense of humor?

For Exhibit A, Kamenetz’s character, Bleistein, cites Eliot’s famous “Gerontion”:

My house is a decayed house,
And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,
Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp.

On this, Bleistein zeroes in:

Squats? what’s the matter?
Did you owe your landlord rent?
And spawned—like a shrimp in a tank?
... And what about the lowercase j?

As the trial unfolds, Kamenetz’s earlier zeal—“Still I got to admire your style / the classy way you built those lines”—segues into the seasoned artist’s wit. The Judge tells Eliot:

When Hitler wrote crude poems
on the walls of the heart,
Like you he made a metaphor.
Jews were pests.

Eliot protests: he can’t be blamed for Hitler! “I wrote those lines before the war, / It was a different time.” 

The Judge remonstrates him: “You never once apologized, retracted or removed those lines.”

Eliot ripostes: “But I won a Nobel Prize. Surely—”

Bleistein proposes punishment:

Send him from here
to Hyam Plutzik’s grandson’s bar mitzvah,
For the Jews it will seem an afternoon,
For him, a hundred years.

 

He was perhaps the sole protester during the civil-rights era to recite T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” while marching.

As the 2020 pandemic lockdowns began, Kamenetz followed the news of people clinging to life on ventilators and plunged into a canto-by-canto commentary on The Divine Comedy via Facebook posts.

As Dante, full of fear, relies on Virgil during the descent through the Inferno’s nightmare phantasmagoria, Kamenetz detects Dante’s “underlying reality.”

To pass through the gates into the underworld—into the depths of the unconscious as well—you must read not just the words but also images. You must do more. You must imagine the feelings.

Across the many months of following Dante out of hell, up the mountain of Purgatorio and into the Paradiso, Kamenetz found something powerful. As he told me in an email:

Everything I valued in Eliot comes from Dante, his deepest source. My engagement with Dante has been a challenge yet in the end a confirmation of the teaching I draw from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, whose early nineteenth-century kabbalistic tales touched many Jews. His tomb in Ukraine is a pilgrimage site. Dante and Nachman seem to be saying the same thing: The soul naturally longs for the good. Seeing the good in another is a blessing. Feeling love we live in joy. Learning to seek the good in others we seek the good in ourselves. Our longing for the good is ultimately our longing for God.

Though his journey is far from done, Kamenetz’s search for God expands the spiritual vocabulary of our time, crossing the borders of faith, driven by a powerful compassion and a self-sustaining wit.

The Missing Jew
Poems 1976–2022

Rodger Kamenetz
Ben Yehuda Press
$19.95 | 246 pp.

Published in the December 2022 issue: 

Jason Berry is the author, most recently, of City of a Million Dreams, a New Orleans history and the subject of his documentary film now in outreach screenings.

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