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.