by Claudia Isler
The author of The Jew in the Lotus, the lowercase jew, 1997 National Jewish Book Award winner Stalking Elijah, The Missing Jew, The History of Last Night’s Dream, and Burnt Books ordered a crab omelet at our brunch.
Burnt Books, Rodger Kamenetz’s most recent publication, explores a literary connection between the 19th Century Hasidic Reb Nachman, and twentieth century writer Franz Kafka. Both men, he argues, drew on a tradition that predates them, a tradition often attributed to Jesus but that must have originated even earlier—parables, he tells me, are a Jewish literary form. Burnt Books also discusses the many surprising parallels in the two men’s lives, right down to the way they died.
We sat down to discuss modes of storytelling and the nature of Jewish writing, but I was also interested in Kamenetz’s work as a certified dream therapist, so we started with dreams:
I watched the XM Oprah interview in which she told you about a dream she’d had, and my favorite part of it was when she told you what she thought it meant, and then you said, “Oh, um. No.”
Kamenetz: Yeah, right, I saw a million dollars flying out the window. Her producers really loved it and were cheering and saying “She’s lying, she changed her dream.”
I’d never heard of dream therapy, but I also wondered if you categorized yourself in any particular way, like are you a poet first and then a therapist, then an essayist, and so on?
Kamenetz: The best answer to that is if you have a millipede going along with a thousand little legs, and he starts to really think about it, you know, I’ll move this leg and then I’ll move this leg, he gets all tripped up—so I really try not to think about it. Basically everything we do is a manifestation of the essence of who we are. So we do it through poetry, we do it through being with people, we do it through love, we do it through writing, we do it through working with people’s dreams, or whatever we’re doing—I think we can do everything and, really, I try not to think about it” [laughs].
How does dream therapy fit in with everything else you do and who you are? It seems to me that there has to be some relationship between that and the poetry.
Kamenetz: In a way it’s a replacement for teaching and it’s a way of going deeper with people. In the beginning, it was a way to learn more about the process because I was writing about it, so I got tricked into it by the fact that I was writing a book, and I thought, well, if I want to understand this, it would be great to understand this from the other point of view, from the therapist’s point of view, so I began to doing that, but what’s happened is it’s taken on a life of its own, and actually I feel really committed to that work and I don’t know how it relates to my writing particularly—I think it feeds my soul.
In The History of Last Night’s Dream I talk about the image and the word. And I think that if we’re writing words, and we’re not feeling images, then our writing can be somewhat abstract or discursive. But if we write from the images that we see or feel, the writing has a depth to it—I’ve always written that way, whether it’s prose or poetry. I don’t really distinguish between prose and poetry, to be honest, I simply say that we write with a hidden structure of metaphors, and in nonfiction we write with metonymies that we’re turning into metaphors.
From 2000 to 2005 Kamenetz edited a poetry column in the historic New York City-based paper, the Forward, and is planning to bring it back. While the objective was to give voice to Jewish poets, one of the premises was that no poet was going to be constrained by the need to define Yiddish terms.
I love the idea of a space where you don’t have to footnote things, define every Yiddish or Hebrew word, and I have encountered that dilemma so often, whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction. I am always deciding how much to define, and there’s a part of me that begins to feel resentful about it, about clarifying things that people should just know or go look up, and so I wonder if you have any feelings about what a Jewish writer’s responsibility is to make things clear to other people, not just words, but also the way we see the world?
Kamenetz: When you’re communicating with an audience, the assumptions you make about what words they know or what cultural references they have are playing into it. Obviously, if you over-explain, you’re taking the mystery out of it, but if you don’t give them some basic information, it’s unlikely that the poems will work in a performance. If they’re reading a book, it’s different; they have the opportunity to look the words up, but I’m not that fussy about it because I think that a poem is an experience, and why not have a dialogue afterwards? The Forward is a unique newspaper with a cultural focus and a grand history—Isaac Singer wrote stories there—and so I felt that there were generations of Jewish American poets but that this audience didn’t know about them. So part of my job was to smooth the way, to engage people enough so they felt they could be comfortable. One of the problems with poetry is it’s become so specialized, that ordinary people say, well I don’t know if it’s good or bad, I won’t make a judgment. What they really mean is that they hate it. But they say politely, oh, I don’t know. I’ve never been to a movie where people said I don’t know whether it’s good or bad—people feel qualified to judge that, and when the audience no longer feels qualified, then you don’t have an audience. That’s the plight of a lot of poetry. So I guess I’ve tried to take the opposite tack and comment, you know, that people have the opportunity to read the work, but if they wanted to learn more they could read what I said about it or vice versa.
I was once talking with a writer who occasionally writes stories with Christian characters and settings, and she asked me, why is that what you write (stories with Jewish characters) is literary fiction, and what I write is Christian? I couldn’t think of a way to respond to that that might not feel offensive. Do you think that’s true, that if a work has a Christian theme it is somehow genre fiction, whereas with Jewish writers, this is not the case, not considered religious?
Kamenetz: I would think it would almost be the other way around. Is Flannery O’Connor a Christian writer? Yes, but she has a general audience. She was immediately understood to be kind of a genius. It might be about the awareness of the audience. If you put certain code-words or signals in your writing, you may limit it. Kafka may be really good example of someone who did this really subtle code-switching where the very same story could be read one way by Jews and another way by non-Jews and they both would feel that they had grasped the stories. Maybe the Jewishness doesn’t have to be overt for it to be a Jewish story. I wrote a book of poetry called The Missing Jew, and someone said, well you can’t have the word “Jew” in the title of the book. I said, yes, I can, but in a way he was correct. If you do something like that, you will be put in a special category. You might gain one kind of audience that didn’t exist—the Jewish audience for poetry was nonexistent—but you also lose a wider audience. I think Jews have more of this dilemma, I don’t know—it might apply to other ethnic writers too, now I think of it. But—is it essential or ornamental? In other words, is it exterior or is it internal? The Jewishness, or the Christian-ness or whatever the writing. If you could really deepen it and make it interior then it doesn’t necessarily have to be overtly Jewish. I think that’s what Kafka did.
Kamenetz had spoken about Burnt Books the evening before our conversation, at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. During his talk he read “Before the Law,” a parable by Franz Kafka.
I just read “Before the Law” with first-year students, and they really sank their teeth into that story. I found it deeply satisfying but also deeply perplexing. Can you talk about the story and Kafka’s use of parable?
Kamenetz: There’s the soul aspect of Jewishness which is the search for God, which is clearly embodied in Kafka’s writing. Then there’s another aspect which you might call being part of a tradition in which you are commenting on or reflecting a previous text, so that The Trialis clearly a Midrash [an ancient commentary on part of the Hebrew scriptures, attached to the biblical text. The earliest ones come from the 2nd century CE, although much of their content is older] on the book of Job. The midrashic method is something that is a Jewish literary form of ancient lineage in which the text becomes the pretext for another text. A writer could write midrashically about anything and wouldn’t have to have exterior markers of Jewishness. There can be a more subtle way of being a Jewish writer that actually could be quite interesting. I think Kafka is a good example. Same with the parable—he’s reading parables, he’s reading Talmudic parables; he even wrote a midrash on a parable on a Talmudic text in a letter to Max Brod. So he’s completely absorbing this form but then he’s remaking it in order to assimilate it into general consciousness. This is universal and universally relevant. It’s really our own obsession with identity that makes us want to ghettoize writers, and we’ve gone through a whole period of that—I think that’s problematic.
Could you identify a writer that’s not Jewish that might actually use that method—the midrashic method?
Kamenetz: The writer who was most inherently kabalistic was Borges. Another example that comes to mind is Cynthia Ozick’s story “Usurpation,” which is of course a rewrite of “The Magic Barrel,” by Malamud. In a way Harold Bloom’s whole anxiety of influence model is a neurotic interpretation of midrash where you have a precursor text—in Bloom’s case you’re writing to overcome it and replace it instead of amplifying and expanding it—but I think that probably comes from being too long in academia, that’s why it’s a real paranoid theory. Embedded in his idea is the idea of Midrash. That’s a different question of an intrinsically Jewish form. Or the parable itself, I would claim that the Hasidic parable that Nachman and Kafka draw on is a form that’s open to all. Clearly Kafka isn’t merely writing Hasidic parables, because he’s also writing Nietzschean parables and he was clearly influenced by Nietzsche’s parables. Then where does the parable come from? Where did Jesus get his parables? It’s a Hebrew form.
The textbook I am using in my literature class, and I pointed this out to the students, presents an enormous assumption. As they discuss parable as a form of story-telling, they claim that it starts with Jesus.
Kamenetz: Yeah, out of nowhere. That’s interesting—I ran across that when I was researching the book, and I read some books on parables obviously, but Jesus, he didn’t spring up culturally out of nowhere, and he’s talking to Jews, and they understood the form, it wasn’t like a novelty, like hey, what’s he doing here? One thing I could say in defense of your textbook is the New Testament parables are one of the earliest recorded forms, although there are proverbs and so forth in the Hebrew Bible that were here earlier. I’ve arrived at the notion—Howard Schwartz talks about this—that all of Jewish literature is story and law. The Torah is either telling stories or giving laws. That two-part rhythm, you might say, that alternation is really in the DNA of Jewish literature and so in its most compressed form, you’ll have the Proverbs. As a dog returns to its vomit (story), so the fool to his folly (law). And in the parable, it’s the same thing, the mashal, the story, and the nimshal. Now what Kafka does in a radical way is he eliminates the nimshal. He doesn’t …
Kamenetz: The Hasidic masters, when they told parables, they always gave the nimshal, they made sure that people, if they didn’t understand the story, got the point. Kafka, in a very modernist way, either eliminates the nimshal or bends it in a strange way. He has a parable of the emperor’s messenger, and the guy’s waiting for him to come and he never arrives. So if you see that by itself, it’s Kafka, you know, it’s futility. If you read it as a Midrash on the Maggid of Mezritch’s parable of the king’s messengers, then it gets really interesting. It becomes a commentary on that previous text. It’s quite possible.
I’ve never read Kafka Jewishly. The idea of that is new to me.
Kamenetz: There was a reading of Kafka Jewishly from Max Brod, and Gershom Sholem, and it was suppressed and eliminated. One thing I’m trying to do in a way is revive that reading. I was quite exercised by a book that appeared not that long ago by an English guy who’s saying there’s nothing Jewish about Kafka. Well, that’s clearly false.
What motivates such a book?
Kamenetz: I don’t know—he claims that Jewish academics wanted to claim Kafka for themselves, which is a really invidious kind of thing to say.
Now I want to read parables—I wonder if I have been?
Kamenetz: We have a trend now of the short-short story—a parable is a short-short. But there’s some point of law in it. By law I simply mean some discursive statement.
The word you used for the point, the nimshal? Is that synonymous with a moral?
Kamenetz: No, it’s not synonymous. Mashal in Hebrew means “a likeness,” and the nimshal is “what it is like.”
When we were done eating, we turned to Kamenetz’s poetry over our coffee. In particular we focused on his poem, “My Holocaust,” which appears in the lowercase jew and discusses the mediation of the Holocaust, and how that mediated version is really the only one most of us have.
In conversations with students who have visited the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., we have talked about how it’s designed to make visitors feel a particular way in each space, and they found that to be true, though it didn’t diminish for them why they were there and what they were coming to see, but they were aware of that. And so I was interested not just in that you were objecting to that, but also the way it’s done in the poem –it seems to me there were conflicting views of Judaism and Jewishness in the poem. I am curious about your representation of the chazzan [an official who sings liturgical music and leads prayer in a synagogue]…
Kamenetz: Well there are shabby synagogues and seedy chazzans, sloppy rabbis, and ignorant vulgar Jews. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be very many of us left. I don’t know why I did it that way, I can’t say. But there’s a lot of piety around the Holocaust, so I was trying to color it in with some vulgar representations of Jewishness too because I think that vulgarity is part of life. You know you may die and the guy who mourns you may have spittle in his throat. Everybody wants everything to be clean and pure but that’s not the way things are. I felt comfortable doing that; it wasn’t a problem for me. I never wrote Holocaust poetry. And I didn’t think I had the right. And I didn’t think I had the approach. I was in Baton Rouge at the time this movie came out—I remember sitting in a tiny theatre for six hours watching Lanzmann’s Shoah, and that experience probably informed the poem also. The pain of that representation and at the same time the loneliness of it, for me, being in the audience alone, something about that triggered the possibility of writing a poem. That’s why it’s called “My Holocaust,” the notion being that each of us has a Holocaust which is a mediated experience. Unless we’re survivors or have another, more personal connection. Of course, increasingly, that will be the connection for everyone. The question of what does it mean as a representation gets repeated and becomes a cliché. And a cliché is a printing process. The origin of the word. Gradually the type gets a little shaky, fainter. That’s the reality.
Do you see that as a representation of a kind of identity, not just in your poetry but in other things you’ve written? Or that other people have written?
Kamenetz: For me it represents the beginning of a process of questioning an identity that’s based on negative views of others or blaming others, projecting their pain onto an historical past and then turning the world into good guys and bad guys. Respective retrospective. In The Jew in the Lotus, which I wrote a few years after that poem, I have a scene in the Frankfurt airport with all my hallucinations of Germans speaking; it’s a vivid representation of a totally insane mind.
Kamenetz refers to the opening of the book, in which he is somewhat horrified to be surrounded by German-speaking people, the sound of the language being so closely associated with the horrors of the Holocaust for so many Jews, possibly most of all American Jews.
I loved that, though. I thought, yes, I get it.
Kamenetz: Right, of course. But it’s also insane. A lot of my journey’s incentive would be to see that, to withdraw the projection, because you could spend the rest of your life in that, and some people are. And they live from that. And that’s not a real essential Jewish identity. I think Zalman Schacter said if you want to be in prison all your life, become a jailer. If you want to guard those memories of pain from the past, then that will be your identity. I don’t think it’s a true identity. It’s an orientation in the world that tells you what to do at all times but it’s not really my sense of an identity.
So do you think that your poem participates in that mediation?
Kamenetz: I don’t know. I guess that would be for others to judge. I don’t think so, because it’s somewhat critical and satirical—the poignant part of it is trying to say that this is the only way I can relate to this—through a mediation. That’s the truth of it. And there’s a kind of debate in the poem, well what do you do with this information or this feeling? The mediation of the Holocaust is not an event like the Holocaust; it’s something else. People don’t value amnesia enough. I think amnesia is a great thing. As teachers we get upset that our students don’t know certain things, but because they don’t know certain things, they also have tremendous freedom and they can do something new in a way because they don’t know things. You see sometimes we get caught up in the past. The older we get.
Probably because we remember it better than what happened yesterday. What drew you to the topic of Burnt Books? How did you arrive at that?
Kamenetz: I was creating a course that could be cross-listed, and I had this idea of kabbalah in literature, and that some literature was a kind of kabbalah. Over time, we’d read Rabbi Nachman, and we’d read Kafka, we would read Borges. The hinge turned out to be between Rabbi Nachman and Kafka, because Rabbi Nachman is clearly a kabbalist, a mystical Jew writing strange tales, and Kafka is writing strange tales. Then I came across this notion from Sholem that Kafka was a kabbalist. Then I found that there was a story by Nachman called “The Wise Man and the King,” in which the wise man, in order to get a portrait of the king, enters into a corrupt legal system and is continually losing cases because of bribery and corruption. His strategy is to deliberately enter into the system and keep appealing to the next level. Eventually he gets all the way up to the king, describes the corrupt kingdom to the king. It’s obviously commentary on the book of Job. It’s obviously similar to The Trial. That’s really where it began, with those two texts.
Now we all have to re-read Kafka.
Kamenetz: Yes. My secret hope is that not only will people read Kafka through Rabbi Nachman but that they’ll read Nachman because of Kafka.
Is there a sense of the sacred in your writing? Do you feel that you are drawing on something larger than yourself when you are writing?
Kamenetz: It’s a hard question to answer because it sounds like a claim. I’d say that I’m trying to keep that in mind, adding a sense of connection to what I write. I don’t always succeed. I had a friend, he’s a novelist, and he was quite comfortable in praying every morning before he wrote. And then writing from that place. So I think he did that very consciously. It’s something I’m learning about. When I wroteThe Jew in the Lotus I felt that I’d had an experience that was difficult to define, and I think we’d all shared it. I felt if I could somehow capture some part of that, that would be a worthwhile thing to do. I did keep that in mind as I wrote that book. Maybe that’s what helped that book. Maybe some of that does get conveyed.
What are your writing rituals? Do you have any?
Kamenetz: I’ve been fortunate that except for Terra Infirma, all the prose books I’ve written have been for hire, so to speak, under contract, and I think that’s great for me—if I have a contract and I have a deadline, I’m very clearly going to do it. I write intensively because I need to. Because I have a deadline. I’ll do it every day. When I finished this last book, there was this sudden feeling of oh, my God, I don’t have to do anything tomorrow. It’s kind of an empty place, and it’s sort of scary, but then I try to live with that. But when I’m on a book, especially with this last one, which involved so much research, so many texts, I did spend a very long time before I wrote a word, which is unusual for me. I actually tried not to write for a very long time because I wanted to absorb the material as much as possible. When you write nonfiction, if you want to write with felicity, you have to have absorbed the material so completely that it’s really in your body, it’s at your fingertips. I’ve learned how to write with flow or with celerity, which you need, and to leave out the stuff, like little places where I know there’s a fact there, a specific quote or whatever, I just write through it and leave a space for it—you can’t keep going back and forth between a text you’re quoting—that doesn’t work. I think that’s a challenge in nonfiction.
It has to come out naturally?
Kamenetz: It has to come out as a poetic, I won’t say form, but as a coherent, felt, rhythmic piece. For this book that meant really absorbing carefully a lot of material and then being able to write it down quickly.
Do you find that you feel like you wind up feeling like you really know Kafka? Do you have to separate yourself from him a little bit?
Kamenetz: I got a little sick of him. Living with him was hard because I felt he dramatized his choices. I felt like, you know, you could actually keep your job, and get married and write, you know. But then again I’m not Kafka and I’ve never reached anywhere that he did, so I don’t know his necessities. But I just got impatient with him because he seemed so self-destructive. He kept setting up dichotomies that made his life impossible. That’s not my way. Rabbi Nachman made me think I really don’t understand what a Rebbe is –this is an unusual creature we don’t have too much anymore. In a way the Dalai Lama is like that for me , but Nachman really lived with a kind of spiritual intensity—the notion that every gesture, every word, every moment was of huge significance is insane. And terrifying. But it might be true. And he exemplifies that.
I think it would be exhausting to live that way.
Kamenetz: It would be—I can’t imagine what it was like to be around him.
He was probably very odd.
Kamenetz: I think he was. What’s amazing about him is the intensity of his creativity. In a four-year period he creates these incredible tales, seemingly spontaneously, I don’t know, someone would come in with a torn robe or a snuff box and he’d go into a story which might go on for days. I don’t know if that was performance, but it’s pretty remarkable. Also, all these Torah teachings, the sheer volume of his productivity at a time when he was dying of tuberculosis is just amazing.
As we finish up, Kamenetz has some parting comments he wants to share.
Kamenetz: The sorrow of writing is that people read it, and they read it from their perspective. Readers pick out details other than the ones you thought you were lovingly emphasizing, details you thought were minor. People were making a documentary for folks in Africa about how to build a well for a village, and so they carefully filmed the process. And then they screened it for the target audience and afterwards said do you have any questions and someone said what happened to the chicken? Then another guy says yeah, what happened to the chicken? And then they were all asking. So they went back and they saw that in one of the scenes, it so happened that a little chicken was going across the way and they hadn’t even noticed it when they edited. And then it didn’t appear in the rest of the film. A chicken was a very important thing to them. And so their attention was focused on that chicken, and when it disappeared they were very upset and concerned. There’s a lesson in that about how as authors we are obsessed with our own issues, but readers will take what we’ve written and read any which way, depending on their own projections and their own concerns.
Claudia Isler has published five nonfiction books for children and young adults and is currently at work on a collection of short stories. Her story “Hail Marys” appeared in Scribblers on the Roof.