Sunday, April 17, 2016



--from the archives

I spent Passover of 2001 in Dharamsala, India, the exile capital of Tibet. I have shared Seders with Tibetan sages and  the Dalai Lama, but a young Tibetan kitchen worker asked a question I’m still thinking about.  Peeling potatoes with my friend Donna Mussarra, he wanted to know what the seder was about.  She said, "We tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt."
"Do you do that every year?"
"Don’t you know it by now?"
Donna laughed and said, "Well, we do it to teach the children."
The young man looked out to the main hall. "I don’t see any children here."  It was true. Most participants were young adults, Jewish and Israeli travelers. So Donna explained, "We do it to remember."
"Remember what? To hate the Egyptians?"
"No we don’t hate the Egyptians."
"Well I hate the Chinese."
            As we davened maariv, the full moon rose over snowy mountains to the east. That young Tibetan, and over 125,000 others, had crossed those mountains from Chinese-controlled Tibet to freedom—and exile. Their modern story made our ancient Exodus vivid in my mind. The Seder offers a universal message of hope: Slavery does not last forever, freedom will overcome oppression.
Still, the young man’s question was a challenge. Why have a Seder every year? Don’t we know it by now?
And how could I tell the young Tibetan, who had lost his home and family, that he shouldn’t hate the Chinese? Especially when many American Jews hate and fear Egyptians, Palestinians, or more generally, Arabs. In recent years, through our emotional connection to Israel, we have suffered violence and the bruising of our hopes. And we have hardened our hearts—haven’t we?—and sometimes put our faith in violence. Yet on Passover we tell how God, not military might, delivered us from slavery. Do we believe it? Don’t we know it by now?
We have to experience the Seder at a deeper level. The Haggadah  insists that the liberation from Egypt occurred not just for my ancestors but for me. Pesach is not a history lesson, but a recurring dream. It is personal. It speaks to the many times I find myself in the same dumb tight spot—emotionally constricted, enslaved by my stubbornness, insensitivity, arrogance, greed. I understand why our great teachers made the connection between Mitzrayim (Egypt) and
metzarim, narrowness. I feel trapped in a narrow spirit, with a hard heart and a closed mind.
In this big dream of Passover, I’ve played every part. I’ve been a frustrated slave trying to make bricks without straw. I’ve been the taskmaster whipping the slave on. And most of all, I’ve been Pharaoh, coldly logical. As Pharaoh said to Moses, I’ve said to my heart, "I am not aware of this God you are talking about."
If only at the moment of crisis-- the Red Sea before me, Pharoah's chariots at my back --- I could hear a voice of strength and wisdom, Moses responding, "Be not afraid. Stand and witness the salvation of the Lord."
Then the sea would part before me and I would have nothing to fear.
Don’t I know the story by now?
No, not really, not deeply enough. That is why this year, I will tell it once again.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

25 years after The Jew in the Lotus dialogue

At the National Museum of Jewish American History, October 28, 2015, on the 25th anniversary of the dialogue, Jay Michaelson and I discuss the history and the future of the Jewish Buddhist dialogue.

Watch the video :

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Dream Poetry & The Dream Caravan

A delightful interview with Diane Mack accompanied by Kezia Kamenetz.  In which I read a dreamy poem...and we talk about dreams & the arts.

Saturday, August 29, 2015


-Note: this piece was written ten years ago. I was out of town when Katrina hit, and residing in Brooklyn when Beliefnet asked me to write a piece about the disaster. At that point I did not know what had happened, and everything I wrote was based on my imagination and news reports. I returned to New Orleans on September 15, 2005.

I am a homeless man.

Last week I had a two-story home in a city called New Orleans. My wife and I left that home with our toothbrushes and a few shirts on a Thursday, expecting to return in two days. When I left, I did not know of a major hurricane heading for my city. Now it seems I won't be able to see my house again for three or four months.

This is what happened in my city today:

An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered with a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.

"I don't treat my dog like that," 47-year-old Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair. "I buried my dog."

In my house on Pine Street, there are some poems I'd like to have back. There are some pictures of my wife and my children I would like to see again. Looters, you are welcome to the tuna, to the television, to the jewelry, even. You are welcome certainly to the peanut butter. There are bottles of water in the laundry room. Please drink. You may find it more comfortable to sleep on the couch downstairs than upstairs in my bed, where surely it is very, very hot. There's been no power for days, no air-conditioning. Late August and early September in New Orleans, after a big storm, is not a place to be.

In the backyard, the key limes are small, but they are ripe. Please help yourself. Their juice is perfect. The Meyer lemons I don't think are quite ready, fat as they are. It's funny what you miss. I miss my lemon tree.

Two days ago, we learned our city was flooding. That night, my wife suddenly woke and remembered that she had taken the old photos and scrapbooks that were kept on the second floor downstairs. We don't know how far above or below sea level our house is, or how many feet of water will come in. After the levees broke, we were trying to understand how high the water would go, but we kept getting confused. Would the water go to the ceiling of the first floor? What happens to a hundred-year-old home that sits in water for days or weeks? We could not do the calculations and kept subtracting when we should add.

My wife and I have been waking up in the middle of the night with thoughts that we've not thought all day. She remembered the piano that I had not thought about. My mother had given it to me before she died, and my brother had helped me move it to Louisiana. I felt a certain wave of sadness, and then it crested and subsided and we let the piano go. We let the pictures of our children go. We let the old books go, and we let the new kitchen go. We let the water cover it all.

But the thought of all that water did not let me go. There is an image I've seen on the television of the water from Lake Pontchartrain floating over the broken levee into the city. It is very beautiful, that image. Peaceful water going about its business, which is to flow and seek its own level. It is powerful and terribly violent to be so peaceful.

Water is very heavy. That is something to think about. Surprisingly dense and nothing stops it very well. For a whole day we'd felt and seen the water flowing into the city, though the gentle word "flowing" hardly does water justice because water is so basic and so powerful and so necessary and we human beings are very arrogant but very weak and frail. We can't stop a common thing like water. Not easily.

So I imagined the water rising on my street, up the steps into the first floor, and lifting that old spinet my mother bought--it was for her such an important investment in culture and a different way of living than her poverty and depression--and then in my dream I saw this: my wife with a pile of photographs, beautiful images, and under one, which seemed to show water flowing in grey lines into the sky, I saw underneath this legend in black print: An image is a pump.

Then the dream seemed to shift, and I saw my mother's piano lifted up in the living room, turning delicately--water can do this, lift whatever it gets underneath, an SUV, a tractor trailer--so why not a piano? It lifted the piano as the first floor filled with black water, and the piano turned daintily, like an elephant dancing under the big top.

But none of this happened. The piano is not wet, probably. The living room is not full of dark water. It was just a dream about the house I remember and imagine--part remember, part imagine--the house I cannot live in, and won't for months and maybe not ever again.

Houses are fragile. Wind and water can take them down. And fire. And indifference and neglect, and racism and separation, the separateness we feel from others who don’t look like us, or live like us. The others for whom we are an us.

Today I know my house is dry, and so it is now the looters I fear. I fear them, but I don't condemn them. Some are criminals going about their criminal business, but others, most of them, are just me. They are just me.

If I were there, I would be them. I would thirst as they thirst, and hunger as they hunger, and I would break any door, I would enter any store or home, I would steal, I would do whatever I needed to live and to make sure those I love would live. My wife, my children: Yes, for sure, for them, I would do what I needed to do.

And I feel the same way about my city. My beloved New Orleans, which is submerged right now, and which I hope one day will rise again.

An image is a pump. An image has the power to move energy from one realm to another, from the realm of reality to the realm of imagination, from the realm of imagination to the realm of reality--from the realm of dream to the realm of fact, and sometimes back again, recycling, pumping.

So we absorb televised images of people we don't know, of people who are thirsty and sick and scared, people on rooftops who are lifted in the air by rescue helicopters and dangle there, the children too afraid to look up as their rescue basket ascends in the sky. Images of people who have lost husbands and wives, children and grandmothers. Images of men and women and children, abandoned by all of us--abandoned by "us" because they are not us: They are poor and we are not; they are black and we are not; or they are ill and we are well. They are old and we are young. Images of those abandoned because of indifference bred of separation. But images break through barriers, they flood us.

An image is a pump, from the realm of dream to the realm of fact, and then back again, turning, turning like the piano floating in a pirouette, then delicately spinning down to the ground.

That is how an image plays in the mind.

An image is a pump to turn fear into beauty, and maybe beauty into terror. My fear of losing my house to water becomes a piano spinning in the dark, and an elephant turning on its toes.

And then the water subsides and the piano settles down. But all is not well. I have an image of my house, and that is the only house I have right now, because I am a homeless man, but only one of many homeless men and homeless women. In a city that is no longer a city. And though I know that no home is permanent, it is something different when that is no longer a spiritual metaphor you read in a book, but a felt reality, when the image pump turns an abstraction into a stabbing pain in the heart.

Homelessness is something different and true, and it has been felt before by many people, felt deeply by them every day. We live in a world, and a nation, of far too many homeless people, and I have done too little about it. So I am just one of many, and not the worse off either, but still, it is my home and my image and I am entitled to it. It doesn't cost anyone anything for me to be carrying my home with me in my heart.

It is one thing to miss a house. It is another thing to miss a whole city.

There is so much room in the heart--enough room not just for my home, but for a whole city that is going under, that is overwhelmed, inundated. Right now, the city of New Orleans is an image in the hearts of those of us who love it, because the reality of the city is too terrible to bear with our eyes.

And the heart is a pump too.

I am homeless, but I am one of the lucky ones. I am not abandoned on I-10 while politicians talk and generals dither. I am not lying in the hot sun with children dying in my arms. I am not an old, sick woman. I am not poor or black; I do not live in the part of town that is underwater. I live in the high part of town. I am separated from them.

New Orleans is a town of levees and water. The levees are man-made hills of clay, artificial banks. They are separation, and privilege, and holding back, but water is the truth of our common humanity, water is our common element. We all need water and we are water, and our separateness is an illusion that thirst obliterates immediately.

The speaker of the House of Representatives (I do not even want to write his name), said New Orleans was not worth saving. I do not know what sort of person could say this at a time like this. For some people, I suppose New Orleans is a black city, a poor city, even a sinful city. For all I know, for some people New Orleans is images of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, though the truth is, Bourbon Street is not New Orleans; it is much more the shadow of conventioneers from Ohio and Illinois, its tawdriness reflects who they are and what they desire.

To some who do not understand what New Orleans means--what gift it has given the world, and given all of us in America--for those people who don’t know any better, New Orleans is a shadow of this country, but to me New Orleans is the heart.

And if we don’t save New Orleans, we have lost our heart completely.

Rodger Kamenetz

Saturday, April 05, 2014


Cuban poet and freedom activist Luis Eligo D'Omni recently visited us here in New Orleans. I wrote  a poem based on his account of beatings he's received from the police & conversation with his mother. Luis returned the favor making this video.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Jonathan Rosen receives mysterious letter from Rebbe Nachman about Burnt Books

And here's the letter

Monday, May 20, 2013



-- a talk given at Temple Sinai, New Orleans, May 9, 2013
Part Two

         Your Holiness, when you did dialogue with Jewish teachers in Dharamsala, there were two exchanges. One was people to people,  about a shared history of exile and destruction. And there was a second, very intimate exchange, that had a profound effect on all whoheard it. And this one was  soul to soul, and angel to angel, the Jewish soul and the Tibetan soul, the Jewish angel and the Tibetan angel. For the spiritual dimension of reality is so often neglected despised even hated in today's world, but it is a major part of what makes Jewish survival worthwhile in the first place.  And right now, it is in the midst of our wreckage I speak to you, both as a Jew and as a New Orleanian. Because survival is not just a  matter of urban planning, or of financial aid,  or willfulness.. it is something deeper, it is of the soul  , the soul of individuals and the soul of the city, and the soul of nation. To rebuild is important, but to recognize a new historical moment and to renew is a matter of soul I do believe, and without soul nothing we do can ever really be new.

Your Holiness, the second rabbi who spoke with you soul to soul, was a man who became my teacher as you also became my teacher, and his name is Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, though everyone calls him Reb Zalman as if to say, brother Zalman.  And Reb Zalman began with a Hebrew prayer translated into Tibetan, and then he spoke to you as one who had escaped the fires of the holocaust but barely, fleeing Austria and then Belgium, and landing in a dp camp in southern France under command of the Gestapo, before somehow making his way via the West Indies to New York. And Reb Zalman carried with him all the teachings of Jewish mysticism, of a world that was being destroyed as he fled,  for we must never forget that largely Hitler succeeded in destroying Jewish Europe and its institutions and its holiest teachers, as if someone had come to the US and destroyed Harvard, Yale and MIT, and then wiped out a whole generation of political leaders as well.
  Reb Zalman during the sixties left Chabad and became the leader of a movement known as Jewish Renewal, which sought to combine the mysticism of Hasidism with feminism and an openness to meditation , and most of all to joy. And this movement has greatly influenced every branch of Judaism, with its music, its style of prayer, its egalitarianism, and its interest in mysticism.

And this is something that we need to remember about New Orleans too: that culture is carried by human beings, specific men and women who know how to cook an etouffee, or play a drum with a certain beat, or sew beads on to a suit, and these precious kinds of knowledge are easily lost and are carried by human arks.

So Reb Zalman spoke to you as that sort of human ark, carrier of centuries of wisdom, a fellow exile, and as a man who lived the loss of home and culture that you have personally have experienced over the past 63 years now since the Chinese army moved into Tibet and took control. And since then even unto today the Tibetan people in their own land have been subjugated and their religious leaders, their monks have been persecuted, their temples destroyed and then in some case rebuilt as tourist destinations, a land where merely wishing you long life, Your Holiness and carrying your picture cane be punished by imprisonment and torture.  And when we had the Seder together in Washington, we played the tape of Tibetan nuns in prison chanting a song of freedom, and even today  they are not free and in your homeland your people are burning themselves alive in anguish and protest and still they are not heard.

And Reb Zalman said, "I want to say when a soul comes down to earth they show him first what he has to do here, that's our tradition. And I believe those who volunteer for difficult jobs deserve special consideration. When I think of the job you have to do, which is not only to guide your people through the crisis, and God wiling, the restoration of your home, but also the risks you must take and the choices you must make of what is essential and what is to be left behind, I want you to know that I feel with you from heart to heart."

His task was to  explain the inner meaning of Jewish practice, especially the more esoteric teachings we know as kabbalah, which means, actually 'tradition. For it is a largely esoteric tradition that was once kept entirely secret or passed on by word of mouth only to a select few. For you had asked to know another secret, what is the benefit of Jewish practices such as our holidays and prayers, -- a very Buddhist question I might add-- and you asked it this way, "What are the Jewish practices for overcoming afflictive states of mind?"

And I want to say-- it would be another talk to explain-- that many many Jews today would not even know what that question means, let alone what the answer is.  For in the urgency to survive especially in the period post war, many  Jews concerned themselves primarily with institutions and buildings and not with the inner work, what Reb Zalman called  "the esoteric, the deep attunement, the deep way." And I have to say, the very words I am using such as soul, and deep way, might sound very foreign to some of my Jewish brothers and sisters, very remote.

But on his way to explaining the "deep way" of Jewish mysticism,   Reb Zalman spoke with you about angels or devas and here the dialogue really became exciting because I saw, Your Holiness,  we all saw how fascinated you were with angels, you wouldn't let go of the topic, Reb Zalman waned to explain the four worlds of Jewish mysticism the four worlds of prayer, but you kept him in the second world, the world  of formation, the world of imagination.. and dreams are there, and feelings are there, and angels are there,  messengers who mediate in the imagination between the loftiest heights of pure thought and the ground and senses where we live as bodies.  And you wanted to know if angels had different colors and yes Reb Zalman answered, there are orange angels and blue, and there's the black angel we call the opponent  or Satan-- and he too .. they are all serving God.   That is our tradition Reb Zalman kept saying though the other rabbis seemed either astonished or embarrassed even horrified you could see that in their faces, so estranged from this inner core of Jewish life had the mainstream Jewish world become.
So you moved worlds there Your Holiness and you wanted to now if angels have anything to do with earthquake, there was a small earthquake that morning in Dharamsala and Reb Zalman said yes, in our tradition,  angels cause earthquakes and changes in the weather and there are little angels over every blade of grass that say grow grow grow. Yes  he said it's in our tradition and by then some of the rabbis were giving each other looks, like this clearly wasn't in THEIR tradition, but Your Holiness you were not deterred, not at all, and then Reb Zalman said something about the angel of cities and the angel of nations,  which is really not a foreign notion at all--- Maimonides writes about it-- and you were really curious about this idea, and Reb Zalman said, "Oh yes there's an angel of each nation, there's an angel of the Jews and an angel of Tibet..  and if we do the dialogue right, the angel of the Jews is  speaking through me and the angel of Tibet is listening in you,  and vice versa you see-- so the dialogue isn't just at one level."

Suddenly it wasn't. That was the moment that encapsulated the whole thing. These two men were no longer just men, but something was speaking and listening in them that was greater than any individual.

And I saw a certain light there which I still see and I've been trying to explain ever since.  There was something very beautiful in that moment, what I could say is, it was both a metaphor-- and yet literally true,  well we poets call that a metonymy--- because wasn't Reb Zalman in effect speaking for the Jewish people and weren't you, Your Holiness listening for the Tibetan people and speaking for them as well... speaking their essence--  so the dialogue wasn't just at the human level.  For the angel of a nation , Maimonides teaches, is the essence of that nation, and now you ad Reb Zalman were speaking for just a moment essence to essence, in a dialogue that had never before ever happened at that level between these two unique peoples, the Tibetans and the Jews both of whom had tasted in the twentieth century exile and destruction.

That moment it really did seem as if these angels were talking to one another, the only way I think angels can, through two human beings who are open to astonishment, and who have the curiosity and the love to share soul to soul.

And that is the kind of dialogue I wish for Your Holiness as you come here to New Orleans, For if there's an angel of Tibet and an angel of Lhasa, surely there's an angel of the Jews and an angel of New Orleans. So I hope you will meet us not just as a people struggling with social problems or even ecological catastrophe though we clearly are, but also you will somehow meet the angel of New Orleans in some of us, and that we will somehow also feel the angel of Tibet speaking through you. Then the dialogue will not be just on one level-- and I hope there will be a dialogue-- it will be also on a deeper level.

I know that the precious times when I've had the privilege to speak with you, I have felt the intensity of your presence, and the power of your listening.

I believe that is what you will bring to us here in New Orleans, the power of the quiet mind, shaped by the daily meditation and visualizations which are the precious spiritual values you and the Tibetan people carry-- and we hope thanks to you and them, that this will survive and will continue benefit human beings.
  I hope-- if we listen not just with our ears but our hearts-- we will learn from you  your own secrets of spiritual survival in exile, and perhaps also you will learn a little from us as well, how we live our New Orleans soul,  and even get a glimpse in the joy of our daily lives, in music, in dancing, in food and in our culture , of the angel of New Orleans.

Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus