Kamenetz pens a new chapter in his long journey of discovery
Monday, October 25, 2010
By Chris Waddington
Rodger Kamenetz really gets around.
The poet and just-retired LSU professor showed up on Oprah in 2007, plugging a nonfiction book about dreams.
He first achieved bestseller status in 1994 with a book about the growing interfaith dialogue between Jews and Buddhists -- a volume that has never gone out of print.
When not at his desk, the writer bikes on the levee near his Uptown New Orleans home.
He's a dance floor regular at Frenchman street clubs, and, in 2009, Kamenetz and his wife, novelist Moira Crone, served as King and Queen of the Krewe de Jeux Carnival organization. The pair presided over a klezmer-driven bacchanal that included some the city's most celebrated burlesque dancers.
For his latest volume, "Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka," the 60-year-old Baltimore native went to similar extremes. He walked the cobbled streets of Prague, seeking traces of the modernist literary icon who wrote "The Metamorphosis" and "The Trial." Kamenetz also joined thousands of Jews who make an annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman in the Ukraine. The 19th century religious leader was a writer, too. His mystical narratives cloak Torah teachings in a fairy tale atmosphere akin to that of the Brothers Grimm.
"Burnt Books" deftly blends a travel narrative with literary criticism, a double biography, and speculations about the parallel spiritual lessons of Nachman and Kafka. At one point, Kamenetz quotes an observation, by philosopher Gershom Sholem, that Kafka leads readers to "those mystical theses that lie on the narrow boundary between religion and nihilism." That's a pretty good description of "Burnt Books," too -- although Kamenetz insists, with a hearty laugh, that "this book is very much an autobiography."
Kamenetz will discuss "Burnt Books" at the New Orleans Jewish Community Center on Monday and at Maple Street Book Shop on Saturday. In November he begins a multi-city promotional tour that takes him across the U.S. and Canada -- and on to Britain where he will be featured at the London Jewish Book Fair.
Wherever Kamenetz goes, he'll have some explaining to do -- and he knows it.
"I'm not a conventional religious person, so my interests are baffling to a lot of people," he said. "What interest me is how very different people understand the search for God and for meaning. I'm looking for the energy behind the outward forms of religion, the force that makes people seek."
Kamenetz sees that same force working in both Kafka and Nachman.
"Both men lived with an incredible seriousness and intensity," he said. "They are forbidding and admirable -- and otherworldly in a good sense."
"Burnt Books" argues that the secular 20th-century writer and the Hasidic holy man were both wrestling with modernity, with the sense that the materialistic world view of science is as unsatisfying as the old forms of religion. For Kamenetz, its no surprise that both men used stories to get at metaphysical truths.
"The realm of the imagination is not imaginary," Kamenetz said. "Dreams and stories are a way to provide felt metaphors for our experiences. It's the place we go to restore our capacity to create and feel deeply. That's the place I want to find in my work, too."
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Staff writer Chris Waddington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 504.826.3448. Comment and read more at nola.com/living.