Curative Songs

by Rodger Kamenetz
Schocken/Nextbook, 2010

Are stories rituals? Can they become sacred? How does that happen? One of Kafka’s most memorable parables begins, “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers.” And it famously ends just as quickly as it began: “This is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”

Like Kafka’s parables and the enigmatic, humane tales of Rabbi Nachman, Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books has an economical generosity that is thoroughly secular, deeply religious, and seriously joking. It is an account of two men with so many shared traits that fate surely meant for them to know each other, guide each other, and influence each other; yet fate separated them by a century. Kamenetz is more than reliable in providing a primer on these two modern masters, and it is clear that he has placed in this new book a lifetime of love and teaching of their work. In fact, the book is structured on a faithful pilgrimage — or, rather, aliyah — that Kamenetz makes to Nachman’s Ukraine and Kafka’s Prague.

Burnt Books positions Nachman and Kafka as speakers of and to the modern world. What modern world? The one that is full of empty disbelief. Rabbi Nachman was careful to distinguish between two kinds of atheism, with the first type being “influenced by science or philosophy.” This type of atheism, he argued, is a modern creation that can be remedied by showing the atheist glimpses of divine truth that both the believer and the rationalist could agree upon. But the other type is more entrenched. Kamenetz explains that for Nachman:

The second type of atheism cannot be answered by an argument…. It is rooted in a profound feeling of emptiness. Kafka defined this feeling for the whole world … ‘I am divided from all things by a hollow space.’ … Rabbi Nachman said that this second kind of atheism cannot be answered with an argument. It can only be answered with a song.

The tales and parables of both Kafka and Rabbi Nachman are, arguably, those curative songs. Wrote Rabbi Nachman: “I did it the way God does it in the Torah: First he tells stories, then he gives laws.” If we use stories to teach children lessons, then it may also be true that through adult stories we come to learn laws. “A myth is a tale that bespeaks an inner truth portrayed as an ancient truth,” writes Arthur Green, whose keen insights add light to Kamenetz’s brilliant investigations.

One of the many things that Burnt Books makes vivid is the way in which we contemporary readers are part Rabbi Nachman, part Kafka. Kafka was a secular Jew who saw his Judaism as one of many “broken radii” in his life (along with piano, languages, gardening, marriage attempts, carpentry, and more). Because of this never-quite-fully-embraced Judaism, Kafka may not come off as assured as Rabbi Nachman. “I’ve rarely worried about my Jewish body, but do wonder about my Jewish soul,” Kafka wrote.

All three writers are deeply engaged in questions of the soul. “What does ‘soul’ mean in our time?” asks Kamenetz, “To me it is connected to the riddle of burning books. Many people feel a special reverence for books and a corresponding sense of desecration when they are burned. Maybe we understand, in some way, that books represent a part of us that can ‘shed’ the body and live on for a time in the new form of words.” Could this be what a soul is? In Kamenetz’s probing query, the possibility gains a force that extends past mere metaphor.

And there at the fulcrum of Kamenetz’s splendid comparison is that eponymous burning bush of books — the nearly mythic stories of both tale-tellers insisting upon the immolation of their unpublished writing. Never before has a scholar offered a more plausible, multi-faceted, and unified rationale behind the motivations of these two writers: and it all has to do with a better understanding of the modern soul — we burn to preserve. Cosmic irony. “Yet the end result of irony is a separation from soul,” Kamenetz argues. “Both Kafka and Nachman were divided between their sophistication and their yearning for simplicity.” The world of the parable is the place where they captured this desired braiding of sophistication and simplicity.

The first-person presence of the author is more than welcome in Burnt Books. “I love the Jews who lug books,” says Kamenetz, and who wouldn’t like to say that sentence out loud, and drink coffee with a man of such enthusiasms? Kamenetz gives color to the two life stories without over-explaining, and offers a properly jaundiced eye to would-be highjackers of both sacred and profane texts — to be honest, he’s perhaps too generous to the Madonnas of the world and their co-optation of the Kabbalah — and turns the other cheek by offering a concise, useful introduction to the Zohar’s four levels of depth.

A street in Prague named after Franz Kafka. Creative Commons/Kahala.

There is, therefore, a rough patch at a certain point late in the book when the much-delayed events of Kamenetz’s own journeys to Prague and Ukraine play out. At this moment the very tone, if not the content, of the book shifts radically, and as a result the author glosses over his personal journey in a frustratingly cursory manner.

When walking through Prague, Kamenetz too briefly takes a moment to deplore twenty-first century anti-Semitism, saying, “At the Golem restaurant in the Jewish quarter you can order ‘rabbi’s pocket,’ which turns out to be a pastry filled with ham and cheese.” He does not dwell on this clear symptom of a Jewish quarter with no Jews in it. And filed somewhere under anti-Semitism, one finds this crabbed anecdote: “I walked past the Café Kafka … a German tourist pointed to the display case and said, ‘What is that candelabra called?’ I felt so much pain in that moment, I could barely speak. But I told him. And he said, Ah yes, yes, a menorah, pronouncing the unfamiliar Hebrew word slowly.”

As a non-Jew who did not know any Jews until college, I know that such ignorance is indeed possible. But I had to read between the lines of Burnt Books to perceive the tragic context of this ignorance — a context that perhaps needs to be taught to us all as carefully as the works of Kafka and Nachman: that the Jewish Quarter of Prague is devoid of Jews. This painful paradox may seem obvious after basic studies of history, but it is not; I am afraid it never is. History has to be retaught continually — we have to learn it — and God resides in the details.

In Prague the ghosts of Jews are everywhere: their mark is everywhere, and others are capitalizing on their existence. But living, breathing Jews are nowhere to be found. Kamenetz suggests this problem with an anecdote about a souvenir Kafka coffee mug, but this is serious business: yes, a Jew may have invented the “rabbi’s pocket,” but it is almost certainly non-Jews that are profiting by selling it now.

I wish Kamenetz had not glossed over this strange, sad absence at the heart of Prague’s “Jewish” quarter so quickly — an ungrateful quibble, perhaps, and even a greedy one: the music suddenly stops, just when we readers were getting down. But in the end, Kamenetz reminds himself of Rabbi Nachman’s response to empty, uncomprehending disbelief: song. And he does not leave the reader without a few more chapters of song-like joy to answer the darkness, a restorative that ensures the enduring accomplishment of this book. After this burnt book, Kamenetz should never fear for his immortal soul.


One thought on “Curative Songs

  1. Brian,

    Terrific piece about the weirdness of eastern european towns without Jews and the “second kind” of atheism that Kafka embodied. The “rabbi’s pocket” anecdote is particularly chilling. So great to encounter you here!

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