Burnt Books: Rab­bi Nach­man of Bratislav and Franz Kafka

  • Review
By – September 12, 2011

Stop­ping short of cre­at­ing an imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tion between two great Jew­ish writ­ers, Rodger Kamenetz pro­vides the ground­work for such an exchange in this high­ly orig­i­nal study — a med­i­ta­tion, real­ly — on the inner cir­cum­stances that link them. Kamenetz reads the works of each man as auto­bi­og­ra­phy of the soul,” the soul of an ardent seek­er. Each mas­tered and con­tributed to the art of the lit­er­ary spir­i­tu­al para­ble. Their nar­ra­tives involve quests, often frus­trat­ed ones, as do their lives. Each man wished many of his writ­ings to be burned after his death. Kamenetz explores their indi­vid­ual motives, set­ting these against the Nazi con­fla­gra­tions of Jew­ish books. 

A third seek­er, Kamenetz him­self, weaves his med­i­ta­tion around his jour­ney to Uman, the Ukrain­ian town of Rab­bi Nachman’s lat­er years and bur­ial, to par­tic­i­pate in the annu­al Rosh Hashanah ser­vice that brings Jews of many stripes togeth­er. Kamenetz had already made many vis­its to Kafka’s Prague to teach Kafka’s writings. 

Kamenetz exam­ines the lives and writ­ing of Kaf­ka and Nach­man in such a way that each illu­mi­nates the oth­er. Begin­ning with unex­pect­ed and intrigu­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties, Kamenetz moves from com­par­i­son to con­trast and back again, in sev­er­al cycles, final­ly putting into focus the unique qual­i­ties of each of his sub­jects, and some­thing of his own unique qual­i­ties as well. 

Burnt Books is a fas­ci­nat­ing and intel­lec­tu­al­ly chal­leng­ing jour­ney of heart and mind. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, notes.


Born in 1950 in Bal­ti­more, Rodger Kamenetz received a B.A. from Yale and M.A. degrees from both Stan­ford and Johns Hop­kins. After 28 years of teach­ing at Louisiana State Uni­ver­si­ty, where he was the founder and first direc­tor of two impor­tant pro­grams — Cre­ative Writ­ing and Jew­ish Stud­ies— Kamenetz recent­ly retired from his posi­tion as Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Reli­gious Stud­ies. Pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus Kamenetz works as a dream ther­a­pist and con­tin­ues his adven­tur­ous writing. 

Among his many pub­li­ca­tions is Stalk­ing Eli­jah: Adven­tures with Today’s Mys­ti­cal Mas­ters, which won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award for Jew­ish Thought.

Philip K. Jason: In your new book, Burnt Books, you explore Rab­bi Nachman’s under­stand­ing that this father-son con­flict is an old Jew­ish busi­ness.” Below the sur­face of the con­flict between Kaf­ka and his father, lie the many con­flicts of father fig­ures (often kings) and sons fig­ures in the writ­ing of both Nach­man and Kaf­ka. Your jour­ney to a kind of Kamenetz father­land, and the few direct ref­er­ences to your own father, is a pro­cess­ing of that con­flict. This is explic­it in your dream­work dis­cus­sion on the YouTube video Dreams of My Father.” On one lev­el, Burnt Books is about fathers and sons. 
Rodger Kamenetz: Yes, def­i­nite­ly. The His­to­ry of Last Night’s Dream goes into great depth about my father and me so the sub­ject was already on my mind. My father died while we were home­less dur­ing Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na. Kafka’s trou­bles with his father were def­i­nite­ly a key point of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. And Nachman’s loss of an infant son, since I also expe­ri­enced that. But these sorts of per­son­al con­nec­tions are not front and cen­ter in Burnt Books. 

PKJ: Where did you get the idea of hold­ing Kaf­ka and Nach­man in near-dia­logue with one anoth­er? 
RK: I had been think­ing about it for many years, since I taught Kaf­ka in Prague in a Charles Uni­ver­si­ty build­ing over­look­ing the old Jew­ish ceme­tery. There are lots of Jew­ish ghosts in Prague. I’ve always loved Nachman’s tale, The Hum­ble King,” because we are our­selves search­ing for some image of God — this is also what I do with dream work, help peo­ple see the images of God they already car­ry. And I’d noticed that The Hum­ble King” in con­densed form had much the same plot as Kafka’s The Tri­al. Name­ly, a cor­rupt court sys­tem seem­ing­ly run with­out knowl­edge of the high­er author­i­ties. Both sto­ries are midrashim on the Book of Job. So it all was work­ing togeth­er. They were already talk­ing to each oth­er through their sto­ries and in my mind. But after Kat­ri­na, liv­ing through the com­plete destruc­tion of a city, I under­stood how our big sto­ry — the Torah — is always re-cir­cling. I saw a city return to the open­ing chap­ters of Gen­e­sis. I remem­ber that first Rosh Hashanah see­ing three heron fly­ing over­head. Our city street was going back to nature, becom­ing a fly­way. And so I began think­ing about home and what home means, and what it’s like to lose your home. Part of me is like Kaf­ka, always day­dream­ing about leav­ing home but nev­er leav­ing. The oth­er part of me is like Nach­man, always leav­ing home, set­ting off on new adventures. 

PKJ: What brought you to study­ing Rab­bi Nachman’s life and writ­ings? 
RK: I am fas­ci­nat­ed by the bound­ary between lit­er­a­ture and kabbalah,between lit­er­a­ture and reli­gion. Rab­bi Nach­man stands at that bound­ary (as does Kaf­ka). Rab­bi Nach­man is a kab­bal­ist writ­ing fairy tales and Kaf­ka is writ­ing fables that are our mod­ern day kab­bal­ah. But a more impor­tant rea­son is what one of the peo­ple I met on the way to Ukraine told me: Rab­bi Nach­man is the rebbe for our time. He still lives — through his sto­ries, his teach­ings. His teach­ings respond to the urgent ques­tions of faith and hope, the ques­tions Kaf­ka asked more pierc­ing­ly than any­one. You see I can’t talk about Rab­bi Nach­man with­out talk­ing about Kaf­ka and vice versa.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions