The Miss­ing Jew

  • Review
By – November 14, 2022

This new col­lec­tion by poet/​philosopher/​spiritual thinker Rodger Kamenetz is, to quote his own assess­ment, a book of books,” con­tain­ing poems from four dif­fer­ent col­lec­tions. That said, Kamenetz’s after­word seems to warn against sub­di­vid­ing” his writ­ing. He reminds the read­er that the poems from the orig­i­nal man­u­script of The Miss­ing Jew were typed on a con­tin­u­al scroll.” This idea of non-sep­a­ra­tion comes up again when the poet remarks that he has cho­sen to group” more recent poems the­mat­i­cal­ly rather than chronologically.

Giv­en his refusal of stan­dard order­ing, one pos­si­ble way to hon­or this intense­ly spir­i­tu­al Jew­ish poet might be to trav­el not for­ward but back­ward through the cur­rent mega-col­lec­tion, as though it were writ­ten in Hebrew.

The book’s final poem — now the first — wel­comes the read­er to the essen­tial dynam­ic of Kamenetz’s oeu­vre. Name­ly, it por­trays the poet hid­ing in a clothes clos­et, effect­ing an ambigu­ous process of self-trans­for­ma­tion. What kind of meta­mor­pho­sis is this? The read­er isn’t cer­tain, but as the poet changes one phys­i­cal attribute and lit­er­al­ly hangs up anoth­er, he paints a sur­re­al­is­tic pic­ture of emp­ty­ing as con­struc­tive, dynam­ic, and empow­er­ing. The beloved is encoun­tered, the poet sug­gests, in the process of clean­ing out the clos­et of one’s very self.

Kamenetz’s poems often dance between appar­ent oppo­sites — between what is there and not there, between phys­i­cal­i­ty and evanes­cence. No won­der, then, that when the poet lands on some­thing tan­gi­bly mun­dane and present, like gefilte fish, there is a com­plex joy that grounds him in the savory moment:

My fork divides you, my mouth waters. I crave your per­ma­nent humil­i­ty your hum­ble inad­e­qua­cy. You accept you will nev­er be beau­ti­ful which is beau­ti­ful. Like me you can only be yourself.

Else­where, Kamenetz turns our atten­tion to peo­ple who may be right in front of us, but whom we refuse to see, as with the house­less man in Home­less Chanukah”:

He’ll light a can­dle for courage

and watch the tip of light twist

through the braid­ed wax. He’ll light

a can­dle and set it in the mud

where it is most needed.

Pro­ceed­ing through bib­li­cal quo­ta­tions and tal­mu­dic ref­er­ences, Kamenetz poems cul­mi­nate (or begin, depend­ing on what direc­tion the read­er has cho­sen) with the voic­es of his fam­i­ly, real and imag­ined, and their Ashke­nazi, Yid­dish-inflect­ed past.

Good Yun­tiv,” said my father.

Good Yun­tiv,” said my grandmother.

What did Good Yun­tiv mean?

It meant the clothes were new

The rock was pickled

And my grand­moth­er had put up

With anoth­er encore

Of the fam­i­ly reunion reunion.

This deft­ly poet­ic book of books is both cel­e­bra­to­ry and sad, meta­phys­i­cal and earth­ly. To write about what is here and not here, what evades our gaze, is to admit both loss and fresh dis­cov­ery. Or, as the poet puts it in the open­ing, or final, poem: the his­to­ry of my fam­i­ly is/​the his­to­ry of breezes.”

Discussion Questions