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Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafkaby Rodger Kamenetz
Synopses & Reviews
A groundbreaking dual biography of the venerated Hasidic storyteller Rabbi Nachman and the iconic modern master Franz Kafka that uncovers surprising parallels between two tragically abbreviated lives, both spent in search of spiritual meaning.
Rodger Kamenetz, acclaimed author of The Jew in the Lotus, has long been engaged in the study and practice of Jewish spirituality. And he has for many years taught a course in Prague on Franz Kafka. The more he learned about the life and work of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav (great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism), the more aware he became of unexpected connections between the lives and works of Kafka, a secular artist fascinated by Jewish mysticism, and Rabbi Nachman, a religious mystic who reached out to secular Jews. Both men died young of tuberculosis. Both invented new forms of storytelling that explore the search for meaning in an illogical, unjust world. Both gained prominence with the posthumous publication of their writing. And most intriguing of all, both left strict instructions that their unpublished writings were to be burned after they died.
Kamenetz uses these episodes as points of departure on a journey into the spiritual quests of these two troubled and beloved figures. He concludes with an analysis of their major works that illuminates the remarkable similarities between them. In their attempts to understand the existence of a Supreme Being in an imperfect world, both men teach us a great deal about the role of imagination in the Jewish spiritual experience.
Rodger Kamenetz, acclaimed author of The Jew in the Lotus, has long been fascinated by the mystical tales of the Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. And for many years he has taught a course in Prague on Franz Kafka. The more he thought about their lives and writings, the more aware he became of unexpected connections between them. Kafka was a secular artist fascinated by Jewish mysticism, and Rabbi Nachman was a religious mystic who used storytelling to reach out to secular Jews. Both men died close to age forty of tuberculosis. Both invented new forms of storytelling that explore the search for meaning in an illogical, unjust world. Both gained prominence with the posthumous publication of their writing. And both left strict instructions at the end of their lives that their unpublished books be burnt.
Kamenetz takes his ideas on the road, traveling to Kafka’s birthplace in Prague and participating in the pilgrimage to Uman, the burial site of Rabbi Nachman visited by thousands of Jews every Jewish new year. He discusses the hallucinatory intensity of their visions and offers a rich analysis of Nachman’s and Kafka’s major works, revealing uncanny similarities in the inner lives of these two troubled and beloved figures, whose creative and religious struggles have much to teach us about the significant role played by the imagination in the Jewish spiritual experience.
About the Author
Rodger Kamenetz is the author of The Jew in the Lotus and The History of Last Night’s Dream, and of seven other books of poetry and prose. A winner of the National Jewish Book Award, he is LSU Distinguished Professor at Louisiana State University and founding director of its Jewish Studies Program. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, the fiction writer Moira Crone.
Table of Contents
The joke — The coffee mug — The waiting room : Wednesday, September 23, four days before Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2008 — Kafka the kabbalist — Last request — Miraculous event — Wavering at the heights — Burnt books — The burning bush and the thorns — Fire from the rebbe's mouth — Tales of the seventy faces — Kafka's last parable — Sealed in flame — To feel at home — Borispol airport : Thursday, September 25 — Who by water, who by fire — The rabbi's son — In his father's house — Annihilation of the self — On the train to Kamenetz : Thursday evening, September 25 — Hasidic parables — King and messenger — Uncertainty principle — Talmudic style — Dirty and pure — Blue light of dawn : Friday morning, September 26 — Kafka, Buber, Nachman — Sleeping and awakening — A new kabbalah — Circus acts — The turkey prince — Movements of the soul — Aliyah — Rabbi Nachman's journey to Kamenetz — The narrow bridge : Friday morning, September 26 — Kings — Rabbi Nachman's journey to the land of Israel — The big joker — Uman Uman : Sunday, September 28-Monday, September 29 — Smallness : Monday afternoon, September 29, just before Erev Rosh Hashanah — Self-isolation : Monday afternoon, September 29, just before Erev Rosh Hashanah — The thin thread of metal, the ball of wax — Return of the coffee mug : Wednesday evening, October 1.
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