Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka
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 And both left strict instructions at the end of their lives that their unpublished books be burnt.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.
Whether he’s writing about Judaism and Buddhism or prayer and dreams, Kamenetz’s mission is to discern connections. In his most delving book, he traces the hidden links between a literary nineteenth-century Hasidic rabbi and a quintessential modern secular Jewish writer. Rabbi Nachman, a “Jewish shaman” and a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm, smuggled the kabbalah into fiction to extend the reach of his teachings. Kafka, concerned about the spiritual cost of modernity, “nourished himself with the tales of Hasidic rebbes.” Both men were ascetics; both died young of tuberculosis; both questioned “the seeming absence of divine justice”; and both asked trusted intimates to burn their work after their deaths. Kamenetz’s dramatic and revelatory double portrait is built on a solid foundation of elegantly explicated Jewish thought and deepened by the story of his journey to Ukraine to visit Rabbi Nachman’s grave. Here is a whole new slant on Kafka, a unique and affecting portrait of a creative holy man, and a radiant inquiry in celebration of how both sacred texts and great literature are open to “infinite interpretation.”
–Donna Seaman, Booklist
“The lives, works, and achievements of Franz Kafka of Prague and the far-less-well-known nineteenth-century Jewish mystic Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would seem at first glance to have nothing in common. It is only the first of the many virtues of this engrossing and wonderful book by Rodger Kamenetz, a highly experienced and masterful writer on Jewish mysticism, that the truly eerie parallels between their lives, drives, and visions become clear.”
—The Washington Times
“Kamenetz’s dramatic and revelatory double portrait is built on a solid foundation of elegantly explicated Jewish thought and deepened by the story of his journey to Ukraine to visit Rabbi Nachman’s grate. Here is a whole new slant on Kafka, a unique and affecting portrait of a creative holy man, and a radiant inquiry in celebration of how both sacred texts and great literature are open to ‘infinite interpretation.’ ”
“Two yearning souls face each other and touch in this remarkable encounter, both deeply imagined and fastidiously researched. And when, forever questing, Rodger Kamenetz adds his own journey to the mix, what he gives us is so fascinating I read it hungrily. Kamenetz makes a case for the kinship of these brother storytellers that is more than irresistible: it feels inevitable.”
—Rosellen Brown, author of Civil Wars