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Stalking Elijah
     

Stalking Elijah

by Rodger Kamenetz
 

The highly acclaimed author of The Jew in the Lotus turns his attention to his own rich and diverse tradition to understand what it means to live spiritually as a Jew.

The Jew in the Lotus found Rodger Kamenetz in Dharamsala, India, witnessing an historic dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama. That highly charged visit blasted open Kamenetz's

Overview

The highly acclaimed author of The Jew in the Lotus turns his attention to his own rich and diverse tradition to understand what it means to live spiritually as a Jew.

The Jew in the Lotus found Rodger Kamenetz in Dharamsala, India, witnessing an historic dialogue between rabbis and the Dalai Lama. That highly charged visit blasted open Kamenetz's view of what it means to be a practicing Jew and launched him on a six-year journey to find and learn from the teachers who are revitalizing the ancient spiritual practices of Judaism. In Stalking Elijah, Kamenetz takes us along for the ride.

Whether exploring the old tradition for its meditative silences or hearing the new Kabbalah being created by today's women, whether welcoming the Sabbath bride with Jewish drug addicts and convicts in the slums of West L.A. or practicing the Hasidic method of "calling out" to God while driving the San Bernadino freeway, Kamenetz will provoke and inspire readers to dig down for the richness of their own spiritual traditions and introduce them to the amazing new landscape of Jewish practice.

A fun and profoundly moving account of one man's search for a deeper Jewish practice, Stalking Elijah will be coveted by all those who loved The Jew in the Lotus and conscientiously studied by everyone curious about the Jewish path to the inner life.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
In 1996, poet, professor, and essayist Rodger Kamenetz had his second meeting with the Dalai Lama, at which he hoped to thank him for setting him on the path toward a deeper involvement with his own Jewish spirituality. In the six years between their meetings, Kamenetz, author of "The Jew in the Lotus," had explored Buddhist meditation and Jewish renewal, as well as his own inner life.
"Your Holiness," I said, "people ask me, why did I have to go all the way to Dharamsala to look more deeply into my Jewish tradition? Why did I have to meet a Buddhist master to see Judaism more deeply? I heard a story from Nachman of Bratzlav, a great hasidic rabbi from the last century. May I tell it to you?" He nodded slightly and I began. A poor rabbi, Reb Yechiel, wants to build a new synagogue for his town. Every night he dreams of a certain bridge in Vienna. Hidden gold lies under it. Finally—the dream is making him crazy—he makes the difficult journey to Vienna. He finds the bridge and searches around it. A guard asks what he's doing. Reb Yechiel explains his dream and the guard laughs. "Oh, you Jews are such dreamers. I'll tell you what dreams are worth. Every night I dream of a Jew—Reb Yechiel. And hidden behind his stove there's gold." . . . I came to the punch line. "So Reb Yechiel returned home, looked behind his stove, and under the floorboards he found gold." The Dalai Lama's rich deep laughter filled the room. . . . "Rebbe Nachman told this tale," I said, "to explain why a person might journey far away to find a teacher, who will show the studentwhat is already close at hand. For me," I said, looking into his eyes, "and for many Jews, you have become such a teacher. By making us look more deeply into Judaism, you have become our rabbi."

Rodger Kamenetz has any number of such rabbis, some of them Jewish, many not. "Stalking Elijah: Adventures with Today's Jewish Mystical Masters" is the story of his own journey into his Jewish faith, the far-flung teachers he learned from and studied with, and how he carried his new knowledge home to his family in Louisiana, where he discovered his own spiritual grounding.

Along the way, Kamenetz attends several kallot, or study conventions, and a Jewish Buddhist conference, and has dozens of experiences of yehidut, or moments of one-on-one teaching. He encounters Rabbi Shefa Gold, who blends Hebrew psalms with gospel music; Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, a pioneering feminist rabbi; Rabbi Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, a Lubavitcher rebbe and the guiding force in Jewish renewal; and Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, a Los Angeles rabbi deeply involved in Buddhist dialogues, from whom Kamenetz learns meditation; along with many lay teachers and mere passers-by in his life. Each of these teachers, both the trained and the accidental, reassures and troubles Kamenetz, who is seeking a spiritual richness in a tradition that often seems a relic—staid, cold, and out of step with contemporary life. Each helps him find a bit more of the God he is seeking while asking him new questions that unsettle him further.

In the midst of these questions, he is forced to confront how much easier it would be simply to discard his Judaism in favor of a more amenable tradition. He discovers the answer to this question in the strangest of circumstances, through a vitriolic Louisiana political campaign and a cryptic comment from one of his teachers:

Why not become a Buddhist? David Duke wouldn't let me. Neither would Reb Zalman. He said, "Have the hokhmah [wisdom] to change your life where you are." Where I am is Jewish.

This is the larger message—and the broad appeal—of Kamenetz's work. "Stalking Elijah" is not solely for Jews in search of a similar renewal, though the book has an unquestionable value in that vein. Rather, "Stalking Elijah" delves into how all of us must learn to balance our spiritual lives with the changing demands of the world, and more, how we can and must stop "stalking" that spirituality, rather let it come to us. The goal, Kamenetz points out, is getting to "the state of mind where I can learn from every person," where everyone becomes a teacher. "Stalking Elijah" is now one of those teachers, demonstrating, by example, the wisdom of changing our lives where we are.—Kathleen Fitzpatrick is a freelance writer and a doctoral candidate in English and American Literature at New York University, where she is completing her dissertation.

New York Times Book Review
Valuable not only for Jews interested in the mystical tradition as practiced today but for Jews yearning to find a clearer expression of the divine in their lives. In fact, Judaism is not a prerequisite for learning from this book. Kamenetz's message is: If I can do it, so can you.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060642310
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
10/19/1997
Edition description:
1 ED
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.18(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dharamsala, a small town in northern India, shelters a community of several thousand Tibetan refugees. It's where my life changed dramatically in 1990 when I witnessed a dialogue between religious Jews and the Dalai Lama.

Going back to a place where your life changed is risky. Especially if it changed for the better. Suppose the magic isn't there? Suppose it was invented in the first place? I knew one thing: I wanted to make up for the last time I met His Holiness.

At the end of the 1990 dialogue, the Jewish delegates lined up to give him gifts. I hadn't brought one, so I hastily pulled out a paperback copy of Terra Infirma from my knapsack. A photograph shows me grinning and handing him the book: it happens to be one of the stupidest moments of my life. I amsaying to this wonderfully humble Buddhist master, I read your autobiography. Here's mine."

I hoped to do better this time.

It was two weeks before Passover 1996. I'd been traveling a long way to this moment. In the last six years I had learned something of Buddhist meditation, and explored the richness of Jewish meditation and Jewish renewal. My brief encounter with the Dalai Lama had opened a door to a new inner life. I wanted to thank him.

Now I waited eagerly in his comfortable meeting room. He smiled as he entered from the back, bowed slightly as I bowed to him, and sat in a yellow armchair. My friend Dr. Marc Lieberman introduced me, explaining that I had written about the Jewish Buddhist dialogue in The Jew in the Lotus. Then it was up to me.

"Your Holiness," I said, "people ask me, why did I have to go all the way to Dharamsala to look more deeply into my Jewish tradition? Why did I have to meet with aBuddhist master to se Judaism more deeply? I heard a story from Nachman of Bratzlav, a great hasidic rabbi from the last century. May I tell it to you?"

He nodded slightly and I began, A poor rabbi, Reb Yechiel, wants to build a new synagogue for his town. Every night he dreams of a certain bridge in Vienna. Hidden gold lies under it. Finally-the dream is driving him crazy-he makes the difficult journey to Vienna. He finds the bridge and searches around it. A guard asks what he's doing. Reb Yechiel explains his dream and the guard laughs.

"'Oh, you Jews are such dreamers. I'll tell you what dreams are worth. Every night I dream of a Jew-Reb Yechiel. And hidden behind his stove there's gold

As I gave him the story, the Dalai Lama's face captivated me. Every emotion, every nuance registers there. He samples the feeling in your words and gives it back to you: this is sadness, this is joy. He listens with his whole being. I came to the punch line. "So Reb Yechiel returned home, looked behind his stove, and under the floorboards he found gold." The Dalai Lama's rich deep laughter filled the room. Behind him I noticed the golden statue of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of compassion.

"Rebbe Nachman told this tale," I said, "to explain why a person might journey far away to find a teacher, who will show the student what is already close at hand. For me, ' I said, looking into his eyes, "and for many Jews, you have become such a teacher. By making us look more deeply into Judaism, you have become our rabbi."

Cupping his hand, the Dalai Lama reached for the dome of his shaven head, laughing, and said, "So you will give me a small hat?"

I promised him a yarmulke. Then I closed my mouth. I had learned something from transcribing the 1990 dialogue: always leave him time to respond. In the silence, he's thinking. If you fill it with your own chatter, you may never get the benefit of that thought. So I contravened forty-six years of my own noisy cultural conditioning and let the silence alone.

Soon he replied that "all major religions can help each other. Each tradition has some specialty or uniqueness which can be very useful for other traditions." He added that sometimes the communication is not necessarily through words, but also through close feelings. "So," he concluded modestly, looking at his fingernails, "if you find some little contribution from my part to our Jewish brothers and sisters, I am very happy-" He laughed and said thank you softly twice.

But though the Dalai Lama seemed bemused at being called a rabbi, I knew he had taught Jews through our 1990 dialogue, especially with his questions about the Jewish inner life. From the Tibetan perspective, religions exist to benefit humanity. The Tibetan path includes particular practices-mantras, prostrations, meditations, and visualizations-meant to purify the mind of negative emotions such as hatred, anger, lust. What practices, he had wanted to know, does the Jewish tradition teach to purify afflictive states of mind?

The phrase "afflictive states of mind" was new to me in 1990. I understand it now as the anguish that keeps us awake at night, the gnawing within that makes life difficult, the fresh pain, or the old pain, each carries in the heart. Until I heard his question, it had never occurred to me to look within Judaism for an answer.

For many reasons-the prospects of peace in the Middle East, the changing of generations-Jews today are turning from issues of identity and politics and are looking more deeply inward. Through accounts of the 1990 dialogue, including my own, the Dalai Lama's curiosity about the Jewish inner life stimulated thought and debate. I told him Jews were very grateful for his questions.

The Dalai Lama generously replied that he felt all traditions, including his own, sometimes focus too much on external rituals or ceremonies. "Then theyneglect the real end of spirituality transformation within ourselves." He added with a playful smile, "If you make a short visit to a monastery, everything is beautiful. But if you listen to the story of what is happening-just as with normal human beings, there's fighting." He laughed, adding, "That is a clear indication we are neglecting genuine transformation, or spiritual development, inside."

What People are Saying About This

Ellen Frankel
"Kamenetz unveils the fascinating secret world of Jewish mysticism in its uniquely American idiom. Combining the crystalline wit of the poet and the guideless honesty of the seeker, Kamenetz renews our faith in God and the human heart."

Meet the Author

Roger Kamenetz wrote the landmark international bestseller, The Jew in the Lotus, and the winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Stalking Eljah. He is a Louisiana State University Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies and a certified dream therapist. He lives in New Orleans with his wife, fiction writer Moira Crone.

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