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. Finallythe dream is making him crazyhe 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 JewReb 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 relicstaid, 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 messageand the broad appealof 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.