Finding The Missing Jew anew
January 10, 2023
I don't have a copy of the original 1979 edition, alas.
When I saw the words "Jews do not come from heaven" in the table of contents of The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022 by Rodger Kamenetz, unbidden my mouth said aloud, "they come from Russia."
I love this poem. I have been quoting its opening lines since I read a previous edition of The Missing Jew when I was in grad school the first time around, getting my MFA at Bennington. Here it is:
Jews do not come from heaven
they come from Russia.
With green eyes and olive skin.
Jews do not go to heaven
they go to Baltimore.
They do not come from heaven
because heaven is always
in the back of their minds.
They don't want to think about
heaven any more
it's too much trouble.
God bless Ben Yehuda Press (full disclosure: they published my books Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy, and they are Bayit's publishing partner on Beside Still Waters and Renew Our Hearts).
They've brought this new-old creation into print as The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022. The first section is the original 1979 collection. Rodger remixed his own work in 1992, and that's here too:
"Jews do not come from heaven..."
Jews are all people
They are as plain
I thought to go back
to some Russia
of the eyes
green mixed with brown
young wheat, dark soil
streaks of sunlight
and a winter
I am here
in the thinnest sense
wherever I go
Look how this poem speaks to its predecessor, like a great-grandchild answering a letter left by an ancestor. I hear melancholy Shostakovich, I feel my Russian grandfather looking over my shoulder.
And the remix of "Jews do not go to heaven" -- I will resist re-typing it here for you. I'm going to memorize that one, though. The one word he revised between 1992 and 2022 changes everything.
Is there a word in the world
waiting to be heard?
As if for the first time
and the only time is now?
That's from "Invisible Lines of Connection," dated 2020. Although this book was pieced from many sources -- published books, other poems from other moments -- it feels like an integrated whole.
That integration makes me think of how the Talmud both holds and transcends the voices within. Even when the sages disagree, they are (as it were) on the same page. It's one interconnected conversation.
Here are psalms and songs from 1981-2021. Here are mourning poems, including "Lentil" which we reprinted in Beside Still Waters. It sometimes makes me gasp when I run across it again there.
This book is full of memory, and mysticism, and God speaking the world into being in Her own inimitable way, and Reb Nachman with his tears under the table pretending to be a turkey.
Fallen leaves recite kaddish. The infinite arrives on lightning feet. Every word is broken. Only the hidden can burst forth. We forgot what we were yearning for. Every one and every thing is for you.
I'm cheating: that paragraph is a pastiche of Rodger's lines. If that doesn't entice you, I don't know what would. I want to start a new commonplace book so I can copy these lines in my own hand.
The Missing Jew Poems 1976-2022 is available at Ben Yehuda Press or wherever books are sold.