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Rodger Kamenetz’s new book connects Rabbi Nachman, Franz Kafka, a turkey, and a cockroach

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(Collage Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine; turkey: The Illustrated Natural History; cockroach: Wikimedia Commons)

Rodger Kamenetz’s Burnt Books, the latest volume in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series, is a dual biography of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, the great surrealist writer. Both men left instructions that their writings be destroyed after their deaths, nearly a century apart; both men’s wishes were ignored. In time, both men became icons: On Rosh Hashanah each year, thousands of Jews make a pilgrimage to Nachman’s grave in Ukraine; debate rages still over the fate of Kafka’s papers. Kamenetz sees Nachman and Kafka as kindred spirits, men whose works speak to one another about the challenges of maintaining tradition in the face of modernity.

Kamenetz spoke to Vox Tablet host Sara Ivry about the two men, about the relationship each had to the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and about how Nachman’s fable about a turkey responds to Kafka’s tale of an insect. Running time: 17:57. 

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Shriber says:

I was hoping that Shmuel Yosef Agnon’s work would have been mentioned in this context.

M. Brukhes says:

I agree, Agnon is one of the missing links that makes the transition between Reb Nachman and Kafka, by way of modern literature in Hebrew and Yiddish, comprehensible; if Reb Nachman and Kafka are second cousins, Agnon is a first cousin to them both!

Shalom Freedman says:

I have not read this book though I would like to.
It seems to me however that Reb Nachman and Kafka are polar opposites in spirit and mood.
Kafka by the way died in 1924 and not as indicated in this interview.

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Boker Tov , for the record I graduated Kaminetz Yeshiva in Boro Park. Harev Krupenia was our Rosh Yeshiva. Your family?Trivia in Poland whom was Harav Krupenia’s Chavrusa when Harav Krupenia was studying in Kollel for Simicha?

When I lecture in West Point , the young Cadet’s ask me what was the 1st Prizefight I ever Promoted? Answer: Aaron B.”When I was a kid there was this Bare-Knukle Champion , that was bigger, much Tougher than the SHAQ .Name was Oak Tree, 8’9″ 452 lbs. Ripped ,Oak’s Record 68-0 67 Killed-1KO (survived). Well I had this red headed TUFF JEW, 6’1 213lbs.Poet, liked nature.Well this was my 1st Promotion , promised my red heads Jewish mother , I would protect son from Oak beating him to death. Huge audience, since Bare-Knucle Boxing is illegal held it in a desert in the Middle East . Audience was 2 opposing armies.One army Jewish , the other Philistine’s. This Prizefight was huge , my red headed Jewish boy was a 36 to 1 underdog.My Poet Prizefighter ,took a slingshot from his Pocket hit Oak in the forehead with a stone, when Oak went down took Oak’s big sword, & cut his head off. Fair & square. My red headed Warrior became King David of Israel. “Tuff Jews”, Aaron Braunstein…

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shaul says:

Rebbe Nachman writes volumes about the place of imagination in religious life… It is perhaps a foundation of his critique of the secular worlds attempts to diminish and squash our dreaming not 100% rational selves. Imagination is our faculty to go beyond the cold empirical truths of our dismal sciences and as Rebbe Nachman writes, is the gateway to belief…

shaul says:

i would also just add to the question of “whats Jewish about that” regarding the turkey prince— what is more Jewish (and thus ultimately human) about the challenge of living dual identities?
While Kafka (and its been a long time since I really read him) seemed to me to be mostly dealing with non-Jewish/ anti-Semitic other positing Jew vs non-Jew, Rebbe Nachman places it in a paradox of spiritually aware vs spiritually asleep… Is Kafka more grabbed by the tensions of the Jewish body, while the Rebbe more attent to the challenge of the Jewish spirit?


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Rodger Kamenetz’s new book connects Rabbi Nachman, Franz Kafka, a turkey, and a cockroach

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