The Missing Jew

Poems 1976-2022

by Rodger Kamenetz


About this book

Kamenetz’s poems whirl and shake on the page. He is the poet of the living history of unspeakable names and his book…sings with dark wit the tales of tough family spirits. –Louise Erdrich, author of Love Medicine

These are very exciting and original poems…a secret and almost intimate meeting place of English and Hebrew. –Yehuda Amichai, author of A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 and Open Closed Open: Poems


Advance Praise

How does Rodger Kamenetz manage to have so singular a voice and at the same time precisely encapsulate the world view of an entire generation (also mine) of text-hungry American Jews born in the middle of the twentieth century? Crammed into the copious, immersive, hypnotic, hilarious, wise and heartbreaking Missing Jew is the experience of the child of Eastern European immigrants (“what did gud yuntiv mean?/ it meant the clothes were new”)  kabbala (“when God finally speaks/ each letter creates a star/ each star has ten worlds/ each world has ten men / each man has ten voices/ each voice has ten languages”), Chumash (“Isaac . .. lying on his back . .. /forgot his father/ in the presence of the Shekhinah”) Talmud (“Reb Arthur said, If a Jew is a verb/ — conditional/ Reb Toynbee said, Past perfect/Reb Yahtzik answered fiercely,/ Future perfect”) as well as secular cultural references from Walt Whitman to  Dante to Mark Rothko, whom we experience both as an immigrant Jewish boy from Dvinsk and as God’s own mentor (“In his early work, God painted like Rothko.”). Among this collection’s abundant gems is this proverb: “the mind is a moment late to the movie of the world.” But Kamenetz’s mind – or at least is voice – strikes me as being, consistently, right on time.

—Jacqueline Osherow, author, Ultimatum from Paradise  and My Lookalike at the Krishna Temple: Poems 

In this marvelously augmented extension of The Missing Jew, Rodger Kamenetz doesn’t miss a trick. He writes with a Yiddish lilt, a rabbinic braininess and tenderness, a three thousand year memory of torah and suffering and exile, and a wild kabbalistic dreamlife, all wrapped up in our beautiful freethinking American idiom.

—Alicia Ostriker, author of For the Love of God: the Bible as an Open Book, and Waiting for the Light, winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award.

In The Missing Jew: 1976 – 2021, Rodger Kamenetz writes that “just as one mitzvah leads to another,” so does the making of one poem lead on to the next, poetry an act of continuity, of attempting to fill the spaces of our chipped, fragmented world. In a poem about Mark Rothko, for instance, Kamenetz observes, “You emptied your paintings, / made them huge, surrounded us in a field, till we too / stripped off shape and story, number and name.” And yet, these canvases are not composed merely of a what isn’t but are suffused with a floating light. Here, the poet too reclaims absence, reconsiders desolation. Through elegies, midrashim, new psalms, dreams, he makes the missing unabsent. This “book of books” opens by acknowledging that “The history of my family is / the history of breezes,” and ends with an address to God, a prayer to be transformed into something faceless, stripped of arms and heart and eyes. “But then how would I see you?” the speaker wonders. The answer: “Through emptiness,” emptiness no longer a void but a place to be occupied by the shimmering intellect and imagination of these generous poems.

Jehanne Dubrow, author of The Wild Kingdom

 Who is the missing Jew?  The Jew lost in America, the Jew murdered in the Shoah, the Jew of the ghetto whose movement in the cities of Europe is restricted; the grandparents, the parents, the children, the unborn.  The missing Jew is the Jew in front of you, in your hands, in these pages and poems.  Rodger Kamenetz is the poet of the missing Jew.  The Ancients speak through him in the form of parable, joke, anecdote, midrash, but always in his own voice, the voice of an American poet finding his way through the labyrinth of history and myth, back to himself, back to the original form of no-form which joins him to the long line of seekers who peer into the great book of Life and find the questions in the empty space where the letters of the future are waiting for us.  I deeply admire these poems that return us to the source of who we are in our wonderment.

Joshua Weiner, author of  Berlin Notebook: Where Are The Refugees?

I love these poems featuring matzos, cherry soda, tailors, and Torahs—with Santa Claus here too, making a cameo. I have long admired Rodger Kamenetz’s poems and how they meld the visible and the invisible, moving seamlessly between the daily and the holy as they slowly unveil the world’s secrets, from what a tailor knows about bodies to what family is and how it behaves. In Kamenetz’s hands, history often comes with a side of humor, and that arrangement makes these substantive, searching, and deeply spiritual poems compulsively enjoyable—and so resonantly true.

Aviya Kushner, author of WOLF LAMB BOMB and The Grammar of God

The pleasure here is how he takes hold of the language & images of traditional Jewish mysticism along with the darker shadows of  diasporic life – what I once called ‘the world of Jewish mystics, thieves & madmen” — & how he constructs from them a still vibrant/living poetry & poetics.  A triumph of the deep imagination & a joy to read.

Jerome Rothenberg, author of Khurbn & Other Poems and editor of A Big Jewish Book



From reviews of previous editions of The Missing Jew

 Mr. Kamenetz has become one of the most formidable Jewish voices of American poetry…[He is] a modern day Rashi offering grounded commentary in the language of everyday discourse… Mr. Kamenetz’s subtle and intelligent surrealism transforms what is often sentimental Yiddishe dross inside the leaky Bics of other poets into striking imagery.

The Missing Jew is the most significant book of American Jewish poetry to appear this year… Mr. Kamenetz recovers Jewishness as a field for discourse, not sentimentalized imagery, in direct and imaginative address, he puts the question of Jewishness under discussion with large parts of honesty and humor. Even in his most playful moods, Mr. Kamenetz is dead serious– that most Jewish of attitudes…

Joel Lewis, THE FORWARD, December 11, 1992

The ear at work here is as good as W.C Williams’ in the early poems, and has a more than passing affinity to Reznikoff. These poems are all voice, in a delicious and almost forgotten sense of talk as pleasure, leisure, wisdom.

In The Missing Jew, Kamenetz probes this Jewish vastness with a bitter familiarity borne of the impossibility of avoiding it. To be Jewish is to think on it To think on it is to be unable not to think on it. The machine is set for perpetual motion and the end product is the book.

 Kamenetz does not hesitate to take on both his and the collective questions of his Jewishness. The Torah, the Kabbalah and what unspeakable God emerges through them are familiar to him as his family is, his family being, in this instance, a road map to the entire geography of the race. He does that in a poetic idiom which is entirely his and entirely new in American literature. Says David Meltzer: ” A wonder, both on the surface and in the core.” I fully concur and I am, in addition, grateful. He opened the package[ of Jewishness] for me. Inside were my missing selves.”

Andrei Codrescu, San Francisco Review of Books