Jewish poet offers his faith in humor

Author: A native Baltimorean will visit Columbia to share his new, witty poetry about Judaism.

March 26, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rodger Kamenetz is a native Baltimorean teaching in Louisiana whose poetry has made him known throughout the Jewish world.

His poems are often oxymoronic in nature, simple yet complex, quirky yet clear. Regardless of the reader's interpretation, most will agree there's plenty of humor to go around.

There should be lots of laughter in the room when Kamenetz comes to Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia on Sunday night to read from his new book of poetry, The Lowercase Jew. During the program, which is to start at 7 p.m., he will talk about his views on life, many of which involve humor.

"Frankly, I think worrying and despairing are really just a waste of time," Kamenetz said. "I don't think we're here to look at the mess in the world. We should look at things that are beautiful. I just think it's better to focus on what's beautiful, and not the mess."

Kamenetz wants people to use his poetry to understand Judaism and laugh at the negative, such as anti-Semitism. The book's title refers to poet T.S. Eliot's disrespectful use of a lowercase letter when writing about Jews.

So how does Kamenetz take on that issue? By laughing at it. The poem talks about putting Eliot on trial and sentencing him to ... a Bar Mitzvah.

"Send him from here to Hyam Plutzik's grandson's Bar Mitzvah. For the Jews it will seem an afternoon. For him, a hundred years," the poem said. Later, it concludes: "Poets, you should be careful the words you choose. Remember, there are no lowercase Jews."

Kamenetz said his poetry is a Jewish approach to humor, something that is hard to describe, but something he knows when he hears.

"It's kind of anti-authority, the voice in the back that objects in a funny way that brings down the house," Kamenetz said. "It's often exaggerated; it's verbal and very much involved with language. It's highly ironic, and I think it's kind of an attempt to make fun of pompous [things]."

Beth Shalom Rabbi Susan Grossman said Kamenetz's ability to use humor to send a strong message in his poetry is something that benefits Jewish people everywhere, especially during difficult times.

"His light touch and his ability to bring back Jewishness in a reflective and thoughtful [way] is just what the doctor ordered," Grossman said.

Kamenetz is the third of five children in his family. He teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at Louisiana State University and directs the Open Center program at the Vermont Studio Center, a nonprofit arts group. He went to Polytechnic Institute, despite living in Baltimore County, and skipped 12th grade to attend Yale.

After graduating from Yale, Kamenetz worked his way into poetry. He is the editor of a poetry column, "Psalm 151," in The Forward, a Jewish weekly newspaper.

One of Kamenetz's best-known works is The Jew in the Lotus, in which he recounts receiving an invitation to attend and write about a groundbreaking meeting between American Jews and Tibetan Buddhists, including the Dalai Lama.

The poet's younger brother is Kevin Kamenetz, the Baltimore County Council's 2nd District representative.

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