One of the more refreshing Jewish books of the ’90s was “The Jew in the Lotus,” Rodger Kamenetz’s account of a meeting between the Dalai Lama and eight American rabbis. This encounter, the first between representatives of the two ancient traditions, was occasioned in part by the Dalai Lama’s desire to know how Judaism had survived in exile and why so many American Jews were practicing Buddhism. As witness and recorder of that meeting, Rodger Kamenetz was transformed from a primarily cultural Jew into a religious seeker. “Stalking Elijah” continues the story by tracing Mr. Kamenetz’s spiritual journey from Passover 1996 to Passover 1997.
At Barack Obama’s inauguration, when the Rev. Joseph Lowery began his benediction by quoting the third and final stanza of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” he provided the historical memory for this historic occasion. I recognized the words immediately and was taken back to the late 1940s and the Sunday afternoons when the NAACP held meetings at my father’s church in Kansas City, Kan. At the beginning of those gatherings, we would stand and sing the words Lowery quoted to a melody written by Johnson’s brother, J. Rosemund Johnson. The song was known as the “Negro National Hymn.” In those days even Aretha Franklin could not have sung “My Country ’Tis of Thee” with the emotion and conviction she did earlier in the inaugural proceedings.