Readers can get lost in writers search

What is Rodger Kamenetz looking for? The true meaning of religion? God? His soul? His relationship with his father?

He began this search in the early 1990s with a visit to the Dalai Lama in “The Jew in the Lotus.” In it, he tried to understand how Judaism can be renewed through a dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Buddhist monks and Jews who became Buddhists. He continued the theme in “Stalking Elijah,” in which he further tried to understand prayer, blessing and meditation.

In “The History of Last Night’s Dream: Rediscovering the Hidden Path to the Soul,” the latest manifestation of his journey, he is still looking.

Why focus on dreams? According to Kamenetz, it began with the failure of a book project on religion. There was a “gap between what I wanted to believe and what I felt inside,” he writes. “The space between belief and feeling troubled me.”

Kamenetz’s upbringing was entirely secular and educational. He had read a lot about God and prayer, but in his view, God wasn’t real. He couldn’t personally know God; it was like talking to a wall. Books didn’t help and neither did his father, with whom he had a dysfunctional relationship.

Dreams inspired Kamenetz. Over time he became accustomed to dream language that took him below conscious and subconscious layers of the mind.

Western religion gives us an abstract God who is unknowing, invisible and infinite. Getting close to God is difficult; it is a struggle with belief and traditions instead of with ourselves. We don’t know how to look inward, so we turn to texts, religious authorities or both. But theory and dogma get in the way of “seeing” God.

Kamenetz’ dilemma is that if we can’t “see” God, why do we still rely on words over images? The struggle between words and images underlies Western thinking especially in dreams and their interpretation.

Kamenetz’s book is like a memoir, with the chapters chronicling his search for meaning in his dreams. Along the way, he meets and studies with several characters and teachers. His journey begins with “Collette,” an 87-year old Algerian-born mystic and teacher who helps him reverse the “flow of ordinary thought, taking words back to images.”

Working with another teacher, Marc Bregman, Kamenetz discovers that images in dreams are powerful, which is why interpreting them with words has such appeal. Dream interpretation seems to be an almost reflex action, and illustrates a struggle that literate, word-oriented people have with dreaming. The struggle is to see dreams as a direct revelation of our lives, the real truth, the revealed you. “Everyone wants a revelation, but no one wants to be revealed,” he writes.

Bregman helps Kamenetz find a path for going deeper and seeing “how dreams fit together over time into a larger pattern, feeling the story they tell you about your predicament in life, and … the situation of your soul.” This sounds like dream interpretation, which he then spends a lot of words discrediting.

To call the book incomprehensible would be too harsh. Nevertheless, the general reader is likely to find the book a slog. Understanding its themes and ideas takes some literary excavation. The organization is haphazard, darting from one place and time to another, and occasionally referencing episodes from a previous chapter. Regrettably, there is no index to help track these.

Kamenetz’s prose seems almost dream-like, which makes sense, since dreams do not have the logical, rational, chronological chain of events in waking life. In that sense, the book succeeds stylistically. But that may not help the reader, who may still wonder where she has been or where she is headed.

“The History of Last Night’s Dream:

Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul” by Rodger Kamenetz (272 pages, HarperOne, $24.95)