In Dreams Begin Volumes


Discovering the Hidden Path to the Soul
By Rodger Kamenetz
272 pages. HarperOne. $24.95.

It’s a rare occurrence when I remember a dream in any detail. I suspect I am not the only one who wakes up with the feeling, "I just had a great/interesting/funny/scary dream about... about... there was a... oh, never mind. You had to be there." As a result, I've always been fascinated by those people who can recite their dreams as though they were great short stories or well-worn Seinfeld repeats. So I was eager to pick up Rodger Kamenetz's The History of Last Night's Dream and see what happens inside the sleeping head of a great and imaginative writer like Kamenetz.

I was not disappointed, and thankfully, the book went far beyond Rodger's personal dreams to explore the role that dreams have played in Jewish and Western thinking. Kamenetz (who, in the interest of disclosure, I recruited some years ago as a Beliefnet columnist, and whom I edited in that position) takes us along on his personal quest to learn as much as he can about dream interpretation, and in the process we encounter some fascinating Jewish texts and colorful contemporary characters, including a female kabbalist in Jerusalem, a postal worker in Vermont, and improbably, Morrie, of Tuesdays with Morrie fame, the saintly professor dying of ALS, whose near-deathbed Kamenetz visits to discuss dreams.

Why are we fascinated by dreams? Of course, there are many answers to the question. They're in our own heads but are uncontrollable. They fill our otherwise empty sleep time with drama. They're mini-plays in which we star but don't know the ending. And, perhaps more importantly, they seem to be saying something to us, about us. The idea that dreams carry some sort of message is a longstanding and indelible one. They are, at least in our imagination, or at least our hopes, windows to our souls; some might even dub them windows to the divine itself.

Dreams, of course, play a central role in the Book of Genesis, which Kamenetz dubs the Western world's first great dream book (the second is Freud's On the Interpretation of Dreams). The first book of the Bible records several memorable dreams, which play key roles in furthering the biblical storyline: Abimelech is warned in a dream that he will die if he sleeps with Sarah, who is Abraham's wife and not his sister; Jacob famously dreams of a ladder ascending to heaven, with angels climbing up and down it; Joseph's dreams lead to his brothers' violence against him. And then something curious happens. In the opening of Genesis, the meanings of individual dreams were obvious, and the dreamer understood them literally or intuitive. But by the end, dreamers are seeking out interpreters to explain their dreams. This allows Joseph, dreamer and dream-interpreter extraordinaire, to propel himself from prison to Pharaoh's most-trusted advisor—but it also means we humans lost something meaningful along the way, namely, a direct connection with our own dreams.

And that was just the beginning of the once-mighty dream's downfall. In rabbinic hands, the dream is taken seriously—the Talmud goes into great detail about how to interpret very specific details in our dreams in very specific way—but ultimately the Rabbis' conclude that we cannot know if a dream is from God or Satan, so therefore we shouldn't read anything into it. Rituals are developed to "ameliorate" the dream, turning bad dreams into good ones, and the dream, once the primary means of divine-human communication, is barely spoken of in later rabbinic literature. In contemporary Orthodox society, as Kamenetz discovers, amelioration rituals persists and dreams are considered unworthy of study or contemplation.

It took the secular, modern thinkers Jung and Freud to resurrect the idea that there is meaning to be found in dreams, but we've hardly returned to a culture that regularly studies and finds messages or insights in our dreams. Kamenetz, in his own idiosyncratic way, is seeking to reclaim the dream from those who would "ameliorate" it. A man of words who is a member of a religion of texts, he is fascinated by the image and its meaning. He finds his most influential teacher  in northern Vermont, one Marc Bregman, the aforementioned postal worker. Bregman's got his own theory of dreams, which Kamenetz sets up in opposition to Freud's. Freud contrasted the "manifest dream," the easily remembered "plot," with the "latent dream," the deeper meaning waiting to be interpreted. To Bregman, the manifest dream contains all the meaning there is, but we may not always see it because a dream's message may very well carry uncomfortable truths we'd rather not face. With Bregman's help, Kamenetz undergoes what ultimately amounts to a form of psychotherapy, using dreams instead of emotions as a means to explore his personality, past, and especially, relationship with his deceased father.

What is Bregman? An interesting, unique fellow, for sure, and one who helps his clients, Kamenetz among them, reach new heights of self-awareness by delving into their dreams. Kamenetz's explorations—of Jewish texts, modern secular thinkers, and of his own dreams—reveal fascinating insights, and it is amazing how he manages to work out psychological issues through his dreams. But what's the connection between one and the other, text and Bregman? None, so far as I can tell, other than their common concern with dreams. Not that this is a problem; Kamenetz is welcome to seek wisdom and insight from any source, and we benefit from his allowing us this window into his journey. It does, however, makes for a book that's somewhat disjointed, whose pieces doesn't always hold together as well as it should. This quest took Kamenetz in many different directions, and that shows in the structure of the book.

The bigger problem with The History of Last Night's Dream is one that I encountered at my breakfast table some years ago, when I lived with a roommate who, unlike me, remembered in great detail almost every dream he had, and would relate them to me, in equally great detail, in the morning. They were, as you might imagine, as mundane as anyone's—and, for the most part, so are Kamenetz's. Other people's dreams, it must be said, are just plain boring (there, I got that off my chest), and they slow down the last third or so of this otherwise well-written, easy-to-digest, insightful book. Still, there's no interpretation without primary text, and so reading of Kamenetz's dreams about books and other minutiae is the price we pay to see the unexpected and illuminating places they take this modern-day dreamer.