This is only my take on Reb Shlomo; I won’t be able to cover all of him
Reb Shlomo became famous by his life. But even more so after his passing, this Thursday, 28 years ago. Singing the Psalms at his graveside at Har heMenuchot in Jerusalem starts at 3 PM, live on YouTube and Facebook. Followed by Minchah that yearly feels like the Fifth Prayer of Yom Kippur.
He’s still mostly known for his music. Never mind that often it’s redone as a lullaby. It needs to be sung with fervor. In my humble opinion, if you can sit through the songs, it’s not the way Shlomo did it. And, it needs to be done together. It’s not a spectacle. It’s community singing.
He tried to revive the Jews after the Holocaust. He remembered and understood being a Jew is not a sad affair. You need to hug, sing, and dance to get out of death’s grip. In Shul, at home, in the street, everywhere. He began looking for Jews as an emissary of the unequaled Lubavitcher Rebbe.
He’s still called (in Israel) the singing, dancing rabbi. Yet, he was so much more than that. Talk to older people from all walks of life in Jerusalem, and they’ll tell you he was their friend. When you’re happy, it’s hard to hate.
He was one of the liberators of the Russian Jews. He always spoke very warmly of them. How holily they were standing there, outside, in the freezing rain, for hours, singing, Am Yisroeil Chai (The Jewish People is Alife), the only Jewish song they knew from illegally spread cassette tapes.
Most people know him for his love for all people. Although he was for Jews only marrying Jews, and Jews doing Judaism, he famously respected everyone (except people trying to turn Jews into Christians). ‘You must be so Jewish that nothing can un-Jew you.’ Frequently, he went out at night to befriend the homeless and give them some money.
His ‘dancing’ is now widely imitated. Few seem to know it comes from his chevre. It’s easy to learn. You put your arms around the people next to you (if they agree) and jump straight up repeatedly. (Coming down is built-in.)
Even less known is his fully original take on how to understand traditional Judaism. Judaism is told over from generation to generation. Not that we should just parrot what we’re told. We should tell it as we understand it.
The first year I started learning Shlomo’s explanation on the Torah portion of the week, I could follow it but could not tell it to others. They are such a step up from anything else I ever learned, a very deep thing to internalize and make into something of your own. Judaism is not to be mastered. It needs to master us. The second year around, I could retell his teachings.
Shlomo is teaching us that being a Jew doesn’t mean being religious in the Christian sense of the word (as I recently explained at length). Being a true Jew is an awareness, an attitude, a lifestyle. Shlomo’s rendition was all about love, connection, and closeness. As a twin, he learned extremely early in life that our natural state is to not be alone.
Years after he passed away, some very grave accusations were levied against him. I dealt with them in a separate blog post a couple of years ago, at length, delicately, sensitively, nuancedly, and—I hope—truthfully.
In case it needs any explaining, the Yahrtzeit is not a day of mourning—though we do see tears, even after so many years. But it is celebrated with song and dance, and stories from Shlomo and stories about Shlomo.
Every year at the gravesite, someone wishes me “Happy Yahrtzeit.” I bless you, and please bless me back that Reb Shlomo’s merit may stand with us.