A review of “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission and Legacy” by Rabbi Natan Ophir
When asked about Rabbi Carlebach’s music, Timothy Leary, that dedicated explorer of mystical experiences and expanded states of consciousness, is reported to have said: “If I had ever had a chance to listen to Shlomo’s music before I ever took drugs, I would have never needed to take them in the first place, that’s how powerful his music was!”
This testimonial is one of many filling the pages Natan Ophir’s meticulously researched and documented book, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission and Legacy.” For the devoted followers of Carlebach, the book is a wonderful opportunity to re-encounter the man they knew and loved in a rich new context. For those who are just discovering his music, the book offers a wonderful starting point for a journey that can lead as far as the reader wishes to go.
Twenty one year after his passing, Carlebach, whose yahrzeit was marked on October 20, remains a somewhat elusive figure. In her forward to Ophir’s book, Carlebach’s daughter Neshama writes: “My father avoided the creation of tangible footprints in this world. He lived in abstract and spiritual realms.” And so despite all that has been written about him, despite the numerous professional recordings and amateur videos, one always feels as if something essential is still missing.
Ophir’s book does much to help grasp this essence. The portrait of Carlebach that arises from the pages is one of a man at once charismatic and palpably human, uniquely whole yet vulnerable and broken-hearted. Like the Baal Shem Tov, whose legacy Carlebach so clearly channeled for the post-Holocaust generation of American Jews, he was living in this world, the Olam Hazeh, yet seemed to have already tasted the Olam Haba — the world to come.
He was variously referred to as the singing, rocking, jumping, whistling, and dancing rabbi. With his beard and the Yiddish accent, the kippah and tzitzit, his profound knowledge of the Torah and the rituals, he was unmistakably Orthodox. Yet he chose to spend his time with the crowds of mixed-gender American Jewish hippies who had walked away from Judaism in pursuit of a kind of spirituality they had despaired of finding in conventional synagogues. Strumming his flamenco guitar, he played the kinds of melodies, niggunim, which rooted him right in the Jewish musical tradition of the Pale of Settlement. They resonated with the descendants of those who had left it several decades before on an almost subcutaneous, ancestral level.
But for those who had the mazal, the luck, of personally encountering him on their spiritual journey, the most important epithet of all was that he was a loving rabbi. He saw the holiness in the other and tirelessly affirmed it. He referred to everyone he met as a holy brother or sister, his best and most beloved friend. His urge to assuage the pain of another was so great that he couldn’t contain it. And why would he? His was the kind of Judaism practiced by the Baal Shem Tov — the warm, heart-centered Judaism that raised the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself to the highest rank. He believed that all a wandering Jew’s soul needed was a bit of loving kindness, a touch of musical inspiration, and a pinch of some very real Yiddishkeit in order to come back home. And return they did, in droves.
For an author trying to present a charismatic spiritual figure such as Carlebach, the danger of veering into hagiographic territory is always present. But to adhere too strictly to a dispassionate narrative when one’s subject is a figure as cherished as Carlebach would miss the point. Writing with warmth and empathy, Ophir successfully gets past these hazards. His writing is clear, and his ability to organize the vast material at his disposal is nothing short of extraordinary. At the same time, he is able to step back and let the voices of those whose lives were profoundly transformed by Reb Shlomo tell his story.
“The Melody Reaches All the Way to the Soul”
Carlebach’s melodies have become such an intrinsic part of Jewish liturgical music that many forget they have an author. Among the most famous are Od Yishama (song from 1:20), V’haer Einenu (song from 1:28), Am Israel Chai, Mizmor LeDovid, and Leman Achai Vereai. For Carlebach, prayer was inseparable from music, and melody was the shortest path to the soul.
In our conversation about what gave Carlebach’s music its unique impact, Dr. Hazzan Ramon Tasat, the cantor of the Shirat HaNefesh congregation in Chevy Chase, MD and president of Shalshelet: The Foundation for New Liturgical Music summed it up this way:
Many people are able to compose melodies without deep knowledge of liturgy or access to tradition. They see a text, and they compose a melody they like. And in many of those cases, the melody is hooked to text in an awkward way. It doesn’t seem to describe the text.
What Rabbi Carlebach did was to create melodies that not only described the text but amplified it. They produced an emotional experience for people, whether they knew the text not. And therefore, they were able to access a realm that had been neglected or ignored or sealed. There were people who wanted to access it and couldn’t, and there were people who didn’t even know that such a realm existed.
This musical-textual congruence reflected the broader congruence and integrity of the man himself. He may have been an eclectic figure, he may have played guitar at services, he may have whistled and welcomed men and women sitting together. (All of these are prohibited in Orthodox contexts.) But in matters of observance, he was an Orthodox Jew, and where it mattered, he made no concessions. (Ophir tells a story of Carlebach once getting out of a car and walking the remaining twenty miles to his destination in a pouring rain because Shabbat had already started.) And I dare say that it was this unapologetic integrity that appealed to his primary constituency, the largely liberal Jews with their split loyalties and identities, who longed to sew all the different parts of their souls together into a single whole.
“I’d Rather Be Jewish than Anything Else”
There are two videos of Carlebach that have particular meaning for me. One is the recording of a service he led in Leningrad in September 1989. The other is a video from the same visit, in which a middle aged Russian Jew asks him a question that has since become famous: “Reb Shlomo, why are you so happy? Haven’t you heard about all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people? Shouldn’t we all be in mourning all the time?
The question may seem amusing, bringing to mind the Western stereotype of a gloomy, joyless Russian. On the other hand, it may almost seem to have been a set-up, a clever way to get a famous Rabbi to unleash his rabbinic wisdom on the viewers.
But for me, the question is sincere and urgent, with a deeper one hiding just below the surface. What this Jew is really asking is: How is it, Reb Shlomo, that you dare to raise your voice so high? How is it that you are not ashamed of it, not ashamed of being a Jew?
I know this because I was there. Not in that synagogue, but in that country. I was one of those millions of Jews who came to be known as the Silent Jews. During Carlebach’s joyous praying in Leningrad, I was in Moscow, just four weeks away from emigrating to the United States as part of that great exodus that eventually took 1.5 million Jews out of the Soviet Union.
We were silent Jews not only because we didn’t have the knowledge to raise our voices in prayer and not only because with us the chain of transmission commanded in the Shema — “and you shall speak of it to your children” — had stopped for three generations. We were silent also because through all of our experiences we had internalized one common wisdom: that being a Jew was something to keep quiet about, and yes, for many, something to be ashamed of.
And Carlebach, with the sensitivity that was uniquely his, heard this. And one of the first things he told this man in his 3-minute answer was that even though we Jewish people have every reason to be sad, “I’d rather be Jewish than anything else.”
What Carlebach is saying is, I hear you. I hear your shame, and I understand your confusion. And I’m here to tell you: it is great honor and joy to be a Jew, and if you follow this path, you’ll know it.
Did the questioner understand this? Did he believe him? I doubt it. It is not a truth that can be absorbed in a few moments by someone whose entire life’s experience suggests the opposite. But what I do feel certain about is that the joy and faith that Carlebach embodied, more than his words, left an impression and were this man’s real answer.
“We Have to Continue to Love the World”
The question of why be joyful as a Jew remains relevant today. With anti-Semitism on the return, with the world watching and accepting the murders taking place in the streets of Israel today, the question remains: How can one be a Jew and be joyful?
Carlebach’s answer would probably be similar to the one quoted in Ophir’s book: “After the Holocaust it’s so easy to be angry at the world, and it’s so easy to condemn the world. But we have to continue to love the world. The most important thing today every person has to do is to cleanse their hearts from anger, and fill the heart with a lot of joy.”
Several of Carlebach’s friends and followers refer to the fact that Carlebach made it possible for the post-Holocaust generation of Jews to sing again. And it was in the name of “the six million” that Carlebach kept composing, performing, and reaching out to wider and wider circles of Jews. In response to the question of how we can repair the hate of the past, he said: “Only by filling ourselves with absolute and complete love and joy.”
This message still rings true today. And for all those who sing Carlebach’s songs in the numerous minyanim around the globe, who work to maintain his legacy, and for those who have benefited, directly or indirectly, from his loving presence in this world, his two great blessings and commandments are: to realize and express the joy that is an inherent and inalienable part of our tradition, and most of all, to love our neighbor as ourselves. The rest, as we all know, is commentary.