During one of my first interviews for this project about the rebirth of Observant Judaism in America, I went to my $64,000 question: What was the major cause of this renaissance? My interviewee looked at me and then my recorder, and said, ‘Turn off the tape.’ When I acceded, he said, ‘Reb Shlomo. Now we can turn on the tape and change the subject.’
Shlomo Carlebach was a one-man revolution in Jewish music, and Jewish Spirituality. However, he became very controversial. Stories came out, many after his death in 1995, of inappropriate behavior, and for many, he was expunged from the record, even though his music is heard in venues where his name must not be uttered.
Not everyone agreed with these exposes, and, since I’m interested in what happened in the ’50s and ’60s, I’m ignoring the controversy.
Many of my interviewees were perfectly happy to give him his proper credit. One was Prof. David Golinkin, head of Schechter Institutes here in Jerusalem, who gushed:
Shlomo Carlebach!! I was 8 years old (1963) and my father a Conservative Rabbi, drove us over an hour to see Shlomo Carlebach give a concert in greater Washington, DC. We had never seen anything like it! It was a one-man revolution! From soup to nuts, he was a phenomenon. The real thing. I think that Shlomo turned on hundreds of thousands of Jews. I was in a back-up band for a performance of his at a USY event. It was electric! Hundreds of people came up to the stage to jump and sing with him. In the ’60s, he was bigger than Chabad. He turned everyone on to Judaism. He’s the one. He was the biggest thing for many Jews of the time. He was an inspiration, and not just for America. His trips to Israel, especially around the Yom Kippur War inspired a generation. He was the force behind later groups like the Rabbis’ Sons. He was behind the Chassidic Music Festivals in Israel. Just a huge influence!
Only slightly less breathless was Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, Director of the RCA in Israel:
Shomo Carlebach was impactful because music in the ’60s was part of a search for meaning in life. Music was a vehicle for meaning. There was James Taylor and Bob Dylan (ne Robert Allen Zimmerman). Their music was uplifting and inspiring. But Carlebach fed into this predilection. His influence was enhanced by those returning from Israel, who preferred a BA’AL TEFILA to a chazan. This shifted the traditional shul dynamic, from formal structure to more individualized and more participatory. This was part of an overall search for meaning, which the spread of prosperity helped to engender.
What did Shlomo say about Shlomo;
I’m never satisfied with my singing. I don’t think that I have a good voice. I think my voice is just good enough to inspire people to sing with me. If I would have a GEVALDIC like Moshe Koussevitzky, then nobody would want to sing with me, because then they’ll think they don’t want to miss my voice, but my voice is just good enough to make them sing. (Eli Wohlglernter, ‘Simply Shlomo’, Jerusalem Post Magazine, (1995).
It’s true! His musical ability was to make us sing. First our voices, then our souls!
I got to meet Reb Shlomo a number of times. He was a force of nature. The first time I met him, after a performance at the West Side Deli, OBM. I was taken aback by the hug and kiss, but I got used to it. But I can’t resist one story:
Reb Shlomo performed the wedding of a student of mine at the Moshav in Modi’in. I was to read the Ketuba. About an hour and half into the Chupa, I hear my name called and went up to read the Ketuba. Reb Shlomo held out the Ketuba and his guitar. I asked what the guitar was for, and he whispered, ‘It helps you gets through the hard words.’ I told him that I could handle the Aramaic. but her persists, ‘Just strum it as you read.’ I told him that I couldn’t play the guitar. Again, into my ear, ‘Holy Reb Dovid, neither can I!’ So, there I stood reading the Ketuba, with the text in one hand, and the guitar in the other, held away from me like a three-day old fish. Periodically, I pray that no film exists of that event.
But Shlomo was more than the music. I’m not very musical (BTW that’s an understatement). So, after an event with Shlomo, I didn’t always remember the songs. I remembered the stories, the deep Torah thoughts.
This is not the place for a Carlebach bio, but he was one of those who escaped Europe at the beginning of the War. He learned Torah with Reb Aharon Kotler and Reb Yitzchak Hutner. He was close to the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his father in law, the previous Rebbe. On a Torah level, he was the real thing.
The influence of Shlomo goes wayyyy beyond his music. Rav Tradburks hit on part of it, when he said Shlomo influenced participatory davening. According to Reb Avraham Trugman (Trugs!), there were over 100 such minyanim worldwide in 2002. I’m sure there are more today, and many others will do periodic Carlebach Kabbalat Shabbat. When I was a kid New Year’s Eve meant Guy Lombardo and his orchestra; well, Kabbalat Shabbat means Carlebach. I’ve been to such services which would take over two hours of singing, dancing and stories.
Oh, the stories!
Shlomo founded neo-Chasidut! He was telling Chasidic stories in non-Chasidic venues long before others. He revived study in certain Chasidic masters, especially the Mei Shiloach.
He said profound things, in non-profound ways, which resonated in the hearts and souls of his listeners. One example from Rabbi David Aaron, who himself is a major force in neo-Chasidut:
Reb Shlomo’s message was not that we believe in Hashem, but we do not realize that Hashem believes in me.
Someone who knows a lot more about music than me (that’s a very large group), explained to me what was so effective about Shlomo’s music:
Everything was simple. Two easy phrases, repeated twice. Then again, and again. But the melodies worked, whether sung slow or fast. So, Shlomo could control the mood, and always end with almost ecstasy.
A dear friend, Reb Natan Siegal OB”M, once described the first time he heard Shlomo, in 1962:
He sang songs which grabbed our souls!
Next: All American Rabbis