Elchanan Poupko

Wrestling with Shlomo Carlebach 

His music is so captivating, and my personal connection runs so deep, that when I stopped listening to Shlomo, it was like a punch to the gut
Shlomo Carlebach studying Torah. (YouTube)

I was saddened to see Neshama Carlebach’s account of being attacked in the Romemu synagogue on the Upper West Side due to what her father had done. One of the most fundamental tenets of Judaism is that children cannot be punished for what their parents have done, nor can parents be punished for what their children have done. Each person must be judged individually. After all the reporting on this, for some reason, this one struck a raw nerve in me, for the hundredth time. It brought me to contend with my own memories of “Shlomo,” as we used to refer to him. 

Shlomo Carlebach performs in Jerusalem on March 8, 1994. (YouTube Screenshot)

I grew up in Israel with Anglo parents who were very much part of the Carlebach echo sphere. Neshama Carlebach, the Solomon brothers, the Moshav band, and so many other kids were part of that incredibly optimistic, musical, and hopeful social circle. While I was younger than most of those I mentioned, and Shlomo died when I was just nine years old, I still have lots of memories from that time. 

We used to go to “the Moshav” for Shabbat. Through the lens of a young kid, I have the most precious memories of the Moshav (Moshav Mevo Midi’im founded by Carlebach, where he and many of his followers resided). We would come when Shlomo, as we all called him, would come for Shabbat. Back from his journeys around the world, the grown-ups would gather for the most beautiful and musical Kabbalat Shabbat. At the same time, we, the kids, would play on the spacious outdoor grounds. Once the grown-ups would finish their Kabbalat Shabbat, we would all gather in a Kibbutz style communal dining room where the entire Moshav would eat together, obviously led by Shlomo. There were mattresses on the side of the room so we, the kids, could fall asleep as the meal and the beautiful Zemirot went late into the night. Members of the Moshav welcomed us into their homes and became our second family. I am still in touch with some of them to this day. They were kind, happy, gracious, and enthusiastic. Most people there were not only new to Israel, they were also new to orthodoxy. We were sort of an experimental generation, the children of those who moved to Israel in the ’70s and ’80s and were trying something new. 

Shlomo was a father figure to many of us. We would go to his concerts, listen to every tape, and know every story. 

Then came the fork in the road. Hippieland could not continue forever. Israel—then much more than now— had a rigid list of socioreligious options, and you had to choose. Being a spiritual hippie was not one of them. This was before being a musical hippie was a recognized denomination in Israel. Many of the families became Haredi—ultra-Orthodox—some even Hasidic. Some families became religious Zionist Israelis of various kinds, and so we each went on our own way. It is amazing that from that cohort of Moshav children, there are some I know living in Bnei Brak in the most Lithuanian Yeshivish communities, others went to mainstream Haredi Yeshivas, and others went to a more modern orthodox—or none orthodox—path. It is unsurprising that a large number of those kids, myself included, eventually took the first exist they could to the United States where those sudden rigid lines they had to face were not as harsh.  

Those of us, myself included, who continued on the more Haredi path suddenly had to contend with a major dissonance. Our beloved rabbi and father figure was not as respected in those circles as he was in the broader Jewish public. There was harsh criticism of him. It was like being the kid who goes to school and suddenly discovers that his dad showing up in a Hawaiian T-shirt does not make him cooler. He suddenly realizes his father is something to be ashamed of. The reason for the shame was that it was well known the Carlebach would hug and kiss women in public, a big no no if you are trying to be ultra-Orthodox. Like in the case of the uncool day, different kids dealt with it in different ways. Some turned on Shlomo. They renounced him and declared themselves holier than him. I later learned this would deeply frustrate him since had he been more religious, he would have never gone to the places he went to bring their parents closer to Judaism. Nonetheless, that was pretty standard. This is not a small number of children who grew up with this torn psyche and decided to discard Shlomo and pursue their “mainstream” more religious identity.  

There were other kids, perhaps like his daughter Neshama Carlebach, who understandably grew up to believe that if Shlomo did it, there must have been a reason. It must have been acceptable–even within the realm of orthodoxy. There must be a justification for it. 

What did we all have in common? We all saw Shlomo’s questionable interactions with women as an issue of bein adam lamakom—it was between him and God. Since the paradox in his behavior was a religious one—on the one hand, Shlomo was a revered orthodox rabbi while on the other hand, orthodox practice did not allow for a man and woman to touch unless they are married—the dilemma was all within the realm of religion. 

I personally struggled with this question, yet since I personally did not see Shlomo hugging or kissing women, I did not struggle with the question too much. So long as I did not see it, perhaps it did not happen. 

Growing older in Yeshivish Haredi Yeshivot, Shlomo’s legacy was never resolved. On the one hand, we knew this famous person whose songs were sung everywhere around us. On the other hand, when the debate about his paradoxical personality came up, it became very personal. It hurt me to be part of those conversations between fellow Yeshiva students as to whether it is permitted to listen to Shlomo’s music despite his unorthodox conduct. Reflecting on how hard this was for me, I cannot begin to imagine the pain Neshama Carlebach must be going through now so many decades later. 

Some years went by, during which I was still studying in Yeshiva, and I was old enough to discuss the matter with Shlomo’s peers and those who knew him. I was still that kid from the Moshav inside, with the body of a grown rabbi asking Shlomo’s peers and colleagues about this great paradox.  

I discussed the matter with a senior American rabbi, who knew Shlomo very well and was even close to him in age. I asked him what he thought. He told me that he sat with Shlomo as a colleague and asked him about his paradoxical conduct. “How could you behave in such a contradictory way?” he straightforwardly asked Shlomo. He said Shlomo looked at him right in the eye, snapped his finger, and said: “If a person does Teshuva, the Ribono Shel Olam accepts him right away. He is so close to us.” This was in 2014. After all those years, I decided I can no longer listen to Shlomo’s music. 

Not listening to Shlomo was like a punch to the gut. It was difficult on many levels, largely because his music is so beautiful and captivating, as well as the personal connection. I just could not do it.

Then came 2017 and the #MeToo movement. More women and more stories came forward about unwanted touching and pain Shlomo had inflicted on young women. As I was already detached from the conversation, it was not as much an emotional Tsunami for me. I can just begin to imagine how much it must have shaken the world of many. 

The conversation about Shlomo had now changed forever. 

No longer was it just a conversation about unorthodox behavior—bein adam lamakom—it was now a matter of basic human decency— bein adam le’chavero.

Having been through those dilemmas and contemplating, I now recognize that while to many, the question of listening to Shlomo’s music or not is a halachic, moral, or ethical dilemma, to others, it is not. In this conversation, we need to recognize that there are many, perhaps thousands for whom it is a profoundly emotional question, as it was for me; can we listen to this person who meant so much to me, or not? 

While I have personally opted not to listen to Shlomo’s music, I recognize many won’t be able to do the same. Shlomo was like—or in the case of Neshama an actual— father to them, and I can never judge that. I also recognize that many resent Shlomo and his music because of what he had done to them or others. For them too, this is not some kind of intellectual dilemma, it is a visceral pain striking at the core of who they are. There is nothing anyone can say to that person. There are those—perhaps lucky ones—who can weigh in on this issue in a purely intellectual way. “Is it appropriate to listen to Carlebach’s music or not?” Interesting question, I will leave it to others, as I cannot think of this objectively. And yes, despite the pain, despite the resolve not to listen to Carlebach’s music, there are those times, late at night, in what I consider a moment of weakness, that I go onto YouTube and with tears in my eyes listen to Shlomo: “Shomer Yisrael, Shmor She’erit Yisrael.” Guardian of Israel, please protect the remnants of Israel. Once a Moshav kid, always a Moshav kid.     

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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