Harmony from the holy brother
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Harmony from the holy brother

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Shlomo Carlebach

Shlomo Carlebach was such a huge figure – such a charismatic, driven, talented, beloved, inspired, inspirational, detested, brilliant, intuitive, lonely man, such an incarnation of music and soul and longing and needs, so apparently without boundaries – that although he was deeply Jewish, Jewish to his neurons and synapses, Jewish with every breath he took – it is hard not to think of him as Shakespearean as well.

As Julius Caesar, in fact.

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus.” He did. But it seems that now, 20 years after his death, his fate will be the opposite of Caesar’s; in fact, the good that he did will live far longer than he did – his melodies are used in shuls across the Jewish spectrum across the Jewish world and are the soundtrack for much of Jewish life – and the evil, we hope, is interred with his bones.

(There is more about his failures – the allegations of sexual abuse that dogged him in whisper form throughout much of his life and surfaced in detail soon after he died – later in the story.)

The local community will look at Reb Shlomo’s legacy (we can try to call him Rabbi Carlebach, but it looks all wrong) in “Give Me Harmony,” billed as a tribute to him on his 20th yarzheit. The celebration will begin on Friday, November 7, at many local shuls; it will continue on Friday, November 14, again at many shuls; and will conclude after havdalah on Saturday night, November 15, at Temple Emeth in Teaneck. (See box for more information.)

To start at the beginning, who was Reb Shlomo?

Shlomo Carlebach was born into an Orthodox rabbinic family in Berlin in 1925, and moved to New York with his family in 1939. He was a brilliant student; he studied, among other places, at the Bais Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, where he was highly valued by the rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Kotler – in fact, Rabbi Kotler is said to have called Reb Shlomo one of the best students he ever had. Shlomo eventually left the yeshiva world, where a stellar career had been predicted for him, for music, but he also always deeply loved the study of Torah and other texts. They were part of his being, entwined with his soul.

He moved to the world of Chabad Lubavitch, where he began to work in outreach. He and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi – who later came to pre-eminence in the Jewish Renewal movement and who died, in July, as another beloved, innovative, and charismatic leader, but had neither Reb Shlomo’s musical genius nor the depth of his reach – became Chabad’s first two shlichim, or outreach emissaries, on college campuses. “They were handpicked by the Lubavitcher rebbe to do this,” Rabbi Debra Orenstein reported. Rabbi Orenstein heads Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson now, but for many years she worked with Reb Zalman. “Everything that we know about Chabad functions on campus – and everything that Chabad knows about how to function on campus – grew from that.”

Soon, though, Reb Shlomo left the Chabad world as well, and set out as a kind of itinerant musician and Jewish-soul-attractor. He was a musician, singer, and composer; he was a storyteller; he was a teacher, and he was a magnet, picking up lost Jews, as well as Jews who were lost but didn’t look as if they were.

“I’m not sure that I can see the man,” Rabbi Gerald Friedman said. “I see the myth. I see him larger than life.” Rabbi Friedman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley, has spearheaded the celebration. Rabbi Friedman grew up in the chasidic world, and although he largely has left that world – his ordination is Conservative – he is a chasid of Reb Shlomo’s, he said. “He brought me inspiration and joy.

“I saw him in the middle 1950s, in Brooklyn, at Shabsi’s Pizza in Crown Heights. A lot of young chasidic people hung out there – he had already made his break from Chabad. And I was a young man when I met him in the 1960s, in his formative years, in Greenwich Village.”

He would befriend the brand-new hippies just emerging then. “The oilem – the world – was made of so many kinds of people,” Rabbi Friedman said. Reb Shlomo brought them together. “College kids, what he called hippelach, Holocaust survivors… The coming together of all these disparate people, that was part of his mission as a Jewish teacher. He wanted to break down walls.

“Shlomo showed me that I don’t have to be only the way I grew up. I could be that person – plus. He made you believe that your perceptions and your inner truth had validity.

“He brought intimacy to large crowds.

“When he would talk to you, he would call you Holy Brother or Holy Sister, and you would feel seen. He had an extraordinary memory, and he had laser intimacy. He didn’t just have external charisma and good energy. To him, every Jew was juicy” – or should that be Jew-cy – “from the beginning.

“He gave hope and faith to the Holocaust generation” – his Yiddish-inflected English, not the show-business kind, reminded them of home before the horror – “and he could reach out to modern Jews who were looking for renewal.”

Not only was Reb Shlomo a musician, he was a gifted storyteller. “He was a maggid,” Rabbi Friedman said. “I was able to meet a maggid in my own lifetime.”

It would be wrong to say that Rabbi Friedman concluded a discussion about Reb Shlomo. He couldn’t. He can’t. But he did say, as the conversation, necessarily, ended, “Shlomo Carlebach was not a breath of fresh air. He was a hurricane. A whirlwind. And somehow, at the same time, with intimacy.

“A whirlwind.

“He was the sweetest singer in Israel. Ever.”

Rabbi Chaim Dalfin of Brooklyn, a Lubavitch chasid and a popular writer and lecturer, has just written a book about Shlomo Carlebach. “‘The Real Shlomo’ probably has generated more interest than any other book I’ve written,” he said, and he’s written about 50 of them. He’s slated to discuss “Reb Shlomo from 1940 to 1965″ at the community tribute program at Temple Emeth.

“Shlomo Carlebach is greater than death,” Rabbi Dalfin said. “He is more alive today than he was when he was alive. And it’s not only his music – it’s what he stands for. He had a very colorful, one-of-a-kind personality; he had his feet in two worlds” – Chabad and outside it – “and he was able to balance.

“Shlomo was so loving to every person. He gave away his shirt – and his soul – for another Jew.”

One of the issues that separated Reb Shlomo from Chabad was “his breaking with strict Jewish law about the mechitza and kol isha.” (In other words, the need for a barrier between men and women at prayer, and the question of whether men may hear a women’s voice raised in song.) “It was 1954, 1955, and the rebbe said to him, ‘Look, Shlomo, you can’t use the name Chabad, because we follow halacha, and you need to hear women sing, and to hug and kiss them in public. I can’t support that, and you can’t use our name.’ And the Orthodox world told him the same thing.

“He was crushed, and I must say he died feeling that way, although by the ’80s he made a turn back toward tradition on a certain level, but the damage was done.

“I can tell you from researching Shlomo that he had a deep-seated anger, but I have to tell you that it wasn’t because he didn’t understand. My humble opinion is that at heart Shlomo was a very Orthodox Jew. Not just because he wore tzitzit and a full beard, but because his real comfort zone was Chabad and Lakewood, and if he had his druthers, he would have been with those people.

“He always traveled with s’forim” – with Jewish texts. “He always traveled with the deepest learning.

“His power over the audience came from his heart,” Rabbi Dalfin continued. “I believe that it was his neshama,” his soul. “He allowed his soul to embrace you. Most of us speak and sing with our minds; Shlomo allowed it to be free-flowing. And that’s also why the hippie culture was so natural for him.

“It came from his heart.”

Jay Knopf of Teaneck is a leader of a Carlebach minyan, and he is on the committee that has put the tribute evening together. “Reb Shlomo had a melody for every single psalm in Kabbalat Shabbat,” the first part of Friday night services, he said. There are many for Lecha Dodi, the culmination of Kabbalat Shabbat, when the congregation welcomes in the Shabbat queen; in fact, there are so many that the minyan’s custom is to start with one and end with another. There always is dancing after Lecha Dodi, “and sometimes during the service as well. It depends on the energy of the room.” In fact, whenever the weather allows, the dancing is outside. “The idea is to bring in the Shabbat queen with joy.”

That’s the effect of Shlomo Carlebach’s music, with its deep emotion that cuts to the heart.

“What is amazing about Rabbi Carlebach is that he means so very much to so many people,” Mr. Knopf said. (His minyan, which meets on Friday nights, mostly but not only at people’s houses, welcomes newcomers, no matter what their background. In fact, it is in keeping with Reb Shlomo’s outreach that the minyan welcomes everyone who yearns for Jewish connection. To learn more, email Mr. Knopf at carlebachteaneck@gmail.com.)

“I met Shlomo in 1977,” he continued; he was a teenager then. “But it’s not that I met him – he met me. I was at the Kotel, and he literally came up to me, hugged me, and told me to come with him. I didn’t know who he was, but I thought that he was an interesting man.”

What drew the two of them together? “The Kotel is a very spiritual place, and for some reason he just chose me, out of everyone there, that night. I walked back to his house with him, and there were about 100 people there, for a party.

“I don’t know why he chose me, but he looked for people who looked like they would be open to him.”

The two stayed in touch – Mr. Knopf was among the thousands of people with whom Reb Shlomo would maintain a relationship, he said – “and when I went to his funeral, there were lots of homeless people there. They were crying. He was doing a lot of outreach to the homeless. They were not Jewish – they were just human beings. He would give them money, he would give them food – and he would talk to them, and that made them feel better because it made them feel like people.”

He told one of the many stories he knows about his rebbe.

“Reb Shlomo goes to Russia.” This was in the bad old days of the Soviet Union, when religion could not be practiced behind the Iron Curtain, although its days were numbered then. “He brings a lot of Jewish books, tallises, and tefillin. He gives them all out. When he is leaving, when he’s run out of everything he brought, he gives a Jew his own personal tallis and tefillin and yarmulke. Now he’s on the plane, coming home, and a religious man starts yelling at him. ‘How dare a rabbi go around with no yarmulke?’ Shlomo said that he doesn’t get angry at him. He doesn’t get angry. But he says, ‘If only you knew where my yarmulke is.

“‘I gave everything I had to give. I have nothing left.’

“He would give his last penny to help a homeless person,” Mr. Knopf said. “That’s what he was about.”

Buzzy Levine of Teaneck, the owner of Lark Street Music there and a man who is profoundly knowledgeable about guitars, guitarists, and musicians in general, is also on the committee. “That’s because Reb Shlomo is a great pivotal figure in Jewish history and in our time,” he said.

“He knew everyone’s name. He remembered everyone. He was open to everybody.”

The community tribute program, as a look at the list of performers makes clear, includes Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, as well as musicians, musicians, and more musicians. Reb Shlomo’s openness is serving as a model there. “It’s a good opportunity to have an event that appeals to everyone, across all the lines,” Mr. Levine said. “We have drawn those lines, and they have an importance too, but there is a place for unity.

“Right now we need unity.”

Alone among the organizers of the tribute, Rabbi Orenstein admits to feeling some ambivalence.

Shlomo Carlebach had been accused of sexual abuse of women. Although the accusations were not compiled and leveled until after his death, and he therefore had no chance to refute them, there have been so many stories of harassment and inappropriate behavior, including with very young women, and those stories have been so consistent, that it is hard for a thinking person to dismiss them. Of course, the fact that times and assumptions were different then is true as well, and duly recognized.

“I think that it is important to honor the people who were harmed, by never minimizing it,” Rabbi Orenstein said. Teshuva on the part of the offender always is possible, and so is forgiveness and understanding on the victim’s, but that is the victim’s gift to withhold or offer. “We are going to have to talk about his mixed legacy, and the people he harmed,” she said. To that end, the session that she will facilitate will be a chance for people to share stories.

On the other hand – and it is never a hand that is stronger than the one that protects victims, she stressed – there was real power, charisma, and magic to Shlomo.

She has two indirect stories about him.

Her father, Jehiel Orenstein, was a Conservative rabbi. “My father had a friendly, joking relationship with Shlomo,” she said. “He sometimes also enjoyed being a gadfly. So the week that I was slated to be ordained,” at the Jewish Theological Seminary, “my father happened to meet Shlomo in the street, in New York. He said ‘Shlomo, hello, Holy Brother,'” – Reb Shlomo’s favorite greeting – “and Shlomo said, ‘What’s new by you?’ My father said, ‘Well, my daughter is being ordained,’ and waited to see what Shlomo’s reaction would be.

“Without missing a beat, Shlomo beamed, and said ‘Wonderful! Another Jew teaching Torah!'”

The other story came from her rebbe, Zalmen Schachter-Shalomi; Rabbi Orenstein paraphrased it from memory. Reb Zalmen and Reb Shlomo, then both young Chabad shlichim, went to Brandeis, one of the few campuses that allowed them access. “It was winter, and there was a very icy set of back stairs outside,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “People warned them not to go down that way. It was very slippery.

“But for some reason, instead of going down the front stairs, they decided to take the slippery, tricky back steps. The people who went down before them fell. It was a disaster. But they went down without a hitch.

“Somebody asked, ‘What’s your secret?’ and immediately Shlomo said, ‘When you’re doing an aliyah, God takes care of your yerida.'” When you head upward on a holy task, in other words, God makes sure that you don’t tumble on the way back down.

“Zalmen loved that story, and he told it all the time. He used it as an example of Shlomo’s warmth and quickness of wit, but also for the small miracles that always seemed to surround him.”

It’s not so easy to decide what’s true and what’s not true about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s life. Most people are complicated, so it stands to reason that the bigger you are, the more space there is for complications. Few people are entirely good, and it is clear that Reb Shlomo was not among them. He left victims, and they must be acknowledged.

But he also left a huge legacy of music, stories, and love for all Jews that we need, possibly even more desperately now than when he died, 20 years ago. It is that legacy that will be at the heart of the celebration on Saturday night.

Give me harmony
What: A tribute to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, spanning 2 Friday nights and 2 Saturday nights.

When: Friday, November 7

Where: Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson; dinner and erev Shabbat services, 6:30 (registration and advance payment necessary)

Where: Fair Lawn Jewish Center; Kabbalat Shabbat service and oneg, 6:20

When: Saturday, November 8

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck; Havdalah and melaveh malka, 5:45

When: Friday, November 14

Where: Carlebach Community of Teaneck at Netivot Shalom, services, 4:30

Where: Temple Beth Rishon, Wyckoff, erev Shabbat service 6:30

Where: Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, memorial service and oneg, 8

Where: Temple Emeth, Teaneck, erev Shabbat services and oneg, 8

Where: Congregation Beth Shalom, Pompton Lakes, Shabbat eve yarzheit service, 8

Where: Temple Israel/Congregation Heichal Yisrael, Cliffside Park; erev Shabbat service and dinner, 8

What: Tribute program

When: Saturday, November 15, 6:30 to 11

Where: Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck

Including: sessions led by local cantors and rabbis; other guests include Neila Carlebach and Rabbi Chaim Dalfin; Havdalah, at 8:30, led by Avram Mlotek, and concert until 10 by C. Lanzbom and Nochi Krohn; jam session, dancing, and refreshments from 10 to 11.

How much: $18 adults, $10 college students; free to high school students and younger children. Please bring exact change or checks if possible. All money beyond costs will go to Tomchei Shabbos of Bergen County.

For more information: Email Rabbi Gerald Friedman at rebyossel@verison.net or Nancy Passow at nancy.passow@bisrael.com.

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