Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy, by Natan Ophir (Offenbacher), Urim Publications. 503 pages. Hardcover $39.95.
In this monumental biography, the author strives to capture the facts about and legend of the man who was the Pied Piper of late twentieth-century Judaism. In so doing, Dr. Ophir provides a portrait of several decades in North American, European, and Israeli culture through a very special lens. These are decades of spiritual revival, experimentation, and the reconfiguring of traditional religious institutions. In the realm of Jewish experience, Rabbi Carlebach (hereafter “Shlomo,” as most people came to know him), was a central figure, most likely the presiding genius, of what is still an ongoing revolution.
Dr. Ophir divides the book into two main sections: The Mission and The Impact.
The Mission traces the evolving sense of purpose that shapes Shlomo’s unusual career. Here, the author introduces the Carlebach family’s European background and “Rabbinical Legacy” until the relocation to Brooklyn in 1939 when Shlomo was fourteen years old. The Carlebach’s are centered in Brooklyn for six years and then Manhattan into the early 1950s. Shlomo’s education is provided in detail, particularly the influence of the major Hasidic communities of Bobov, Modzitz, and Chabad. In New York, the Bobover Rebbe repeated his father’s pattern of developing “kindergartens, schools, synagogues, and Talmud academies.” Shlomo and his twin brother Eli Chaim had a strong relationship with this group.
Importantly, Shlomo was attracted to the Modzitzer Rabbi whose community was involved with musical composition. He studied and went to summer camps within this community.
Most formative, however, was the influence of Chabad. A frequent visitor to Crown Heights, Shlomo, in his own way, became a Chabad disciple. Eli Chaim married into the Schneersohn family. Well before the neo-Hasidic renewal movement was popular, Shlomo was tapped to be an emissary, partnered with Reb Zalman Schachter. By 1950, Shlomo was launched into his outreach career as a special assistant to Menachim Mendel Schneersohn (the 7th chief Lubovicher Rebbe). He and Zalman were to be “outreach messengers to ‘lost souls’ outside of the committed Hasidic camp.”
Shlomo studied, informally networked, traveled, and – most importantly – played his guitar. He set liturgical phrases to new tunes that would, over the decades to come, seem like they had always been around. At the beginning of his career, “the Singing Rabbi” was an oddity. Before long, he was famous. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he was a phenomenon, attached powerfully to these important decades of youth rebellion, peace and environmental advocacy, folk music, and communal life. Shlomo did, indeed, bring young people back to Judaism and strengthened the engagement of those already involved.
Some say he was too liberal with his hugs, but his message was joy. He spread it across the Americas, Europe, and Israel. He was everywhere and anywhere. His records sold in astonishing numbers, given what was truly a niche genre. His last name became an adjective: a Carlebach Shabbat (“Shabbos,” he would say), a Carlebach farbrengan, a Carlebach service.
In his book’s second part, The Impact, Dr. Ophir details the extensive outreach and “wide reach” of the global rabbi. At times, the pages read like an annotated planning calendar, the main text supplemented by page notes that include generous amplifications as well as sources. The author is careful to portray Carlebach’s innovative manner as an adaptation of traditional Hasidic modes. But what an adaptation. As Ophir writes:
In retrospect, Reb Shlomo initiated a concept that soon became so popular that it received a new name – a “Shabbaton.” The term entered modern parlance as a colloquial expression for a Shabbat experience replete with singing, spirited praying, communal meals and Torah study. But in actuality, this is a Neo-Hasidic innovation of Reb Shlomo. He redesigned the Hasidic Shabbat, expanded it to be gender inclusive, and pioneered ways of ‘getting high’ on Shabbat. Today, the idea of a “Shabbaton” is taken for granted, but in the late 1960s the idea of transforming an Orthodox type celebration of Shabbat into a social –spiritual-emotional happening that is open to all was a rather avant-garde concept.
Perhaps you haven’t heard of The House of Love and Prayer, an alternative commune for Jewish hippies. Developed (where else?) in the San Francisco area under Shlomo’s inspiring tutelage, it was a place for all kinds of communal events – and a crash pad. Fostering its own special Jewish dress code that blended observant norms with hippie styles, it was just what lost souls and disenchanted seekers needed. Many of Shlomo’s most able disciples were spiritually nourished and gained leadership skills in one or another manifestation of the HLP.
Through the 1980s and up to his death in 1994, Shlomo’s global spiritual healing continued. In the chapter “Lifting the Iron Curtain,” Dr. Ophir records the power of Carlebach’s melodies, particularly for “Am Yisrael Chai,” in rallying world Jewry to the eventual liberation of the Soviet Union’s Jewish population. Shlomo’s influence on Jewish Renewal rabbis is described at length, as are other aspects of his rich legacy.
Though it is (deliberately) skimpy on Shlomo’s personal life and on the antagonism his outreach style sometimes generated, Dr. Ophir’s biography is a great gift, unlikely to be superseded for decades to come.
We can be especially grateful for the valuable appendices: a Timeline, a Bibliography, a list of Sites Accessed, a Discography, an Index of Carlebach Songs, an Index of Names, and an Index of Places.
This review appears in the July-August 2014 Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County) and the July 2014 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota /Manatee).