Interview about Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach with Natan Ophir

by Alan Brill carlebachbioWeb1

Most people who even briefly knew Reb Shlomo Carlebach understood that he had a multifarious life with many interesting turns. Natan Ophir (Offenbacher) has recently published a chronology of the events in the life of Reb Shlomo called Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacygarnered from an exhaustive range of interviews making it the first place to look in order to know about these twists and turns. The book is best on people, place, and dates and at many points reads like an almanac.

The book does not seek to push to understand his personality, mission, or contradictions of his persona. It mentions Reb Shlomo’s dark side but quickly moves on to other topics. The interviews are most thorough when dealing with Orthodox youth influenced by him in the 1950’s and least complete when discussing his connections to the Greenwich Village music scene or his connection to the Israeli world of the Chasidic Song Festival. It also does not interview bystanders or outsiders to gain context. One would not get from the book a sense of what it was like to live at the House of Love and Prayer or at Moshav Me’or Modiin. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a description of how his Torah changed over the decades or how the seven hour wedding ceremony was slowly created. Did I say that it reads like an almanac at many places?

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In the interview below with the author, I tried to bring out some of the themes of the book in a more analytic way that in the book.

1) How did you come to write the book?
I first met Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach at his shul on Shemini Atzeret in 1969. My family had moved from Philadelphia to Manhattan, just two blocks away from the Carlebach Shul. At the time, I was a student at Yeshiva University and did not really appreciate what I perceived then as a “Hippie Rabbi”.

Only many years later, when my son became a Carlebach Hasid, set up a Carlebach band, and named his second son Hod Shlomo for Reb Shlomo, that I began to take a real interest in the life and legacy of Reb Shlomo. The more I researched the more I became fascinated by a Rabbi whose influence was quite remarkable.

If I was writing the book again I would write it a little differently. I would try to condense some of the events and the laudatory stories so that the book can read more like an objective academic biography. Maybe I would try and put these into an appendix with a list of places and dates where he appeared.

2) What was the most meaningful thing that you found out about Reb Shlomo? 
I was surprised to discover the extent of influence of Reb Shlomo on so many different types of people from Jewish Renewal to haredim. Even just last week when I was visiting New York, I encountered people who vividly described how they had been close friends and some had even been “adopted” by Reb Shlomo.
If I were to narrow down Shlomo’s legacy to one word that would capsulize a key message of his approach to life it would be “Empathy”. Shlomo’s dynamo was “empathy”, a genuine attempt at appreciating other people and bringing out their best….Everyone is Best of the Best, Holy Brother, Holy Sister, holy everyone… If you ask how can that be possible when there is so much sin, evildoing and lowliness? The answer is in his Beshtian type stories of the Hidden Tzadik, the lamed vav zadikim and their leader who all disguise themselves.

3) Can you detail and explain his relationship with Michael Steinhardt?

Michael Steinhardt played a key role in financially supporting Reb Shlomo at three junctures – 1963, 1967 and 1971. Steinhardt graduated the Wharton School at the age of 19. In 1960, he went to a Carlebach concert and was “enthralled by the joy of Rabbi Carlebach’s singing”, and struck up a personal friendship. In 1963, he set up a company called The Shabbos Express to help Shlomo channel his talents in a professional business-like manner. However, Shlomo’s new managers were unable to dictate new habits and the company folded.

When the Six-Day War broke out on June 5, 1967, there was a news blackout from Israel. Arab sources claimed that the Israeli Air Force had been destroyed, the oil reserves in Haifa were on fire, and Arab forces were outside of Tel Aviv. At an impromptu rally at Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza on June 6, 1967, Reb Shlomo got up on a truck, led the crowd in a mournful El Maleh Rahamim, and then broke down in tears. Steinhardt:

I’ll never forget his crying on that June night. After the rally was over, I went to him, and I asked what I can do for you. He said I want to go to Israel. So I paid for his ticket. Somehow, he managed to get on the next flight and soon was at the Kotel and visiting the wounded in the hospitals.

Michael became a supporter of the Carlebach Shul. Each year, from 1967 through 1971, he would place a full page ad in the annual Kehillath Jacob Synagogue High Holiday bulletin.

Michael recalled how his first date with Judith (his wife to be) took place at the home of Reb Shlomo (apparently on motzei Yom Kippur, 1967). Half a year later, Reb Shlomo was one of the two officiating Rabbis at their wedding.

Finally, in 1971, Michael was one of three benefactors who committed to pay the monthly mortgage to finance the purchase of the second House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco.

4. How did Shlomo change between the decades?
1950-1954 Chabad Meshulach: Beginning December 10, 1949, Shlomo becomes an outreach emissary for Chabad. After the RaYaTZ dies on January 28, 1950, he works on behalf of the 7th Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel, whom he deeply admired. Later, he was to portray himself as having been the Rebbe’s “right hand man”. In 1951, he began learning English in a Columbia University program and in 1954 he receives rabbinic ordination from R. Yitzhak Hutner. By 1955, he had left Chabad and embarked upon his own unique path.

1955–1959: a guitar playing Orthodox Rabbi: In May 1954 Shlomo meets David Ross, producer of The Dybbuk, and is hired as Hasidic advisor for the play where the rehearsals take place in Greenwich Village. He sees how one of the actors uses his guitar and decides to try it himself. He studies guitar with Anita Sheer who transcribes his songs and encourages him to perform. Shlomo begins to perform at clubs in the Village and connects to folk singers such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow, and Phil Ochs. In 1956–1957, he serves as a weekend Rabbi in Dorothy, Atlantic County, New Jersey and begins to try out his musical compositions. He meets with religious youth in Brooklyn basements and entertains in the summers in Catskills hotels and soon has a devoted following of young religious students who encourage him to develop a professional musical career and help him set up a record company. The formative year towards producing a record is when he works as a youth director at Congregation Tpheris Israel, St. Louis, Missouri (Oct. 1958–June 1959). The youth help him in selecting the songs which are then recorded on his first record. Soon, Reb Shlomo establishes his reputation as the first Orthodox guitar playing Rabbi.

1959–1966: Shlomo’s musical career takes off with five LPs and six European Trips
with his first two LP records, June 1959, Songs of My Soul, produced by Zimra, Shlomo’s record company and Sing My Heart in 1960. His first trip to Israel was in August 1959.
In 1963, his third LP, At the Village Gate is produced by Vanguard Records, and marks the first time that a religious Jewish artist produces an album with a major American record company. By 1964, this was his eighth visit to Israel. His most famous song, “Am Yisrael Chai,” was created in April 1965 as the anthem for the SSSJ – Student Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. In 1965, he produces his fourth LP, In the Palace of the King, and his fifth LP, Wake Up World. By 1965, he had been on six trips around the world entertaining from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires, Sydney to Rome.

1966-1968 Rabbi for the Hippie Counter-Culture Generation
Several events in 1966-1968 wrought new directions in Shlomo’s life. On the July 4th weekend of 1966 at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, Shlomo discovered his calling in life as the only Orthodox Rabbi who could effectively reach out to a hippie generation. At the outbreak of the Six Day War in June 1967, he flew to Israel to be with the soldiers. A year later, his record entitled I Heard the Wall Singing added to the post-war fervency. The death of his father on December 23, 1967 created a void and Shlomo was expected to assume Rabbinical leadership of his father’s shul, Kehillath Jacob. Although, he did lead the services regularly on the High Holidays, it was not easy for him to be anything like a full time Rabbi at the Manhattan shul when other challenges were beckoning. In May 1968, he established the first House of Love and Prayer (HLP) and created a Jewish commune at the peak of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture in San Francisco.

1968-1979 Maturation of an outreach career
In mid-life, ages 43-54, Shlomo had a major impact on hundreds of close followers and on several communities. His 1972 marriage to Neila and the birth of his two daughters created some basic form of family life in Manhattan and then by 1978 in Toronto. However, Reb Shlomo was not a person who could be limited, and he continued traveling around the world extensively.

1980–1994, Last Years
The year 1980 was a difficult time period for Reb Shlomo, and the decade of the 1980s had its ups and downs. However, outstanding peak experiences include his trips in to Poland (January, 1-10, 1989 and June 1992) and to the Soviet Union (September 7–27, 1989). In these trips, not only did he reach out to Jews, but to thousands of non-Jews as well, and his post Holocaust message of forgiveness and love was most extraordinary. Shlomo’s last concert tour was in October 11-18, 1994 in England. He suffered his fatal heart attack in LaGuardia Airport on October 20, 1994.

5) Can you touch on why much of Shlomo’s Torah had Holocaust themes?
Reb Shlomo responded to the Holocaust by stressing how every individual can become God’s partner in fixing the world and replace anger with love and joy: “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” In the concert hall in Bielsko Biala, Poland, in 1989, Reb Shlomo asked how can we “repair the hate of the past?” His answer: “Only by filling ourselves with absolute and complete love and joy.”
Shlomo explained his decision to leave Lakewood yeshiva in order to devote himself to a Chabad outreach mission to save the lost Jewish souls and make up for all those who perished in the Holocaust. In one of Reb Shlomo’s most famous stories, “The last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto”, the child asks a fifth question, “Will we be alive next year and make a Seder?” The father replies, “I do not know if you or I will be alive next year to make a Seder. but somehow, somewhere in this world, there will be a Jew who will remain alive, and that Jew will be making a Seder.” Shlomo adds: we are all “the remaining Jew”, and each Seder is our own individual gift to that brave father who gave over to his son the faith that Od Avinu Chai, Am Yisrael Chai.

This theme of historical perpetuity and replacement was pronounced in February, 1971, when Reb Shlomo promised: “My theory is that six million Jews who died in the Holocaust have come back as today’s young people. Let’s not lose them again”.
Moshe Waldoks reflected recently: “I was a 10-year old boy in 1959 when Shlomo came to my yeshiva in Brooklyn, the Yeshiva of Eastern Parkway. Reb Shlomo Carlebach was important because he gave us permission to sing after the Shoah. The Shoah was still very raw and it was Shlomo who taught us to sing in renewed joyous Hasidic melody”. Similarly, Eli Schlossberg was 9 years old in 1959 was later to reminisce how Shlomo restarted musical simcha after the Holocaust – “Klal Yisrael had stopped singing, and now Shlomo was teaching our youth how to sing once again”.

Some of Shlomo’s tunes reflect his post Holocaust response. “Gam Ki Elech” (Psalms 23:4) – “Even as I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…” was first sung in the wake of the Yom Kippur war. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau describes how he had often hosted R. Shlomo in Tel Aviv, and Shlomo once said to him: “Rav Yisrael, you are a child of the Holocaust. I want to sing a special tune for you,” and then he composed a melody Gam Ki Elech. Following that, Shlomo’s album, The Children of Jewish Song Sing Ani Maamin, was released in 1975.

In his eulogy at the Carlebach Shul before Shlomo’s burial, Moshe Rothkopf described how R. Shlomo would warmly greet everyone who came to his shul because “he felt that after the Holocaust every Yid is a miracle. He wanted us to go out and hug and kiss every miracle.”

6) What did you find about the sexual allegations?
There are several stories circulating, which, if true, would indicate that Shlomo acted ‘inappropriately’. However, the challenge is to find concrete evidence for ‘sexual abuse’. One obstacle is that the negative stories are reported anonymously making them difficult to verify. Secondly, events of a few decades ago are problematic to reconstruct based on oral memories.

A decade and a half have passed since the allegations were first publicized in theLilith magazine. Since then, strangely enough, no one has published any substantially verified new material. If the stories were indeed true, one would expect that someone would be willing to present certifiable evidence.

7) It seems his best years according to your book were his 1957-1961 years of visiting shuls, NCSY, summer camps. Can you describe that period for shlomo and for his audience?

I don’t know if ‘best years’ is a good definition, but yes, there was something magical and promising about 1957-1959 when he began choosing the songs, and his fans encouraged him to prepare his first record. His audience was a natural fit – mostly modern Orthodox. Shlomo’s own personal outreach then was done through his organization T.S.G.G (pronounced TASGIG), an acronym for Taste And See God Is Good based on Psalms 34:9. Thus, for example, on December 25, 1957, T.S.G.G. organized a “Chanukah Festival” at Riverside Plaza Hotel, near the Carlebach Shul, and on March 16, 1958, a “Purim Song Festival” at Hotel Diplomat on W43rd Street. Here Shlomo was accompanied by a 5 man band, one of whom was Kalman Kinnory. It was Kinnory as a recording engineer who ensured that Shlomo record his first two songs professionally, Haneshama Lach in 1958 and Borchi Nafshi in 1959.

8) You paint Shlomo as sad and an outcast in the 1980′s. Why?
In 1980, at age 55, his life changed. His mother died and he became divorced. Suddenly, he seemed rather alone. His two little daughters were with their mother in Toronto most of the time. It was a sad time when idealistic concepts of family life seemed to have dissipated. And he was having various health issues from heart problems to serious back aches.

I don’t think that he was more of an ‘outcast’ in 1980 than in earlier times, but he was definitely now out in the world without the parental base that had played such an essential role until then. I do know that the “loneliness” had its impact in those years.

9) Much of Shlomo’s message was about an inner self or imagining all is good and healed. Do you have any thoughts on the psychology of that message for Shlomo?

Shlomo felt that the emotions that you have mentioned (love, joy, and healing) were being unfairly trumped by proste frumkeit, and his message took on a utopian vision of a world that would be healed and filled with empathy and brotherhood. This was pronounced with fervour in his encounters with the New Age Movements. In Vancouver at the World Symposium for Humanity, November 27–December 4, 1976, Shlomo reinterprets the story of Cain’s murder of Abel, and admits that throughout history, and especially in the Holocaust, the Cains of the world murdered their brothers Abel. But in the future, there will be a resurrection and the brothers will be reconciled. The audience composed of various New Age Movements all joined with Shlomo swaying in a trance-like state of ecstasy and fraternity.

Shlomo was keenly aware of the pain and suffering that he encountered but his message of how we can all work together to bring the Great Day when all of creation will sing in harmony was not only a product of the New Age idealism but it was also a reworking of Messianic themes inherent within Judaism. It is no coincidence that his reaction to the 1967 miraculous victory and imminent sight of Divine Redemption coincided with his view that the spiritual question of the holy hippelach of the late 1960s was part of a Divine Plan to soon fulfil the Messianic vision. In tune with the counterculture of the late 1960s, Shlomo was very critical of the Establishment and accused them of emphasizing a rote practice and lacking true spirituality, love and joy.

Shlomo projected an ideal future world within easy reach. In that he was not only following Jewish messianic ideas and Hasidic interpretations, but also he was cognizant of the utopian New Age ideas of gurus and swamis such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Satchidananda and Timothy Leary. Shlomo however, sang “the whole world is waiting to sing a song of Shabbos”.

Shlomo described the hippies as a new generation of young people who hear the Divine melody but “don’t know the words.” Shlomo’s thesis was that the world would be fixed when the older generation listens to the hippies’ melody, and simultaneously “these inspired young people” learn some of the traditional words.

This interview originally appeared on The Book of Doctrines and Opinions 

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