Book Review of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy

By Judah M. Cohen

carlebachbioWeb1Natan Ophir’s book, a major new study of Shlomo Carlebach, doubles as a treatise on researching modern figures who exist most vividly in the followers’ memories and recordings. Scholarship today must reckon more than ever with nonwritten sources. Commercial sound, image, and video repositories such as YouTube stand alongside nonprofit efforts such as the Internet Archive (, institutional portals at museums and research centers, digital archives at national and university libraries, and massive and growing personal media archives in home collections. Charismatic leaders still often present their ideas through written texts; but the immediacy of audio/visual sources, coupled with expanded options for their creation, dissemination, and preservation—whether on cassettes or the internet—can now match or exceed the significance of their textual output. Faced with such a range of materials, how will scholars organize and interpret them? Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson offers some hints of the emerging situation: though the author of a considerable written oeuvre that continues to anchor his intellectual legacy, he remains the subject of a huge, even growing collection of images, audio, and video. But what about a significant and influential thinker whose media presence vastly outweighs his written work?

Few twentieth-century figures offer as interesting a case in this regard as Shlomo Carlebach. Despite a slight literary output, Carlebach’s vast array of teachings—in person and in performance, preserved in memory and on recording—continue to occupy a formidable space in contemporary Jewish life and in reverberating circles beyond. Understanding his worldview, however, arguably requires a fundamentally different scholarly paradigm for research and analysis. Ophir takes on this challenge with intelligence and enthusiasm; and his consideration of Carlebach as “a modern day Baal Shem Tov” (pp. 425–427) late in the book perhaps best characterizes the result.
Actively recognizing a sometimes hagiographic level of hyperbole that accompanies his subject, Ophir views Carlebach’s spiritual and intellectual legacies as a universal “Hasidic” message, which he documents in large part through the eyes and narratives of others.

Ophir, to his great credit, conducted much of his research through intensive collaboration with Carlebach’s “chevra.” Earning the trust of many members in Carlebach’s inner circle, he conducted around 250 interviews and gained access to a wide variety of materials—from local photos and videos to official smicha (religious title conferral) certificates— that might have been overlooked. Shlomo’s daughter Neshama Carlebach adds a foreword (11), and key Carlebach associates—the late Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Sammy Intrator, Aryae Coopersmith, and Shy Yellin —present their own endorsements of Ophir’s work in an extensive back-matter section (500–503). Academic purists might voice concerns with such an “authorized” version of Carlebach’s life; and moments along the way where critical distance appears to collapse may reinforce that view, most notably a first chapter that essentially treats Carlebach’s early years as a tzaddik narrative. Yet amid these claims, Ophir also presents reasoned observations that seek a respectful balance between scholarship’s aspirations of objectivity and the passion of Carlebach’s devoted followers (see p.116, where Ophir notes that “Shlomo’s recollection was typically hyperbolic”). Accepting these shifts as a natural part of the Carlbachian landscape allows Ophir’s deep and continued engagement with the Carlebach community to shine as one of the book’s major achievements: facilitating a life map far more detailed than any that had existed before.

The narrative that emerges often has the hallmarks of a guided sourcebook, with Ophir weaving materials and memories together into an organized but dizzying array of experiences and personal relationships. Throughout, Carlebach appears as an intellectually curious, spiritually intense, musically resourceful, organizationally spontaneous, and theologically creative figure: taking his yeshiva upbringing into a series of spiritual spaces otherwise ignored or rejected by other Jewish leaders in the second half of the twentieth century. From Chabad-based outreach events to a synagogue position in St. Louis, coffeehouses, the Berkeley Folk Festival, the House(s) of Love and Prayer in Haight-Ashbury, Israel’s Moshav Meor Modi’im, a historic tour behind the Iron Curtain, New York’s “Carlebach Shul,” and numerous Eastern- and Jewish-oriented spiritualist retreats, Ophir’s account highlights open conversations with an extraordinary range of religious and musical figures—not to mention supporters such as brother-in-law Srul Irving Glick and megaphilanthropist Michael Steinhardt, the latter of whom offered rent support for the House of Love and Prayer. Perhaps just as remarkable, and implied in Ophir’s retelling, is the extensive support system that Carlebach’s supporters and collaborators established for him. With Carlebach’s attention often focused on personal outreach, others set up events and concerts, arranged travel and logistics, prepared recording sessions, and offered lodging and other basics to support Carlebach’s active career.

Simply finding a scholarly format for recounting all these aspects of Carlebach’s life can prove daunting. Ophir, a scholar of Jewish philosophy, responds by orienting his account along an intellectual maturation/dissemination axis. His first section, “The Mission” (chapters 1–5) explores the development of Carlebach’s core ideas and methods from his education through circa 1978. His second section, “The Impact” (chapters 6–12) addresses the spread of Carlebach’s ministry from 1959 to his 1994 death and beyond. Each chapter covers a different part of Carlebach’s multifaceted career, including a fascinating chronicle of the people upon whom he conferred spiritual authority (363–379).

Sections of the book can seem catalog-like in their presentation of dates and events, though Ophir also offers concise moments of clarity that tie these lists together. Considering Carlebach’s success in addressing Jews in alternative spiritualist movements, for example, Ophir notes incisively that “he was perceived as offering a Jewish mode of experience without deprecating their path” (191). Carlebach’s outreach philosophy to Soviet Jews hinged on recognizing their “white fire” or “inner light of knowing” to compensate for their lack of religious Jewish knowledge (271–272). As with his outreach to other groups of nonpracticing Jews, Ophir asserts, Carlebach’s passion for reaching the inner, pure Jewish spirit awaiting development was a basis for his tendency to “exaggerate … with a natural naivety” (272). And in an analysis of one of Carlebach’s ordination documents, Ophir highlights Carlebach’s informed modification of the “Yoreh yoreh /Yadin yadin” ordination formula into “an outreach/inreach task to discover the inner value of each person and to work towards eradicating evil and sin and hastening redemption” (379). Ophir’s assertions sometimes strain to contain the breadth of sources he brings into the conversation, such as ephemera, concert recordings, and private documents; yet this generous and expansive approach also gives these sources the breathing room that a tighter intellectual structure might stifle.

Ophir’s study also opens areas for significant future scholarship. At times, especially in the latter chapters, his account feels incomplete— an issue compounded, I suspect, by the tendency of qualified reviewers to see if their own encounters with Carlebach have been included. (My own three brushes with Carlebach, for example, occurred at events that did not make it into Ophir’s timeline.) Ophir can hardly be faulted for such lapses; rather, they point out the task ahead in assembling a comprehensive life trajectory from a scattered and complex series of nonstandard sources. Additionally: while Ophir satisfactorily documents many of his claims, he also regularly emphasizes unsupported assertions with italics or exclamation points, seemingly to amplify Carlebach’s achievements (189, 203, etc.). These issues, which have been criticized in other reviews of the book, to me reinforce the challenge of reconciling strong insider streams of Carlebach scholarship—marked by annual conferences at the Carlebach Shul and the journal Kol Chevra—with academic standards that tend to equate dispassion with rigor. The ethnographer in me is sympathetic to the scholarly and formal straddling in which Ophir engaged to explore this major figure; but readers should understand this implied frame when they pick up the book. More productively, these issues represent places for additional research and negotiation. Ophir’s stated plans to write a second book delving deeper into Carlebach’s philosophy only underline the importance of approaching this figure with a generous spirit and cautious judgement.

More than a decade ago, I gave a paper on the music of Carlebach at a conference celebrating the 350th anniversary of Jews in America. At that time, musicologist Edwin Seroussi urged more scholars to pursue “Carlebach studies,” building on existing research by Yaakov Ariel. Aside from Shaul Magid’s meaningful contributions since, however, the discipline has developed slowly.* Ophir’s book, in this context, represents a major step: a needed bridge from hagiography to history, a new structure for future Carlebach study, and a useful model for philosophical discourse in an era that will rely more and more on new media as both message and messenger.

*Chaim Dalfin’s recent book The Real Shlomo (Santa Fe: Gaon Books, 2015) resonates more as an effort to resituate Carlebach’s life within Chabad Lubavitch-based discourse than as a contribution to American Jewish history.

This review originally appears in The American Jewish Archives Journal LXVII, no. 1 (2015) p. 73-77



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