Thursday, October 31, 2013

Who was Reb Shlomo?

Who was Reb Shlomo? by Natan Ophir (Offenbacher)

Natan Ophir’s book, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission, and Legacy, has just appeared. This is a complete biography of Carlebach’s life (not a hagiography) and is essential for anyone with an interest in Carlebach. The Seforim Blog is happy to include this excerpt from the book, pp. 413-419.

1.      Who was Reb Shlomo?

Who was Reb Shlomo Carlebach? This question was deliberated in the obituaries after his death. Elli Wohlgelernter of The Jerusalem Post tried to describe Shlomo’s elusive uniqueness:

The obituaries referred to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach as the “Singing Rabbi,” but that’s like describing Yankee Stadium as just some ballpark in the Bronx.... To have spent any time with Shlomo – that’s all he was called, never Rabbi Carlebach – was to understand this: he was his own kind of rabbi and they were his own songs, and they will be sung for as long as Jews gather to sing and dance….He was part hippie, part yippie, part beatnik, and part New Age. He was Dylan, Elvis, Arlo and Seeger all rolled into one, with a touch of Sholem Aleichem and Mark Twain.[1]

Indeed, Shlomo just didn’t seem to fit into any restrictive defining label. Menachem Daum, in a video report for Religion News and Ethics, labeled Rabbi Carlebach as the “most unorthodox Orthodox rabbi.” Moshe Stern, the internationally renowned cantor, characterized Carlebach as a combination of “a prodigal tzaddik, a musical genius, perhaps a religious exegete, a hippie in religious-ultra-orthodox garb.” Stern highlighted the all-encompassing nature of Reb Shlomo’s personality which defied categorization:

His greatest strength was and remains chiefly his ability to be all encompassing, a kind of prototype for felling the divides, for blurring the borders. This, it seems, is what the ears and souls of many in that younger generation latched onto, seeking as they did an escape path from the rigid categorizing enforced on them by the split reality of Israeli life.[2]

Similarly, Robert L. Cohen asks: Was there ever such an “embodied paradox, a bundle of contradictions?”[3] Cohen enumerates some of the seemingly contradictory aspects of Shlomo’s life. For example:

A thoroughgoing traditionalist, with Orthodox yeshiva education and rabbinical ordination, he outraged the Orthodox; a man for whom “pluralism” was an alien, ill-fitting concept, he was an implicit pluralist – teaching and singing everywhere, honoring rabbis of every denomination and encouraging others’ unorthodox paths.[4]

Shlomo was equally at home with the Admor of Amshinov, the homeless in Riverside Park, and Hadassah women. But there were subtle differences in how he presented himself. It was a different type of Shlomo comforting soldiers in hospitals during the Yom Kippur War, and another Shlomo singing for Christians in Poland and Germany.

A 1994 obituary by Yossi Klein Halevi in The Jerusalem Report used the term “Pied Piper of Judaism” to describe how Shlomo “taught an orphaned generation numbed by the Holocaust and assimilation how to return to joy.” Halevi captured the uniqueness of Shlomo’s concerts:

A Shlomo concert was part 60s-style happening, part Hasidic revival.... Shlomo always appeared with an entourage – strung-out street people, rebellious yeshivah boys, spiritual seekers, groupies… The only constant was Shlomo himself: his beautiful melodies; his deep, sure voice; his at-once profound and hokey rap ranging from Hasidic stories to exhortations for people to love each other, to mocking and very funny critiques of both ultra-Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism.[5]

The question of who was Reb Shlomo was often a reflection of how people related to him. Sometimes, it was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach officiating in rabbinical functions such as weddings. Most disciples preferred the appellation “Reb Shlomo” to indicate a Hasidic closeness and warmth.[6] But for many followers, it was simply “Shlomo,” the best friend, informal confidant, eschewing titles or other artificial barriers. He was the rabbi poised at the entrance to his shul on West 79th St. to welcome all with a bear hug. In the setting of Manhattan’s street corners, he was a “holy brother” to many a “holy beggar.”

With a natural ease, Reb Shlomo also assumed the role of a charismatic prayer leader. For example, on Hoshana Rabbah services at West 79th St., wearing a white kittel and black gartel, he was like a choirmaster orchestrating the musical accompaniment of trumpet, violin and singing congregation. In the full hour-long video dated September 26, 1994 at the Carlebach Shul, one can see the epitome of the new religious structure invented by Reb Shlomo: integrating a selection of his songs for the Hallel, each setting a different mood and spiritual direction; the symbolic waving of the lulav and arava with joyful dancing, and interjections in English creating a thoughtful direction.[7] This is the Shlomo leading a new form of religious experience specifically adapted to the Orthodox community.

Shlomo was able to blend in to so many different types of communities because he reflected sundry images to diverse audiences. Prof. Shaul Magid uses the metaphor of a mirror:

Most remember him as a mirror: They saw in him what they wanted him to be, or what they imagined themselves to be…. each of his followers heard what he or she wanted and constructed him in their image. The Orthodox offer one reading, the neo-Hasidim another, Diaspora Jews another, Israeli Jews another; leftists read him one way, Jewish militants another. The point is none of them really know… He bequeathed a “Judaism of uncertainty” (“what do we know?” was his catchphrase) so that everything could be reviewed and revised, in the spirit of love and not separation, on compassion and not exclusion.[8]

Nonetheless, of all the images of Shlomo, the most well-known is that of the Singing Rabbi, the father of modern Hasidic music.

2.      The Foremost Songwriter in Judaism?

Ari Goldman, in The New York Times obituary in 1994, designated Shlomo Carlebach “the foremost songwriter in contemporary Judaism.”[9] Recently, Goldman reiterated this statement, adding that it has never been disputed.[10] In 1997, music historian, Robert L. Cohen, referred to Shlomo as “the most prolific composer of liturgical folk melodies in this, perhaps any, century.”[11] In a later article, Cohen explained that Carlebach “opened the gates for a new generation of niggun makers” by creating music with a Hasidic flavor that could be accessible to young Americans:

Shlomo Carlebach had a phenomenal gift for melodies that conveyed yearning and joy, sweetness and exultation all at once… His example inspired an entire generation to set traditional, and some original, verses to their own new melodies… The result has been a garland of new Jewish music – of new wings for our prayers.[12]

This type of recognition recurs in various Jewish encyclopedias and year books. Mark K. Bauman in the 2011 Jewish American Chronology, recognized Shlomo as “the twentieth century’s most prolific and influential composer of Jewish music and a key ambassador of spirituality, especially to Jewish youth.”[13] Judah M. Cohen, in the Encyclopaedia Judaica entry, defined Carlebach’s extraordinary influence:

At the time of his death, Shlomo Carlebach had become a legend of sorts, having recorded over 25 albums, composed up to 5,000 songs, performed on five continents, released two official songbooks, amassed a broad following, granted semikhah to both male and female students, and given away nearly all his earnings. Several of his songs, moreover, had become “traditional” during Jewish events; revelers would sing such songs as “Esa Einai,” “David Melekh Yisrael,” “Am Yisrael Chai,” and “Od Yeshoma.”[14]

Mark Kligman, professor of Jewish Musicology at Hebrew Union College in New York, in his survey of contemporary Jewish music in the American Jewish Year Book (2001) stated: “Jewish musical artists of today consider Shlomo Carlebach the father of contemporary Jewish music.”[15] Kligman explains that the most innovative part of Shlomo’s musical success was “the blending of Hassidic song with folk music”:

Combining the participatory ease of folk music, the energy of the newly created music from Israel, and the religious fervor of the Hassidic niggun, he succeeded in moving liturgical music out of the synagogue and into a wide range of other settings, including concert halls and night clubs, and used his music to educate and inspire Jews to renew their Jewish identity and discover the beauty of Jewish life.[16]

Nonetheless, not all Jewish musicologists have recognized Shlomo’s importance. Cantor Macy Nulman in his 1975 comprehensive encyclopedia of Jewish music does not have an entry for Shlomo Carlebach.[17] Similarly, in his 1992 masterful survey of Jewish musical traditions, Hebrew University Professor of Musicology, Amnon Shiloah, does not mention Shlomo.[18] Presumably, part of the reason is that popular Hasidic folk songs are not on the same level as professional music. Indeed, Shlomo’s musical success is remarkable considering that he never really trained as a professional musician, and apart from a few voice lessons in Manhattan, was not an expert cantor. Or as Shlomo self-effacingly explained in an interview to Elli Wohlgelenter:

I don't think I have a good voice. I think my voice is just good enough to inspire people to sing with me. If I would have a gevalt voice like, let’s say, Moshe Koussevitzky, then nobody would want to sing with me, because then they’ll think they don’t want to miss my voice, but my voice is just good enough to make them sing.[19]

Shlomo’s self-comparison to the renowned cantor Moshe Koussevitzky highlights a key ingredient of his musical success. Rather than impress an audience by a beautiful recital, Shlomo led a sing-along of catchy tunes. A typical Carlebach tune is easy to follow.[20] At Shlomo events, participants quickly learned his new songs thus furthering their popularity.

Musicologist Velvel Pasternak explained that if judged by objective musical standards, Shlomo was not the most outstanding composer, singer or guitarist, but his success was due to an uncanny ability to strike an immediate responsive chord in the ears of his listeners:

Even a seemingly banal sounding melody became a hypnotic and mesmerizing chant. The simplicity of his melody line, the intensity of his performances, the charisma of his personality, served to create a worldwide musical following.[21]

Furthermore, by adapting the form and fervor of a Hasidic farbrengen (see above, Chapter 6), Shlomo constructed a new hybrid of folk singing and semi-prayer. To quote the insightful appraisal of Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi:

Armed with a guitar, dressed like an “orthodox hippie,” and using the most basic harmonies and short, repetitive melodies, Carlebach appeared at concerts that became a kind of unorthodox prayer that recalled the traditional Hassidic tish, an assembly of Hassidim around the table of the rebbe, held on special dates, and characterized by singing and dancing.[22]

In sum, the amalgamation of a Hasidic tish, inspirational storytelling, emotional insights, and ethical exhortations created the innovative Carlebachian musical experience. Samuel C. Heilman, professor of Sociology at Queens College CUNY, describes Shlomo Carlebach as a product of a synergy between Hasidic, Israeli, and American trends:

He attached himself to Hasidic prayer styles from which he took the idea of expressive enthusiasms in prayer and devotional ecstasy as part of Jewish outreach. From American new folk idioms, he took the guitar, rhythms, the practice of sing-alongs, the “talking blues,” concertizing, and the idea of making recordings. From Israeli culture, he borrowed the idea of shirah b’tzibbur, i.e., choral singing as a tool of social solidarity. All these he mixed syncretistically to develop his particular style.[23]

Indeed, this description sums up the secret of the appeal to Reb Shlomo’s music. He was able to bring together the popular folk music of the 1960s and the fervor of Hasidic niggunim to create a new genre of music. But Heilman goes further and explains:

Contemporary Carlebach minyanim have elevated him and his approach to a kind of mythic status. Reb Shlomo, as devotees refer to him these days, is the modern Jew’s counterpart to the Hasidic rebbes and other immortals that the Haredi world has enshrined. Like these rebbes, he is frequently resurrected in stories, songs, aphorisms, and teachings that are meant to shape the attitudes and religious character of those who invoke his memory.[24]

[1] Elli Wohlgelernter, “Simply Shlomo,” The Jerusalem Post, April 20, 1995.
[2] Ronit Tzach in Yediot Aharonot, Seven Day Magazine, Feb. 4, 2005, 34. Cited in Shmuel Barzilai, Chassidic Ecstasy in Music (Frankfurt am Main: 2009), 152.
[3] This witty aphorism is a quote from Charles Caleb Colton (1780–1832), Lacon or Many things in Few Words: Addressed to Those Who Think, vol. 1, books?id=6AclAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA180&img=1&pgis=1&dq=paradox&sig=ACfU3U0aMhUVF-mTU8guK4hy2jQQRHDH4A&edge=0CCCCVII, p. 1980.
[4] Robert L. Cohen, “Jewish Soul Man.” Moment, August 1997, 59–64, 83.
[5] Yossi Klein Halevi, “The Pied Piper of Judaism,” The Jerusalem Report, Nov. 17, 1994, 45.
[6] Shlomo explained the advantages of using the designation “Reb” rather than “Rabbi” by playfully distinguishing the letters. “Rabbi” is a combination of Ra (Hebrew for “bad”) and Bi (“he gets by”), whereas “Reb” is a shortened form of “Rebbe,” and in Hebrew means “Rabbi” with the letter yod, signifying the Divine Presence – “God is so tremendous inside” – God’s Light in you. Shlomo’s explanation can be heard on segment 4:53–5:11 in part 4 of “Rabbi Shlomo In Concert”, YouTube, This is from his concert in Feb. 1994 in Miami Beach.
[7] For an hour long program of Reb Shlomo leading the singing for the Hoshana Rabbah service at the Carlebach Shul on 79th St., see; Compare; A record was produced entitled R. Shlomo Carlebach – The Last Hoshana Raba,,;
[8] Shaul Magid, “Carlebach’s Broken Mirror,” Tablet Magazine, Nov. 1, 2012,,;
[9] Ari L. Goldman, “Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,” New York Times, Oct. 22, 1994.
[10] Ari L. Goldman, “Why Carlebach Matters,” The Jewish Week, May 8, 2009.
[11] Cohen, “Jewish Soul Man,” 59.
[12] Robert Cohen, “New Wings for Our Prayers: On American Jewish Music,” Open the Gates!, vol. 1, 2005, excerpted in Tikkun, March 27, 2008,, Cohen’s essay accompanies the CD American-Jewish Music for Prayer and describes Jewish religious folk music, its inspiration in the Hasidic movement and its cultural roots in American folk music. The CD includes 18 different composers and performers of prayerful melodies and #17 is “Ein Keilokeinu” of Shlomo Carlebach.
[13] Mark K. Bauman, Jewish American Chronology: Chronologies of the American Mosaic (Santa Barbara, California: 2011), 119.
[14] Judah M. Cohen, “Carlebach, Shlomo,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., vol. 4, 481–482.
[15] Mark Kligman, “Contemporary Jewish Music in America,” in David Singer and Lawrence Grossman (eds.), American Jewish Year Book. New York: 2001, vol. 101, 88–140.
[16] Kligman, “Contemporary Jewish Music.”
[17] Macy Nulman, The Concise Encyclopedia of Jewish Music (New Zealand: 1975).
[18] Amnon Shiloah, Jewish Musical Traditions (Detroit: 1992). His book is based on a course in Hebrew that Shiloah prepared for the Open University in the years 1985–1987.
[19] Wohlgelernter, “Simply Shlomo.”
[20] A typical Carlebach tune has two contrasting sections of only eight bars each, with the second one in a higher register, melodic sequences, and constant syncopation (with the rhythm accenting a normally weak beat) – see Motti Regev and Edwin Seroussi, Popular Music and National Culture in Israel (Berkeley–Los Angeles–London: 2004), 129.
[21] Velvel Pasternak, “A Musical Legacy,” Aquarian Minyan Newsletter, Autumn–Winter, 1995, reprinted in David Wolfe-Blank (ed.), The Aquarian Minyan KhaZak! Khazak!, 388–389.
[22] Regev and Seroussi, Popular Music, 127–128.
[23] Adapted from Samuel C. Heilman, Sliding to the Right: The Contest for the Future of American Jewish Orthodoxy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 2006), 291.
[24] Ibid.

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