Shlomo Carlebach - Rabbi of Love or Undercover Agent of Orthodox Judaism?

Shefa Siegel
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Shefa Siegel

Holy Beggars:
A Journey from Haight Street to Jerusalem, by Aryae Coopersmith
One World Lights, 414 pages, $18 (paperback)

Was Shlomo Carlebach a patchouli-scented hipster bard of universal love, or a deviant preacher disguised in beads and sandals on a mission to return Jewish hippies to ultra-Orthodox Judaism? This question has dogged the memory of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994) since his death nearly 20 years ago, muddling a profound and beautiful spiritual legacy rooted less in denomination than friendship.

Shlomo Carlebach

A new memoir called “Holy Beggars,” by Aryae Coopersmith, chronicles Carlebach’s San Francisco collective, the House of Love & Prayer, and his community of hippies from 1968 to 1972. Coopersmith is a Silicon Valley professional who met Carlebach in San Francisco in the mid-1960s when the Singing Rabbi, as Shlomo was known in folk music venues, was playing college campuses. Coopersmith signed the lease for the first house for Carlebach and his friends the hevre as Shlomo called them in 1968, and often pastored during Carlebach’s absences from San Francisco. He left the House, and parted ways with Carlebach, in 1972, seeing him only sporadically during the last 20 years of Shlomo’s life.

After his teacher’s death, 17 years ago, Coopersmith was advised to find a way to honor Shlomo’s influence on him by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a peer and friend of Carlebach’s from their days in the court of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. The memoir is principally about Coopersmith’s own personal development from student-hippie to Shlomo devotee, his departure from the hevre to study psychology and find a profession, and his final encounter with Carlebach in New York.

But it is hard to read the book without also viewing it as a responsum to other portrayals of Carlebach as a reactionary hero mingling with liberal, secular and interdenominational impurity to rescue lost Jewish souls. Coopersmith’s call from the left of the religious-cultural spectrum “Not true: Shlomo was one of us!” successfully locates Carlebach inside the counterculture of the 1960s, yet this portrayal remains as fraught as any Orthodox, right wing, or settler claim on his legacy.

The tug-of-war between Reb Shlomo’s progressive and Orthodox factions of followers is fruitless. No group can claim exclusivity over his legacy. As Coopersmith and others before him have reported, the funeral for Carlebach at his family’s Upper West Side shul attracted 5,000-7,000 people, filling 79th Street with hippies, black hats, the homeless, and academics. Later, at the burial outside Jerusalem, the crowd was similarly diverse; there, Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, apologized for marginalizing Carlebach during his life, so that by the time he died, it could be said that everybody claimed Shlomo as one of their own. Together with Schachter-Shalomi, Carlebach was dispatched in the 1950s by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to meet Jewish students on college campuses. Both eventually left Chabad, Zalman to bridge Jewish mysticism and the New Age movement, Shlomo to an international life of singing and preaching. Carlebach composed an outrageous volume of melodies, probably in the thousands, both reviving and exporting a tradition of Jewish spirituals that was nearly wiped out during the war. The melodies he sang in concerts, were also essential to his mastery of ecstatic communal prayer, which integrated chanting, dancing, and stream-of-consciousness preaching. To create this form, Carlebach borrowed from numerous hasidic traditions, and from the practices of Baptist ministers and choirs he admired in Harlem. Under the right conditions, the combination of these rituals could induce a high similar to that of hallucinogens, and left a person feeling a lot of love for other people.

I never heard Shlomo call himself a rebbe. To the extent he accepted the role, it was the rebbe as a good friend. When he said you should phone him, he meant it. He was in your corner. He bailed friends out of prison, emptied his pockets to strangers, played his guitar by the docks for the down-and-out. “I’ve had people give me things,” said a homeless man who came to Carlebach’s funeral in Manhattan. “But I never had anybody make me feel like a man before.”

Once, when I hitched a ride to New York to be with him, Shlomo asked, “Are you making friends in the hevre?” Without really understanding the question, I told him I had recently moved to Ann Arbor, where I did not know many people. “Ann Arbor!” he cried energetically. “I’ve got my Top Guy there!”

Friendship quickened Shlomo’s spiritualism. “If you’re my greatest friend in the world,” Coopersmith quotes Carlebach, “do you think I’m worrying about how kosher you are? The only thing that matters is that we’re friends. Being friends, loving another person, is the deepest thing there is.”

The last time I saw Shlomo was two months before his death, a hot night on the porch in Israel. There was a crowd of maybe 10 or 15 people milling about in a loose circle. I was 20. He held my hand, and asked about my plans. I was leaving for two months to study ecology in Nepal. “You know there is Chabad in Kathmandu,” he quipped, grinning. He started to laugh. “Do you know that when Columbus discovered America, he found that Chabad was already there?”

Shlomo turned his attention to the circle, gesturing to me. “Do you know I have known him since he was a baby?” he asked, as if I were the most important person in his world. It was true: My parents knew him when they were in their 20s; by the time I was a year old they were bringing him to where my father was a rabbi in the Pacific Northwest and later in New Hampshire. But in 20 years, I could not have been near Shlomo for more than 10 days; the notion of these 10 days being as meaningful to him as any his life was intoxicating. Shlomo placed his hand gently on the back of my head, putting his lips to my cheek. “Don’t give up,” he whispered. “Don’t ever give up.”

‘Top guys’

Carlebach was a person who required what journalists sometimes call fixers. He called them his “Top Guys.” When asked where he lived, Carlebach liked to joke that he lived in the airport. He was forever traveling: leading communities in New York and Israel, giving concerts from Portland to Morocco, singing and praying with Jews and Gentiles in Poland and Russia. This kind of international work requires local organizing, for which Carlebach relied on his Top Guys. Because Carlebach had no fixed address or affiliation, their stories are important portals into his different experiences.

During a formative period for Carlebach, when he was active in San Francisco, Coopersmith was a Top Guy. Carlebach enjoyed this time; he talked about it for the rest of his life. It had to have been fun to headline concerts with Pete Seeger and preach alongside Swami Satchidananda Yoga Master to the Stars. For a man with so much love, the center of free love was a blast.

Coopersmith’s run as fixer was brief and limited to San Francisco, a place Carlebach ranked below only Jerusalem among his favorite spiritual cities. In 1971, Shlomo squeezed enough money from a small group of investors to finance a new House of Love & Prayer for the Holy Beggars as the San Francisco hevre were called which the group wanted to make into a yeshiva. In addition to bringing the financiers, Carlebach promised his time. But after verbally contracting with Coopersmith to spend three to four months per year at the House, Carlebach did not return to San Francisco for four months.

Of course, as much as Shlomo’s attachments were away from his hippies, the same goes for all his groups. Whether Shlomo was more hippie than Orthodox, or vice-versa, is neither here nor there. He had fixers and friends all over; devotees in, say, Tel Aviv or Marseille did not necessarily know their counterparts in Ashland or Washington. He could have hippie followers in one town, Reform Jewish acolytes in another, and Orthodox adherents in a third, and their paths would never cross. To understand how Carlebach viewed the world, the story most needed is a chronicle of his travels.

Carlebach’s capacity to connect intimately with each person made you feel as if you were his best friend. If you confided something to him, he remembered it if you crossed paths three years later. When he entered a restaurant in an unfamiliar place, he greeted each customer and employee, and might go to the kitchen to greet the chef, too. People were instantly charmed. He would talk to everybody.

And he could talk with anybody. Micha Odenheimer, a writer in Jerusalem, and also a Top Guy, told me about a time Carlebach was teaching when a man stood up and issued a long, pained, animalistic howl. Finally Shlomo raised his hand, saying, “I know. Moishe, I mamesh know. But could you just wait until after the bentschen?” Moishe stared at Shlomo, nodded his head agreeably, took his seat.

It was great to be in Shlomo’s gang. Shlomo was a rebel. He was disappointed that he wasn’t asked to greet Anwar Sadat on the tarmac in Israel in 1977, singing and dancing the Egyptian leader directly to the Western Wall. Shlomo was fun! He partied in the park late at night, making so much noise the neighbors slammed their windows shut. The excuse for a party? The moon needed blessing. The moon! Religion masked as fun, or the other way around? Who cares? Neither your background nor learning mattered. Why should it? Everybody can love the moon. If you can’t, you’re dead inside.

His best friend

Coopersmith was indeed close to Carlebach: traveling in Mexico with him, playing concerts, at the House. From these experiences he offers several new stories:

Shlomo lying about the neophyte Aryae being a rabbi when he dispatched him to lead Shabbat services for an Orthodox youth group.

The ecumenical gathering where Carlebach swung all the way left by telling attendees they were not taking different paths to the same destination, they were on “the same path” wearing “different shoes.”

The time Shlomo talked all night with Latina prostitutes in Mexico City.

There are also old stories that merit repeating. The 27-mile Friday night rain-soaked trek from the spot on the Los Angeles freeway where Shlomo’s ride from the airport was stuck in traffic, to the Reform synagogue stopping at Denny’s for tuna sandwiches and coffee where hundreds waited through the night for him to arrive.

Finally, there are thoughtful insights about the effect of Carlebach’s transience on young people who wanted to be his disciples, and about his own loneliness.

But where Coopersmith implies the book will be a tell-all, there are no surprising
revelations about Carlebach’s sexual activity: just a couple of affairs in the 1960s, when he was in his 30s and unmarried.

Instead, the book’s greatest surprise is just how few scenes include Shlomo Carlebach. Coopersmith’s recollections are like a slideshow: Shlomo is glimpsed but there is no portrait. He still feels like a puckish caricature part Pied Piper, part Sinatra peddling in to drop a Torah bomb, slipping off to the next concert.

There are also places where Coopersmith is simply wrong. He is emphatic that Carlebach never took LSD, telling a friend, “He wasn’t taking any drugs. ... No, never; he wasn’t into it.” Yet, there are recordings of Shlomo telling about his friendship with Timothy Leary; when Leary informed Carlebach he liked to listen to his music while tripping, Shlomo told Leary he had tried his acid and it was gewalt, but it did not compare to learning Talmud.
Carlebach’s enjoyment of acid is an otherwise unimpressive fine point of hippie lore, except that here it casts some doubt on the strength of the relationship between Coopersmith and Shlomo. LSD mattered, a lot, to the hippies of that period. It’s hard to figure how Coopersmith could be unaware of his teacher’s trips.

The band leader was gone

The takeover of Shlomo started directly after his death. There was a memorial concert in a dingy hall somewhere in Jerusalem, two or three months after Shlomo died. The musicians were sharing the stage. A nice idea, except each had a different Shlomo imitation. They couldn’t get a jam going. Between songs, people preached, two and three at time, competing. The band leader was gone. It was chaos.

After an hour or so, the aggressive male element in the hall seized power, singing like sailors in a religious nationalist mosh pit. I stood in the back of the room, feeling like I was on the outside looking in, staring at the end of something.

At dinner another night, the 9-year-old son of one devotee declared his intention to gut Yasser Arafat with a blade, if ever he met him. Later: Praise for the gunman who opened fire in a Franciscan church in Jerusalem.

When a young woman who had not known him asked me if I thought Shlomo shared these views, I told her the Shlomo I knew bathed naked with his friends in the mineral waters of Cougar Hot Springs east of Eugene. The image pleased her, but she refused to believe it had happened. “It’s Oregon,” I said, to no effect. “Everybody bathes naked.”

The right hand of Carlebach’s worlds didn’t know what the left was doing. Carlebach played Bnei Brak, yes, but he also sang till dawn at bonfires on the beach. There was a West Bank Shlomo, absolutely, but there was also the Northwest Shlomo visiting friendship centers havurot from Humboldt to Vancouver. Without fussing, he ate in our restaurants, made matzah in our homes, davened in our egalitarian synagogues, shared stages with women, bathed naked in our streams. The notion that he was cavorting with hippies as a kind of descent-for-sake-of-ascent is grotesque.

In the spirit of this polemic, Coopersmith’s book is valuable. To anybody who cannot accept that Carlebach’s interests were diverse: Enough. Just as the hippies moved on from Haight-Ashbury to live in communes, start spiritual communities, or cut their hair and get jobs, Shlomo’s devotees went numerous directions.

Yet there is so much more than this bric-a-brac of right and left. Carlebach’s influence cuts across the Jewish world, wide and deep, even if the imprint is sometimes hard, or not always what we want, to see. What he experienced, however, remains unexamined. We know next to nothing about Carlebach’s transformation from a seminary scholar to Hasidic emissary to singing and dancing his way around the world. This story cannot be remembered by any single fixer or follower. Shlomo Carlebach traveled alone, from the origin to the end of his adventures.

Dr. Shefa Siegel is an environmental writer. He teaches environment thought, and has worked as an adviser to the United Nations and other international organizations.