Love life like yourself ?!?!?

Shlomo Carlebach and his Jewish hippies
September 10, 2011, 10:51 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

HAARETZ; 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 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.”

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