On the Occasion of Reb Shlomo 25th Yarzheit, we are sharing some Inspiritional stories, messages culled from Facebook
I miss a man I never knew, a spirit whose holy music has poured out of me since I learned to sing, whose daughter has graced my life with her powerful love. Though I never met my father-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach z"l, I choose to see him through my Neshama's eyes, in all of his complexity and his magic. I have no idea what our relationship might have been, but I do know this: the best of him is in his daughter's heart and flows tenderly in the family we are building together. To honor his memory on this, his 25th yahrtzeit, I pledge to amplify goodness in the world. May we remember and be a blessing.
photo credit: Joan L. Roth
Reb Shlomo: Singer, Composer, Teacher – And Uncle: A Personal Tribute by His Niece on His 25th Yahrzeit
By Sterna Carlebach Citron
Growing up, my family sang long, soul-stirring, chassidic nigunim at our Shabbos table, but during the week, we listened to the music of our uncle Shlomo, a”h – the twin brother of my father, Rav Eliyahu Chaim Carlebach, a”h. His records played all day long. We five Carlebach girls could sing his early tunes at the drop of a hat: “Esah Einai,” “Haneshama Lach,” “Hashmi’ini,” “Rachmana Prok,” etc.
Shlomo wasn’t a traditional uncle. He was always traveling and giving concerts. He performed in Israel, where he infused new spirit into the soldiers. He performed in Russia when it was still communist. There were few Jewish communities in the world that he did not visit. So, we didn’t see him much. And he didn’t call often either.
But when he did call, he and my father would talk on the phone for a long time. They discussed the sefarim they had learned and the chidushim they had heard. They also had their own language, which they had made up sometime in their teens – apparently twins do that sometimes – and which they used when they did not want anyone else to understand. (When my parents got engaged, my father taught the language to my mother Hadassa Carlebach, may she live and be well.)
When the two of them got together at a simcha, maybe a bar mitzvah of one of our Levovitz cousins – the twins had an older sister Shulamis Levovitz, a”h – you had to beware. If a speech sounded long-winded and pompous, the brothers would look at each other, one would start laughing, the other would join in, and that was the end of it. They had to make sure not to even glance at each other lest they break out in unstoppable laughter.
Every once in a while, we did see him. We girls would wake up in the morning, and there would be someone sleeping on the couch who looked uncannily like our father, only his beard was much longer. (My uncle rolled it up neatly every morning.) And he wore a snazzy vest. He was always very warm to us, opening his eyes wide in surprise and delight and calling us “Tzuker zis” (sweet like sugar).
I was nine when the news suddenly spread in Camp Emunah that Shlomo was in the area and was going to stop by and give us a concert. That day I was the darling of all the counselors. Each one vied to have me sit in her lap. Perhaps that would get them the attention of my very eligible bachelor-uncle. (Of the concert itself, I remember almost nothing.)
Once, when my father organized a benefit concert for our shul in Hillside, New Jersey, my uncle arrived two hours late, just as the audience was about to give up and go home. Baruch Hashem, the almost-fiasco turned into a memorable, joyful event. So my parents were not upset. Anyway, it was hard to be upset with Shlomo. He was charming! More importantly, any money he made at a performance he immediately distributed to the needy people in his chevra, leaving for himself barely enough for basics. How could one be upset with a person like that?
As for our chassunos, despite his best intentions, he did not make it, neither to mine nor to those of my next three sisters. When it came time for the youngest to get married, Shlomo let us know he would make every effort to come. The family was touched and excited, the kallah most of all. The chassunah took place on a Motzoei Shabbos. The kabbalas panim passed, the chuppah passed, the se’udah was halfway through, and still no sign of Shlomo. It wouldn’t be the first time my uncle came late to an event, so the kallah continued to hope.
The chassunah was two-thirds through by the time our uncle arrived. When people heard he was there, electricity coursed through the hall. Shlomo’le was there! He and my father danced together. It was something to behold! The guests stayed on, the simcha continuing way into the night. My sister cherishes those photos, heartwarming mementos of that special occasion.
I think we kind of understood then – though we now understand completely – that Shlomo could not be our own private uncle. He was, in a sense, everyone’s uncle. Whoever he met, he’d remember their name forever, even if they spoke only once. He’d spend hours on the phone with people dissatisfied with their lives, missing something but not knowing what they were missing. His mission was to awaken the spark in Jews who were spiritually asleep, who had no inkling of the treasures in their own Jewish heritage.
Some of these ignorant Jews were exploring Buddhism, lo aleinu. Shlomo was not afraid to go into ashrams and shlep out those estranged Jews. Any Jew needing a spiritual injection – he was there for them. What could compare to that in importance?
Once that pintele Yid was aroused in these disenfranchised Jews, there was no knowing how far they would go. While some of them remained Shlomo’s hippy-style followers, many more went on to become fervent, committed religious Jews. But no matter what path they chose – mainstream Orthodox, yeshivish, Chabad chassidic, or Shlomo-style chassidic, as in Mevo Modi’im, Israel – they always acknowledged Shlomo as the one who nudged that latent spark, that nascent love of G-d they were not even aware of, and pushed and prodded it until it caught fire.
Shlomo was the first of the modern Jewish singers. Neither a chazzan like Yossele Rosenblatt, a”h, nor a Bentzion Shenker, a”h, who captured the lively Moditzer niggunim on records (we listened to those too, along with my uncle’s), Shlomo was a singer of original compositions, of melodies that welled up from deep within him, melodies inspired by pesukim from Tanach or lines from the siddur. (His vast repertory of songs was composed without his knowing how to read a musical note!)
After him came Mordechai ben David, Dudu Fisher, Avraham Fried, and others. But he was the pioneer, and the ones who followed often modeled themselves after him, consciously or unconsciously.
But Shlomo was not just a singer. He was a teacher, too. In fact, the older he got, the more he interspersed his singing with Torah. He taught through stories, and though they sounded like simple tales, they were anything but. A master-storyteller, he wove Midrash, Gemara, and Chassidus into his stories (allowing himself a little poetic license for spice) for Shlomo was a talmid chacham.
Even as a bachur in Lakewood yeshiva, he was known as an illui. He never went anywhere without a suitcase full of sefarim. He was always learning, especially Chassidus, and most especially the chassidic teachings of Rav Tzadok HaKohen and the Ishbitzer (author of Mei HaShiloah).
In the ‘70s, I heard him in his House of Love and Prayer in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, where he would address all the free-spirited hippies as “holy brother” or “holy sister.” (My husband and I ran a Chabad House in Berkeley at the time.) My uncle would always make it a point to call and personally invite us to his concerts.
In the ‘80s I heard him again in Los Angeles (where we still live) at the spacious home of Dr. Joshua and Lilian Ritchie in Hancock Park. The place was always packed, people sitting on the floor, on the stairs, wherever there was an empty space. Before each song, he’d strum his guitar and say to his fellow-musicians, “Give me harmony.” The concert would go on late into the night.
He attracted an eclectic crowd, many of whom were not religious but who hungered for spirituality, yearned to connect to something higher. At these concerts, they found what they were looking for.
Like all artists and entertainers, Shlomo aimed to bring delight and joy to his listeners. He wanted them to fall in love with being Jewish, just as he was. He wanted them to experience the delight of being G-d’s holy, chosen people and the joy at having access to His sacred Torah which was “deeper than deep.” And he succeeded.
Not only the marginally-attached Jews, but also the religious and chassidic – all of them were swept up, carried away. By the end of each performance, everyone would be on their feet, clapping and dancing. The same applied to Shlomo’s leading the davening in the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan. The crowd always left uplifted and energized, with a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a Jew.
Shlomo had ties to the chassidic world, his brother (my father) and he having been introduced to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, as youngsters, before they left Europe. Every once in a while, Shlomo would appear unannounced at a farbrengen of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, HaRav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zy”a, surrounded by some of his chevra. A ripple of excitement would go through 770, reaching all the way to the women’s section upstairs. Shlomo’le! The Lubavitchers adored him.
But of course they would! Like them, my uncle did not believe there was a Jew anywhere who was so far from Yiddishkeit that he could not be reached and his hidden love for G-d revealed.
Reb Shlomo, as he began to be called, got married late, at the age of 47, and had two daughters, Neshama and Nedara. They are my first cousins though they are the age of my children. Shlomo was a very caring and devoted father to them.
My father passed away in 1990 at the age of 65. Shlomo became a bit of grandfather figure to my children in the absence of my father – not surprising since the brothers looked alike and both were learned and unafraid of questions. I worried about one thing, though. Shlomo, who was so full of ruach, sometimes disparaged religious Jews who, he felt, lived only by the letter of the law and not by the spirit.
Shlomo lived four more years after his twin’s passing. Ironically enough, it was those same religious Jews whom he disparaged who ultimately appreciated him the most. It was mainly they, the Orthodox, the chassidim – Chabad, Bobov, and other kinds – who showed up at Shlomo’s levaya on that sad day of the 16th of Cheshvan (October 21), 1994.
A miserable rain kept many of the others away, but not them. They came with their throng of black raincoats and black umbrellas and stood somberly outside the shul on W. 79th Street to accompany the sweet singer of Israel on his last journey. They felt his loss most keenly, for they understood how he had infused spirit and joy into Judaism – not just for the thousands of lost souls – but for all Jews.
Most of all, they understood that, while his music might live on – as indeed it does – there would never be anyone to take his place.
* * * * *
Shlomo Carlebach’s Top 10 Songs
Asking someone to rate the songs of the father of modern Jewish music is like asking a parent of multiple children to pick his or her favorite child. Despite the daunting task, though, here is a list (in no particular order) of the most popular/influential/ubiquitous songs from the over 600 compositions that appear on nearly 50 recordings by the late, great Reb Shlomo:
“VeHa’er Einenu” – Released in 1969 as an entry to the Chassidic Song Festival in Israel, this song won third place and quickly became a favorite and standard at weddings and bar mitzvahs during the 70s, and continues to be sung worldwide today.
“Od Yishama” – There isn’t a Jewish wedding in which Reb Shlomo’s “Od Yishama” isn’t heard. Over the years, nearly every chassidic singer and band has an adaption of these lyrics, but the Carlebach version remains the golden standard.
“Od Avinu Chai” – This song, released in 1967, was widely recognized as the anthem of the Soviet Jewry movement and continues to be sung at rallies and gatherings of Jews worldwide.
“Lema’an Achai veRe’ai” – In these turbulent times, this classic calls out to us to come together as brothers and friends for the sake of peace.
“Yisrael Betach BaShem” – For years, this song was heard by hundreds of thousands of radio listeners in Israel as it was played on the radio each morning. It sends us the powerful message to place our trust in Hashem.
“Shifchi KaMayim” – A soul-stirring composition that used to bring the “singing and dancing rabbi” to tears in many of his performances, “Shifchi” can still be heard at kumzitzes worldwide.
“LeShana Haba’a B’Yerushalayim” – Thousands upon thousands of Jewish wedding dance sets and Simchat Torah hakafot playlists have concluded with this classic prayer and hope to celebrate next year in Yerushalayim. Its staccato rhythm is unmistakably Carlebach.
“Mizmor LeDavid” and “Veshamru” – The proliferation of “Carlebach minyanim” caused these two tunes to be adopted as Friday night standards. Many shuls across the globe now feature these two compositions in their “mainstream minyanim,” leading to familiarity among the next generation of shul-goers.
“Niggun Krakow” and “Niggun Neshomele” – One of Shlomo Carlebach’s greatest gifts to us are his catchy and meaningful nigunnim. There are times when no lyrics were needed to convey the emotions and feelings, and he captured this with dozens of niggunim that have stood the test of time. These two are, perhaps, the most famous.
“Esah Einai” – This catchy tune dates back to 1959 and appeared on Reb Shlomo’s first record. Whether adapted to Anim Zemirot or sung with its original lyrics, this song still sounds contemporary and fresh and exemplifies the simplicity of his arrangements and compositions.
Other notables: “Atah Takum,” “Yachad Yachad,” “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov,” “Yibaneh,” “U’Vau HaOvdim,” “Anah Hashem,” and “Gam Ki Elech.”
Roni is the longtime host of Florida’s Sunday morning Jewish music radio show Shalom South Florida. He has an M.S. in Journalism and Communication and has one of the largest collections of Jewish music in North America. He was also the writer of the Top Chai music column in The Jewish Press for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ShalomSouthFL. For more information, visit www.ShalomSouthFlorida.com
Akiva Gersh, teacher
On this day that marks the 25th anniversary of Reb Shlomo Carlebach's leaving this physical world, I want to share my first "encounter" with him and his tremendous impact on the world.
It was 1997, a few years after his death (I never had the zchut to meet him), and a friend of mine, who knew I was just beginning to check out what Judaism might have to offer me and the spiritual search I was on, told me I had to go Friday night to the Carlebach shul in NYC during our college Spring Break. I just had to, he said.
Having never before been in an Orthodox shul, I was definitely a bit hesitant. Walking in and seeing the mechitzah, I wanted to immediately walk out.
But my friend encouraged me to stay and give it a chance. And stay I did. And because I did, my life was forever changed.
When the singing began and the voices and the eyes and even some of the hands of those standing around me flew upwards towards the Heavens in collective joy and exhilaration and celebration, I was dumbfounded. I had never seen such a thing in a religious context, for sure not a Jewish one. To see lots of happy people celebrating together, I had to go to a Phish show or a drum circle.
But this was different. Yes there were lots of people. Yes they were happy. But their focus was different. There was no "look at me" attention-seeking. There was no "I will make my voice louder than the others" going on. The collective focus was a deep longing to connect to the Source of All Life in the most intimate and powerful way possible.
Though I didn't know any of the melodies being sung, it didn't matter. My soul knew them and within moments I was singing them along with everyone else, as if I had known them my entire life. I was dancing with the multitude of people around me as if I had known them and they had known me for years.
The experience was ecstatic and transformative. Words I never would have, and never could have, used to describe a Jewish experience before that moment.
The height of that evening was seeing the rabbi of the shul sing and dance. Rabbi Sam Intrator. The fact that he was even singing and dancing blew my mind! The most amount of feeling and excitement I had seen displayed by a rabbi before that was a tap of the foot and maybe a cute little clap of the hands during a song. Reb Sammy was literally jumping up and down, eyes tight shut, sweat beading up on his forehead, as if he was trying to jump into Heaven or pull God down to Earth, or both. It was an incredible sight. It changed my perception and my conception of what a rabbi is, or at least should be. He looked like a Jewish shaman, immersed in an ancient Jewish ritual, trying to fix the world through song, prayer and dance.
And I know that Reb Sammy learned all of that from Reb Shlomo.
Reb Shlomo was the master, the rebbe, the pathmaker that showed an entire generation (and more) how Judaism could be, and should be, and was meant to be a deep, mystical, spiritual, and ecstatic experience of life. One that was meant to inspire us and change us and challenge us to find out why God made us.
That night at the Carlebach Shul showed me that I had found the spiritual path I had spent years looking for.
I had found my way home.
Thank you Reb Sammy and thank you Reb Shlomo for showing me the way.
Shlomo Simcha, musician
Digging around through some old pictures, I came across this somewhat worn photo, where I had the pleasure of singing with Reb Shlomo Carlebach, at one of the many kumzitzes we did together in Toronto, where he would often come to visit family.
Later on, I would have the honour to record some of his music, and I even got to play him the recording of Moshe v'Aharon before its release.
With his 25th Yahrtzeit coming up tomorrow, I am reminded of the impact his music continues to have on the Jewish world today. I am often asked what is it about Shlomo’s music that has such an ongoing and never ending effect. I believe that after the Holocaust when there was a cloud of despair he broke the silence with songs of faith, hope and believe in Our future. That is what I believe is why his songs are full of kedisha. It an undeniable sense when you hear or sing his song.
May his neshomo have an Aliyah.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s Gift to Our Generation
An Essay by R’ Yaakov Klein
I am not sure which creative medium should be used in attempt to reflect on one’s relationship with the universe of spirit embodied by Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l, but the glaring inadequacy of words to succeed in this difficult task is very clear. It seems that perhaps, in their wordless beauty, only his own niggunim can possibly portray the confounding complexity of a man whose musical, spiritual, and educational legacy, in a brushstroke of divine irony, lies in its utter simplicity.
Nevertheless, the rarity of the soul which can perceive the messages concealed in melody, coupled with an intense craving to express the feelings coursing through my heart on Reb Shlomo’s twenty-fifth yahrtzeit require that I put down the guitar and pick up a pen in the hope of capturing a glimmer of what this man means to me in a generation that is in a many ways so different, and yet in many others so similar to the one in which he lived, sang, spoke, danced, loved, inspired, transformed, created, struggled, and persevered.
Although he left this world almost exactly one month before I entered it, Reb Shlomo Carlebach completely altered the course of my life. I was first introduced to his music, and then to his teachings by a rebbe in yeshiva (to whom I am eternally grateful) who would often say, “People say Reb Shlomo was a great composer. Little do they know that music was his smallest talent.” And how right he was. The genius of Reb Shlomo’s phenomenal communication abilities lay both in his simplicity and sincerity. Never in my life had I heard anyone speak about Hashem with so much conviction. Never in my life had I heard anyone speak about the tzaddikim with such love and awe. Later, when I began to read and watch as much as I possibly could about Reb Shlomo in order to contextualize the living voice, decades dead and gone, coming through my headphones, it became clear to me that I had never heard of a person whose actions so precisely reflected what he preached.
While the range of opinion regarding the degree to which the actions of Reb Shlomo Carlebach were incongruent with those of a normative rabbi spans almost as enormous a spectrum as the conflicting worlds in which he operated, all agree that this man was unlike any other rabbi of his time. Indeed, the message he carried was unlike that of any rabbi of his time. To say the least, he didn’t preach standard pulpit fare, and mystery inevitably hovers over the loose ends he chose not to, didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t tie.
But those lessons he did preach, those themes that together form the theological basis for decades worth of his recorded teachings and storytelling all around the globe, were lessons with which his soul was one. The depth of his connection to Yiddishkeit – through good times and difficult phases, both the ups and downs of a human experience intensified a thousandfold by the singular circumstances of a life unparalleled in its remarkability – is simply unfathomable. With every song, story, and teaching I heard, it became clearer and clearer to me that this was a man to whom Yiddishkeit – not in its commercialized, idealized form, but in its most honest, raw, and relevant iteration– was the most important thing in the entire world. It was this sincerity that opened my heart to the treasures of our deep and beautiful tradition in a way that nothing before ever did, and nothing since ever could.
Aside from the general folly involved in attempting to evaluate and define Reb Shlomo’s inner world from any perspective because of the ambiguity of the age and the dearth of factual information, doing so from a perspective that isn’t deeply rooted in the ideological universe of the Baal Shem Tov is like trying to weigh a suitcase with a ruler, or, to use the Ba’al HaTanya’s parable, attempting to grasp a thought with one’s hand. It was in the Baal Shem Tov’s world where yearning, brokenness, joy, humility, kindness, simplicity, faith, love of Jews, prayer, and desire were granted utmost import in any assessment of closeness with Hashem that Reb Shlomo was so firmly rooted. With every breath, he breathed the air of 16th century Medzibozh, the radical truths of a pre-institutionalized Chassidic spirit that so greatly kindled the flames of a spiritually parched generation.
It is not despite his struggles or even failings (the degree of which, again, is a matter of near-irresolvable contention) that Reb Shlomo Carlebach had and continues to have such a colossal impact on our generation, but because of them. The question of whether or not Reb Shlomo Carlebach was a tzaddik aside, he certainly never claimed such a title. He was quite open about the complexity of his approach, and the nature of his experience on the narrow bridge a Jew must walk in this world. However, the afflictions of his post-Holocaust trauma, isolation, wandering, social persecution and their myriad effects on every aspect of his expansive personality were his greatest blessing, because it was those elements which imbued his teachings about hope, prayer, love, and joy amidst suffering with a genuine and authentic quality. His singing wasn’t a performance just as his teachings weren’t lectures. His love wasn’t a charade, just as his hope wasn’t without challenges to be overcome. It is clear to all those with a heart of flesh that Reb Shlomo Carlebach succeeded in planting a wondrous garden of optimism, sacrifice, love, connection, holy desire, striving, joy, and refusal to despair – in the dark and fearful Vacant Space that occupied the center of his enormous heart.
Perhaps it is this stark sincerity that enabled Reb Shlomo to experience such popularity in his generation, and, to an even larger extent (a truly remarkable feat) in ours, twenty-five years after he left thousands of heavenly melodies, an entire body of Torah thought, and many unanswered questions behind in the olam hafuch we inhabit. Much like the counterculture youth of his era, (although in a far more healthy, contained, and subtle way), today’s generation is seeking something very honest, open, and relevant. Strugglers, failures, sometimes even sinners ourselves, we are willing to dig deep beneath the surface and embrace the paradoxes we find – eschewing the binary thinking of simpler minds in the knowledge that, were that same thinking to be applied in our own circumstances, all hope would be lost.
I shudder to imagine where I would be without Reb Shlomo Carlebach and his teachings. His ahavas Yisrael, joy, compassion, niggunim, and Torah have immeasurably enriched every aspect of my life and avodas Hashem; bein adam l’atzmo, bein adam l’chaveiro, and bein adam l’Makom. His commitment to Hashem and infatuation with the spirit of Yiddishkeit represent one of the mighty foundations upon which my own strivings are built. His exuberant message has taught me how to begin planting a garden in the Vacant Space I call my own.
With no precedent in Jewish history to rely on and the necessary ambiguity of conflicting impressions that will never disappear, I may not always know what title to put before or after Reb Shlomo’s name. But this itself (aside from its essential insignificance) is reflective of his spiritual message; a messagethat is humble and honest enough to address struggle and failure,and to chart a course for utilizing these very obstacles as stepping-stones to greater yearning, authenticity, and devotion to the Master of the world.