The Rebbe and I

Riveting account of spiritual journey alongside Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach 311 (photo credit: courtesy: PR)
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach 311
(photo credit: courtesy: PR)
Many books have been written about Shlomo Carlebach, the wandering minstrel and dispenser of Torah who took the Jewish world by storm in the 60s and heralded a new form of Judaism for people who had little or no knowledge of their faith.
His power was clear from the beginning.
Here was a religious figure who was able to tell the Jewish world that the Holocaust was over; that we had to move on and that he, Reb Shlomo, was giving us permission to sing again. It was a powerful message in a period dominated by Zionism, secularism, and assimilation. Being Jewish was not cool.
Reb Shlomo was able to stop this trend, almost single-handedly. He had somefriends, especially the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi. Both got their start in the Lubavitch movement, but they saw that the world of Chabad was too restrictive, too much into the world of yesterday. The real action had to be somewhere else.
One of the great pluses of writing about Shlomo (he was always “Shlomo” to his followers) is that there is so much already written about him and by him. However, most of this literature is hagiographic.
Critical accounts, mostly centering on salacious stories of his various affairs with women, have been limited, as far as I know, to blogs and other websites.
The man and the legend “Holy Beggars” focuses more on the followers, but nevertheless attempts an analysis of the man and the legend he created.Aryae Coopersmith, a young college student when he first met Carlebach in 1965, knew Carlebach well enough to speak of him as his rebbe. He helped build him a House of Love and Prayer and later a yeshiva.Yet he married out and had two children who are halakhically non-Jewish.Both Carlebach and Schachter-Shalomi, unsuccessfully, tried to dissuade Coopersmith from taking this step. The author later divorced, and married a Jewish woman.
How dependable is his account of the House of Love and Prayer? Is it just pap that will go down well with this small band of somewhat eccentric anarchists?
Not in the slightest: Coopersmith has come up with a riveting account of the true believers. It tracks the first stirrings of God consciousness, doubts about the rebels’ own upbringing, and the movement towards something less grand and more friendly. He also describes Carlebach’s youth in Vienna and his interest in Hasidism, his flight to New York to escape the Nazis, and his attraction to the life of learning both in the heart of the Litvak world of Rav Aharon Kotler, head of Lakewood Yeshiva, and in the Hasidic world of the Freilecher Rebbe, Yitzhak-Yosef (the last but one rebbe of Lubavitch).
When Coopersmith met Carlebach the older man startled him with his openness, and honesty. What is prayer? he asked, and answered that it is part of life. What is the day compared with the night, he further asked, answering that, according to Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, each has its own truth but that the truth of the night is more connected to the things we don’t know and therefore it is more attractive.
The Jews that Carlebach found in San Francisco were like “holy beggars” who are “hungry for a world of love and peace, who are hungry for a true friend, who are hungry for the great Shabbos.” Not only Jews but non-Jews, too, would find their place here, citing a midrash that there “were more non-Jews than Jews at Sinai.”
Such ecstatic teachings drove Coopersmith along with some others to set up the House of Love and Prayer. Not everyone liked what Carlebach was doing. Carlebach’s mother was wary that these hippies would ask from him more than was good for him. But Carlebach was persistent.
“When you walk in some one loves you/ when you walk out someone misses you.”
That was the rule of the House, but for how long? It appears that the House was set up in such a way that it invited fragmentation rather than unity, not immediately but eventually. “Eventually,” meant the end of the ’60s or the beginning of the ’70s, by which time you had either become a confirmed drop-out or you had returned to your studies, like Coopersmith, and left the cloistered world of Carlebach’s hippies well behind you. Some took Carlebach’s message and went to study in yeshiva, joining the frum world.
The extraordinary thing about the House of Love and Prayer is that it taught its inhabitants very little about basic Judaism, although a lot about an appreciation of the higher worlds. Coopersmith tells us that one Shabbat the inhabitants of the House had an embarrassing encounter with the members of the local synagogue. The disciples met their visitors while smoking, believing that what was permitted on festivals was also permitted on Shabbat.
Carlebach’s women The important part of the book for some people will surely be its account of relationships Carlebach had with women.
Aryae: “I didn’t think any of us knew that you and Shlomo were lovers. I certainly didn’t.”
Donna (soon to be a convert to Judaism): “Our relationship was private. You know it wasn’t just sex. I would sit and learn with him... I would learn so much from him. We would spend hours and hours learning. It was amazing.”
Carlebach’s presence is seen as critical, distancing himself and his Hasidim from the establishment synagogues. The establishment is very good at turning off people from godliness, and from their own souls, and then complaining that the youth of today are not following the traditional ways of doing things. Carlebach’s way was different, and his Hasidim were very different from those who created the great Hasidic courts of the past.
Many of them turned to the path of Judaism and bought in to the trip of discipline and duty. But there were many – including the author – who didn’t. Coopersmith is a disciple but only up to a point.
Altogether, this is a sobering view of one of the world’s most influential Jews of the past half century: a man with his feet in the past but his head in his imagined future (“San Francisco is the city of tomorrow, Jerusalem the city for the day after tomorrow”).
It is a brave attempt to come to terms with one of the most extraordinary personages of our day and age.