Revisiting the rebbe

Saturday night saw the 11th annual Shlomo Carlebach Memorial Concert at the International Conference Center.

shlomo carlebach 88 (photo credit: )
shlomo carlebach 88
(photo credit: )
Eleven years after the passing of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, "the singing rabbi," the anniversary of his death continues to be celebrated in grand style in Jerusalem. The Shir L'Shlomo Foundation, established in 1994 to promote the teachings and music of the man known simply as "Shlomo," organizes an annual concert in Binyanei Ha'uma with the backing of the Jerusalem Municipality. As every year, the concert was attended by close to 3,000 people of all ages, walks of life, and religious levels (comprising a majority of Anglo olim and English-speakers) who sang along and danced in the aisles. A few very enthusiastic members of the audience even attempted to ascend the stage. The artists performed without remuneration out of their love for the "rebbe" and their desire to repay him for his positive influence on their lives. Carlebach was sent out into the world with his guitar in the Sixties by the last Rebbe of Lubavitch in order to "save souls." A graduate of Lakewood yeshiva, he went where no other Orthodox rabbi dared to go, such as bars and discotheques. His movement began in 1968 when Carlebach founded the House of Love in San Francisco. He brought thousands of non-affiliated Jews back to their heritage during his lifetime and continues to touch thousands more after his passing. During the 1980s Carlebach visited the FSU several times, smuggling in Jewish ritual items such as prayer book and tefillin and performed at a series of concerts and smaller gatherings attended by tens of thousands of Jew whose souls were awakened by his tunes. Rabbi Joe Schonwald led the haskara (memorial prayer), and video clips of the late rabbi were shown. The evening was emceed by Menahem Tucker of Radio Kol Hai who left at midnight to air an interview with Carlebach that had been conducted 15 years ago. Carlebach's widow Neilah spoke, saying her life had been irrevocably changed when she met Carlebach at the Western Wall. She told how on a visit to the FSU someone asked him why, although he always told stories about the Holocaust he always appeared so happy and he said: "Because I think about all the Jewish births, weddings and bar mitzvas." She also told how once in Berlin, Carlebach was approached by a young woman who wanted confirmation of his message of universal love. She asked him: If I told you that my grandfather had been a Nazi, would you still love me? He answered yes, I would still love you. Then she asked, if I told you that my father still hated Jews, would you still love me? He answered yes, I would still love you. The she asked him: If I told you my boyfriend was a neo-Nazi and wants to rid the world of Jews, would you still love me? Carlebach took a moment and sighed, then he said, it would be hard, but I would still love you. In the years since his death, more and more Carlebach minyanim have sprung up, both in Israel and abroad, offering synagogue-goers an alternative way of praying to God within the Orthodox Jewish tradition, to the accompaniment of the famous melodies Carlebach created. "Shlomo never forgot a face or a name," is a common remark among his followers. His personal phone book held hundreds of numbers and it was not unusual when someone who had met him was feeling especially depressed about their life, to receive a phone call from him as if he intuitively knew they needed to hear a friendly voice. Saturday night's line up included such Carlebach staples as the Reva LeSheva band which played back up for all the artists, along with its lead singer Yehuda Katz, Chaim David Saracik, Yitzhak Attias, Josh Lauffer (with the Neve Michael Boys Choir), Chaim Sofer, Yonatan Razel, Aron Razel, the Witt children, Shlomo Katz and Nafatali Avramson, and three hassidic-genre musicians who played Carlebach-style: Yishai Lapidot, Amiram Dvir and Mendy Jeruffi. Saracik and Yehuda Katz were the stars of the evening when they performed a song they had composed on the Thursday night prior to the concert. Saracik, who met Carlebach in July 1975 and was influenced by him to study Torah at the Diaspora Yeshiva on Har Zion, says he is "personally indebted to Reb Shlomo for my yiddishkeit." As Katz and Saracik took the stage, the latter enthralled the audience by explaing the origins of their brand new song. "We came together at Yehuda [Katz]'s studio at Beit Meir, preparing for the concert. Our dear friend Danny Roth who was the drummer for the evening took the microphone (even thought there was no audience) and told a story: On the day of Reb Shlomo's passing Yehuda had called him very distraught, to tell him the news. Yehuda was mamash broken, but Danny felt he had no tears to shed, and was disturbed by this. The months passed and on the following Purim which was Erev Shabbos, he started to think about Reb Shlomo and he burst into tears and cried for five hours as his mind began to recall memories of Reb Shlomo. "I was tinkering on my guitar as Danny spoke, Adam Wexler was practicising his bass, Chanan Elias was playing his keyboard, Avi Herschberg - my bass player - was knocking two wooden blocks together and Yehuda was running in and out dealing with children issues. Also Aryeh Naftali was playing one of his wind instruments and I had invited a guest from Hebron, Baruch ben Yaakov, who for years has been entertaining soldiers at mahsomim and giving them spitirtual encouragement. "With all this going on I felt a song coming down through my fingers and when Yehuda came back we considered the tinkering as the basis for a song. Yehuda said: What would Reb Shlomo want us to bring into the world? Sure enough, Baruch ben Yaakov came out with one line, "Neve hatzedek tzvi tifarto yaalena al rosh simhato" (May His splendid Temple of righteousness be prized by Him above His highest joy) from Anim Zemirot, Nun, and we immediately transposed it into the melody and it worked and we realized we needed another part. Yehuda, always remembering Shlomo's teachings, mentioned the end of Shir Hama'alot 'Azorim bedima berina yiktzoru' (Those who sow with tears shall reap with joy.) Shlomo always gave us the teaching from Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, that the way to punctuate the line is so that it reads 'those who even in their tears find happiness, will truly reap.' That is what Shlomo was all about, about finding joy even in tears." Commenting on the evening itself, Saracik later told Cafe Oleh: "The nice thing about last night and every year is that everybody who comes and particiates feels grateful to our rebbe, teacher and spiritual guide. Our love for the rebbe even in his lifetime was very great and all the more so after his passing we clearly realize the greatness of who he is, so coming together we join in his great dream which was bringing Jews together and dropping the barriers, to which he was so opposed: the differences and the smallnesses that permeate society."