Biography of a ‘singing rabbi’

Natan Ophir explores the life, mission and legacy of Shlomo Carlebach.

The Singing Rabbi (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Singing Rabbi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One summer’s day in 1961, two young men, both at the dawn of their respective careers, sat opposite each other in a train from Man- chester to London. The previous evening, Shlomo Carlebach – the elder by a dozen or so years, and on his first professional visit to Britain – had entertained a group of students at a kumzits in Prestwich, to which I had been invited as a representative of the press. Finding ourselves similarly bound for a Shabbat break in the metropolis, we met again on the journey and chatted animatedly about his musical aspirations.
“In America,” I subsequently wrote, “Shlomo Carlebach needs no introduction. His very name conjures up the solidly built, black-bearded, joyful face of the young hassidic singer, as well as the tunes he loves. His power to turn around thousands who thought Judaism was dead has caused him to be described as the ‘Jewish Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ With the song comes an unburdening of the soul, an uplifting of the spirit. Shlomo’s best audiences are invariably teenagers, dissatisfied with life and striving to fill a vacuum.
They are looking, as Shlomo puts it, ‘for something real.’” Natan Ophir describes this 1961 meeting in his sweeping biography, a painstaking account of the “singing rabbi” whose name, music and memory arouse greater passions today than at any time since he first trod the boards. Written in the style of an academic dissertation, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission and Legacy projects the task of “evaluat[ing] the life of the subject by setting forth minutiae that become meaningful through the prism of the historical backdrop and the colorfulness of the cultural settings.”
This genre, Ophir declares, “entails meticulous research, detailed footnotes and scholarly annotations in order to piece together dates, names and places.”
To that end, “I realized that the first step is to reconstruct factual details of what Reb Shlomo did, where he went, whom he influenced and who influenced him.
Only after that could I begin to properly analyze his songs, stories and teachings.
My purpose here is to provide the documentation and to outline the historical settings. For a follow-up volume, I have collected an analysis of his teachings, using literary, theological and cultural perspectives.”
This “first step” transcends the study, with legions of Carlebach’s foot soldiers exalting their leader, and with chapter after chapter detailing the “minutiae” – on virtually a day-by-day basis – of the tunes he composed, the concerts he gave, the audiences he mesmerized, the hippies he befriended, the marriages he consecrated, the gentiles he converted and the rabbis he ordained.
The “dates, names and places” thus dominate the book, overplay the role of the onlookers, recipients and commentators, and blur – if not obscure – the subject himself.
Where are the heart, soul and spirit of Shlomo? Where his innermost thoughts and reactions? What led to his whirlwind marriage – and to his divorce eight years later? How did he relate to his family behind the scenes? What really caused the growing antipathy within much of the strictly Orthodox world? As a sociological, anthropological and cultural examination of the period and its ethos, particularly the era of the “holy hippies” and their House of Love and Prayer, Ophir’s study is illuminating and, to an extent, groundbreaking, though – as much else in Shlomo’s life – it leaves more questions than answers.
And as a precursor to the waves of outreach and renewal that permeate today’s Jewish world, the global impact of Carlebachian “inreach” and “wide-reach” receives noteworthy attention.
In one of several “testimonials” with which the volume concludes, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi oddly asserts that Ophir “avoids both the adulation of hagiography and the dry descriptions of the ‘facts’ of Shlomo’s life.” And, in his section on bibliographic sources, Ophir himself quotes Prof. Shaul Magid’s observation that “much of what we know about him [Carlebach] is hopelessly hagiographic.”
Ophir expounds on this point at various stages. Putting words into Carlebach’s mouth, he writes in his preface: “One day, Shlomo appeared in my dream and said, ‘Natan, my friend, you never really know who the other person is. You are bound to misjudge me unless you can discover my inner secrets… So I ask of you that when and if you discover mistakes that I made, don’t castigate me, just fix them. Oy, this world I left behind needs mamash such a fixing!’” When he awoke, Ophir relates, he realized that “despite my intent to write an objective or critical biography, it was inevitable that I would be influenced ever subtly by Reb Shlomo’s [Ophir’s own?] imperative, requiring a continuous quest for goodness, empathy and optimism. It is hoped that this bias does not impair the possibility for a balanced analysis of one of the most colorful and controversial Jewish figures of the 20th century.”
BUT IMPAIR it does – and not so subtly.
As a rabbi, philosopher and student of neuropsychology, Ophir should know that bias and balance do not coexist. To take but one example, skirting “the assorted criticisms against Reb Shlomo,” he refers at the end of his study to the rabbi’s “incredible power of hugs,” and asks: “Did he make mistakes in the ways that he hugged or related to women? And, if so, should such stories be sought out and publicized?” Ophir concludes: “After listening carefully and examining the stories in an attempt to determine their veracity, eventually I decided to leave room for other writers to undertake the challenging tasks of judge and jury.
What convinced me most was that the most prominent ethical message in Shlomo’s legacy is to refrain from caustic judgments.
His motto was ‘You never know.’” Ophir’s book runs to 500 pages and, among a plethora of objectives he seeks to achieve, opens with the question, “Who was Reb Shlomo?” My own answer is, “We still don’t know – nor begin to discover, let alone to understand, his ‘inner secrets.’” Had the author condensed his exposition by half, omitting many of the reminiscences and eulogies of Carlebach’s followers, and incorporated instead some of his “literary, theological and cultural perspectives” – held back for the planned second volume – perhaps we would be the wiser, and most certainly the richer. ■
Now a freelance writer and editor, and a life-long admirer of Carlebach’s music, the writer had a distinguished 40-year career at the London Jewish Chronicle and is the author of several books on Anglo-Jewry and the British Chief Rabbinate.