The holy hippy who got Arabs and Jews dancing

Shlomo Carlebach may have been a controversial figure, but his song is still worth singing today


By Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, December 11, 2013
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Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach – Life, Mission and Legacy, Natan Ophir, is published by Urim Publications

Eric Anderson played the lead role in Soul Doctor, the recent Broadway musical about Shlomo Carlebach

Eric Anderson played the lead role in Soul Doctor, the recent Broadway musical about Shlomo Carlebach

One of the most intriguing rabbinic characters of modern times was Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach; the charismatic outreach pioneer, storyteller, musician and hippy. His colourful career is the subject of a new biography by Natan Ophir.

Witnessing the enormous growth of the hippy culture and the tens of thousands of American Jews who broke with Judaism to latch on to it, Carlebach, the brilliant scholar of the most prestigious American yeshivot, had great faith in these spiritual seekers. He believed that they possessed huge reserves of religious energy, which were dulled by the dry, spiritless Jewish education they had been taught.

He understood that they were not on a traditional religious trajectory, but this was no reason not to engage with them. “We can’t just stand by and abandon them to every newly minted guru and drug dealer on the planet,” he said, “We have to reach out to them.”

He quickly realised that traditional teaching would not excite them, so gradually breaking with the religious institutions that nurtured him, he toured the university campuses playing his own compositions on the guitar and telling Chasidic stories. It was a potent mix which spoke to the students.

Carlebach became a regular at spiritual gatherings and music festivals such as Woodstock where he appeared before a crowd of half-a-million people. As the non-Jews rose to dance to his Jewish music, the Jews followed.

In keeping with the hippy culture, his synagogue-commune was called The House of Love and Prayer. He defined it as a place “where when you walk in, someone loves youand when you walk out, someone misses you”. This was in stark contrast to so many of the cold, faceless synagogues where Jews who did not fit the traditional profile were shunned.

The “holy hippies” were not an easy community. Their house was regularly busted by the police for drugs and at one point, the residents voted to allow smoking and music on Shabbat for those who so wished. This was more than the rabbi could take and the community was closed for a period.

Still, he remained indefatigable; there was nowhere that he would not go to bring Torah to his people.
While the Moonies were viewed by most religious Jews as the devil incarnate, Carlebach saw things differently. When he heard it estimated that up to 50 per cent of their members were Jewish, he immediately accepted an invitation to play for them. Witnesses say that after some initial suspicion, by the early hours of the morning “the entire seminary was dancing with us in a circle”.

In Chanucah 1989, he went to him to an ashram where many of the young monks were actually Jewish. Throughout the concert, the rector of the ashram sat on stage in a lotus position absorbing the music while Carlebach quietly distributed his business card to the Jewish Buddhists.

His love was not confined to Jews. When he visited Poland, television interviewers asked him what he hoped to accomplish on the trip. He astonished everyone by saying, “I’d like to shake the hand of every man, woman and child in Poland,” explaining that “after the Holocaust, it’s so easy to be angry at the world, but we have to continue to love it”.

When he was invited to perform in an Israeli prison, he insisted that not only the Jewish prisoners be invited to the concert, but Palestinian inmates as well and he went from cell to cell imploring them to come. One Palestinian woman who had been imprisoned for planting a bomb in a Jerusalem supermarket attended the concert. At his request, she translated his Chasidic teachings into Arabic for the others. By the end of the evening, Jews, Arabs, prisoners and guards were all up on their feet, singing and dancing together.

Playing at these venues meant that it was not a radical step for him also to give concerts at Reform temples and Conservative synagogues in America. There too, he was a great hit and the leaders of these and other Jewish movements got up to dance with him.

Carlebach was a complex figure. His habit of showering the men and women who came to his concerts with affection led some in the Orthodox world to shun him; others sought rabbinic advice and were told by the greatest rabbis of America that it was permitted to listen to his music. After his death, some women made complaints that his charisma had led to inappropriate relationships. We will never know.

But Rabbi Carlebach bequeathed us an exciting model for relations between religious and secular, Orthodox and non-Orthodox. Putting aside aggression, condemnation and boycotts, he engaged with everyone, everywhere. He sought unity through warmth, love, music and Torah study. Isn’t that a refreshingly positive religious model?

Gideon Sylvester, the United Synagogue's Israel rabbi, will be speaking at the Limmud Shabbaton and conference next week including a session on "the Orthodox battles of Limmud". Sessions from other presenters will look at Carlebach's influence in the American synagogue and his Chasidic thought

Last updated: 8:06pm, December 11 2013