Carlebach, Shlomo

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CARLEBACH, SHLOMO

CARLEBACH, SHLOMO (1925–1994), rabbi, composer, and performer. Born in Berlin to Rabbi Naphtali Hartwig and Pessia Carlebach, Shlomo moved with his parents and twin brother Eli Chaim to New York City in 1939. He received a yeshivah education, studying at Mesivta Tora Vo-da'ath and the Beth Midrash Gevoha of America in Lakewood, New Jersey, under Rabbi Aaron *Kotler. Carlebach developed an interest in ḥasidic Judaism during his studies and soon became one of the first outreach emissaries for Chabad Lubavitch. Paired with Zalman Schachter (Shalomi), he went on several missions to college campuses and elsewhere in an effort to bring Ḥabad's message to young people. Sent out to change the world, but not be changed by it, Carlebach let the world change him: early on, he began learning guitar and composing songs in the then-popular folk idiom as a way to make his teaching more effective. His songs, which he would produce prolifically for the rest of his life, blended elements of the ḥasidic niggun, Israeli song, and American folk revival to yield melodies that were both infectious and easy to sing; and his lyrics usually consisted of short phrases either taken from or inspired by scripture and liturgy. Carlebach left Lubavitch in the mid-1950s, but he continued to minister to young people through a combination of stories, songs, and religious Jewish teachings, consistently attempting to recast the broader society's values within a framework of Jewish tradition and belief.

Carlebach performed in coffeehouses throughout the 1950s and 1960s, usually to great enthusiasm; and his first album, Hanshomoh Loch / Songs of My Soul (1959), established him as a musical artist. Live at the Village Gate followed in 1963. His zenith on the folk music scene was reached in 1966, when Carlebach accepted an invitation to play at the Berkeley Folk Festival. The following year – influenced, according to some accounts, by the "lost Jewish souls" he found while at the Festival – he opened his House of Love and Prayer in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco. A well-known site for disaffected Jewish youth for ten years, the House of Love and Prayer involved its residents, under Carlebach's spiritual guidance, in a life of Jewish text study and observance, as well as storytelling, singing, and dancing. An attempt to set up a similar center in Jerusalem effectively ended when the house burned down in 1970.

In 1977 Carlebach and his "Holy Hippelach" left Northern California and established Moshav Me'or Modi'in outside Tel Aviv. When not touring, the "singing" or "dancing" rabbi, as he was known, maintained both the moshav and his late father's congregation on New York's Upper West Side (Congregation Kehilath Jacob, later known as the Carlebach Shul) as his bases of operation. Much of the rest of his time he devoted to a tireless concert schedule, including some of the first concerts in support of Soviet Jewry. Carlebach's performances would comprise a succession of songs and stories, sometimes until the wee hours of the morning; and he consistently played to a mixed gender crowd. At the time of his death, Shlomo Carlebach had become a legend of sorts, having recorded over 25 albums, composed up to 5,000 songs, performed on five continents, released two official songbooks, amassed a broad following, granted semikhah to both male and female students, and given away nearly all his earnings. Several of his songs, moreover, had become "traditional" during Jewish events; revelers would sing such songs as "Esa Einai," "David Melekh Yisrael," "Am Yisrael Ḥai," and "Od Yishama" with little knowledge of their author.

After his death, Shlomo Carlebach's memory continued to have a significant impact on American Jewry, one that seemed to grow with each passing year. "Carlebach-style" services that emphasized group singing (and often, but not always, Carlebach's tunes) became a staple in prayer groups across denominations and around the world. Compact discs of old, reissued, or re-mixed Carlebach recordings continued to come into the market at a rapid pace. Musical artists from across the denominations invoked Carlebach's name as a way of gaining an imprimatur; and a number of musicians who had either worked with or been inspired by Carlebach began developing careers of their own, including Chaim David, Soulfarm, and the Moshav Band, as well as his daughter Neshama Carlebach. Orthodox Jewish groups, meanwhile, which had been critical of Carlebach's religious philosophies and behavior during his lifetime, began to warm to the man as a creator of timeless music and came to integrate his memory more fully into their spiritual communities.

Carlebach's life and philosophy, meanwhile, have gained prominence in their own right. Followers of his, several of whom attained positions of power in renewal, liberal, and even Orthodox circles, continued to compile and distribute his stories and teachings. He personally ordained at least one woman as a rabbi. New generations of young people gained inspiration and religious guidance from Carlebach's philosophies. Books written by supporters provided accounts of his life that bordered on hagiography, reproducing Carlebach's penchant for parable-like storytelling. The Carlebach Shul continued to spread his message through services, conferences, and Yahrzeit concerts, and served as a major distributor of his albums and songbooks. By the turn of the 21st century, moreover, the term "Carlebachian" had become an informal term for describing a form of Orthodox observance. Although controversy has arisen in some circles regarding Carlebach's treatment of women, his music, teaching, and image remain popular symbols in American Jewish life.

bibliography:

Y. Ariel, Hasidism in the Age of Aquarius: The House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, 1967–1977 (2003); M. Brandwine, Reb Shlomele: The Life and World of Shlomo Carlebach (1997); Y.H. Mandelbaum, Holy Brother (1997); K. Serker (ed.), The Holy Beggars' Banquet (1998).

[Judah M. Cohen (2nd ed.)]