One day in the early Seventies, when my interest in Judaism first reawakened, I went to afternoon services at a large established synagogue in San Francisco. It was my first time in a synagogue in years, and I was scared. A dozen mostly old men prayed the afternoon service, all in Hebrew. I couldn‘t follow what was going on, so after the service, I asked the rabbi, an elderly man with a goatee, how I could learn.
“Come back Friday evening,” he said, “there will be more people, more English.” And he dismissed me without a smile.
I took it as a rejection, and I think it was meant to be. He surely refused personal contact with me. I still had long hair then. Maybe that was why he told me to go away.
Persevering, I found the House of Love and Prayer, a storefront Orthodox synagogue near Golden Gate Park. The congregants, mostly young Jews returning from lives in secular America and a sprinkling of born-into-it “native Orthodox,” were glad to share what they knew of Judaism and of the road back. They were a lively bunch, all students of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who had founded the House and now came back two or three times a year from bases in New York and Israel to teach there.
On Shabbat mornings, after spirited prayer, the youthful leaders of the shul set out a home-cooked meal for anyone who wanted to join them. It was at their table — at Shlomo‘s table, so to speak, for they were doing Shlomo‘s work — that I learned the Sabbath table songs and the blessings after meals. As I became more involved, my family and I became personal friends with the people, and it was partly in order to reciprocate their hospitality that, with their help, we koshered our kitchen; encouraged by them, we started making the Sabbath at home and celebrating holidays we hadn‘t even heard of before, investigating and inventing, full of fervor and feelings.
That was Shlomo‘s doorway, and a lot of Jews came back through it to Judaism. As one of them, I have always felt connected to Shlomo and tremendously in his debt. More than any other person, he brought me in and showed me the excellent sweetness of the Torah.
A few years before his death in 1994, Shlomo gave a concert in Los Angeles, and I was able both to see him perform and to speak with him privately.
There was no one like Shlomo.
A Lubovitch-trained Hasidic rabbi and a descendant of one of the great European rabbinic families, from 1959 he pursued an international career as a singer-composer and Hasidic teacher. His aim was simply to bring living Torah to Jews everywhere.
Shlomo‘s melodies have by now become canonic, and they are wonderful, resonating with that mixture of joy, sorrow and yearning that distinguishes traditional Jewish music. And his “Torah,” his teaching, always embodied what I think of as the real substance of religious life.
He preached, for example, not about ritual observance but about being focused in the present moment as a service of God; about unifying the self; about making contact with the unconscious; about the masks people use to hide themselves; about spiritual failure-of-nerve; about the limitations of free choice, the hope of real connectedness, the inner meaning of events — about love, joy, fear, loneliness.
He nestled his stories and teachings between phrases of endearment — “Let me tell you something, beautiful friends,” he would begin, and his voice, rich with European inflections and spiced with American colloquialisms, was a pure pleasure to hear. Charming and charismatic, he taught the joyful and loving service of God. Like every authentically holy teacher he often seemed, in a crowded room of people, to be speaking directly to your own deepest personal concerns.
If Shlomo was an outcast in many parts of the Orthodox world, it was in part because his teaching itself was a reproach to mainstream Orthodoxy, where the primary concern of many rabbis is merely to transmit the performance of mitzvot
— important work, but not poetry.
Shlomo, by contrast, was an artist, working by intuition, using people‘s emotions and senses to awaken them to Torah and the joy of Jewish life. Mitzvot came later. “I never tell people what to do,” he explained to me. “If Shabbas has to beg you to make Shabbas, who needs it?”
Contemporary Orthodoxy, he lamented, had become moribund and failed as a life-giving alternative for Jews outside the Torah communities. “Torah is in exile,” he said, “represented by people who don‘t know what it’s about. We have the Land now, and we have the best young people we ever had, and the Orthodox Establishment doesn‘t know what to do with it. It’s as if the Messiah is knocking but no one is home.”
Those angry words were not likely to heal his breach with mainstream Orthodoxy. But Shlomo‘s flamboyant personal style separated him even more. His casual physicality with women especially marked a provocative assault on essential boundaries in the Orthodox world. Already in the Seventies, a parody of the San Francisco guru scene dubbed one heavyset rabbi with guitar “the Kissing Rabbi.” But in this regard Shlomo may have become even more provocative as he grew older. During the intermission of his L.A. concert, for example, as he mingled with his fans, he pulled men to him for warm hugs but gathered in women for lingering kisses and long embraces.
He explained the physical contact as a method of outreach. “Kids don‘t want to be told what to do,” he told me. “They‘re looking to find a mother, a father, a best friend.” Incredibly, then, he seemed to have taken on, like an impresario of the Torah, the role of loved one with the huge numbers of Jews he met. “Every Jew is a Torah and should be kissed,” he insisted.
By the late Eighties, when I interviewed him, there was something uncomfortable for me about this. It wasn‘t, I think, just that I lived more within the strictures of the Orthodox world myself. Men and women of 35 are not ‘kids,’ no matter where you live. And with everyone he met, Shlomo asked for addresses, gave out his calling card, promised future contact; on stage and in our private conversation, he told story after story of the spiritual efficacy of physical contact: A Jewish Hare Krishna girl returned to Judaism because he embraced her when they first met, a young man‘s heart opened and he burst into tears when Shlomo hugged him, because his father had not touched him in years. Everything came back to contact, to love.
But in the context of the Eighties and Nineties, all these embraces, this talk of love, seemed not less a form of outreach than a sign of one man‘s loneliness.
Shlomo was, I believe, one of the great Jews of our generation, an unorthodox tzaddik
and a teacher of extraordinary warmth, energy and vision. Opening himself to all Jews everywhere, he offered himself as a living source of Torah to an entire generation of lost Jews. He sacrificed himself to the ambition to bring them back, and that too was a part of his greatness.
But something happened to Shlomo in the 15 years between the first time I met him and the last time I saw him. I had the sense that he has lost some battle within himself and was driven, not only by the holy desire to save Jews, but by his own deep need to inhabit the spotlight and be loved.
This is a cruel judgement, and too glib, perhaps, for a lesser man like myself to make on a greater one like Shlomo.
There is a saying in Yiddish: When a father helps a child to walk, both laugh; when a child helps a father to walk, both cry. I took away from my meeting with Shlomo the same message of a loving and joyful Judaism that has nourished me since I first heard it from him in 1973. And yet I came away shaken, as well, wanting but not knowing how to give back to my teacher some part of the blessing of ease that he had bestowed on me.