Editor’s Note: Cheshvan 16 (Nov. 3 this year) was Shlomo Carlebach’s 15th yahrzeit.
In the fall of 1993, I had the wonderful experience of interviewing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Both a controversial personality and a dynamic presence, Reb Shlomo never lost his unqualified love for his fellow Jew, though he was well aware the feeling was not always reciprocal.
His apartment, located above the Carlebach Shul (formally known as Congregation Kehilat Jacob) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was not exactly what one might have expected from a world-famous singer/songwriter.
Religious books peeked out of every corner, and the walls were barren except for a photograph of Reb Shlomo’s deceased and greatly loved twin brother, Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach. On the table were pictures of Kever Rachel, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (complete with dollar bill), and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson (whom Reb Shlomo considered a personal adviser and spiritual mentor).
As we sat at one of his long folding tables, presumably there to accommodate a wealth of Shabbos and melaveh malkah guests, I got the distinct feeling Reb Shlomo saw himself as a person who was often misunderstood.
“The world is afraid of anything new,” he said. “There is a Torah insight that explains that though we think people are afraid of darkness, the truth is that they are afraid of light.”
Reb Shlomo obviously felt a parallel between that statement and his own experiences in the world of Torah Judaism.
“I began my career in the early sixties,” he recalled. “At that time I was accepted everywhere. And why not? There were some good niggunim, some good singing. But I realized that between songs people’s hearts are open; they don’t put up their defenses when I sing. So I decided to sneak in some good Torah and good stories.
“And I was really able to reach people who were unreachable…. People who, for instance, were into drugs because they were searching for something higher – looking for a feeling so complete and so soul shaking.”
Actually – and this, amazingly enough, is something still not universally acknowledged in certain frum circles – Shlomo Carlebach was a pioneer in the kiruv movement, a charismatic force who drew thousands of Jews to Jewish observance.
His House of Love and Prayer, which operated between 1967 and 1976, provided a milieu where youngsters in the San Francisco area, who otherwise would have been lost to their religious heritage, could express their spirituality in a Jewish context.
“Once, back in the House of Love and Prayer,” Reb Shlomo related, “I was visited by [hallucogenic drug enthusiast] Timothy Leary during Friday night davening. You know, he told me that his whole life he’d been looking to turn people on without drugs. He said, ‘I may be into LSD, but it’s only out of emergency. But I see you Jews have the answer. Shabbos is the best drug in the world.’ ”
Indeed, Reb Shlomo considered Shabbos the main ingredient to the Jewish experience.
“You know,” he told me, “the non-religious of Eretz Yisrael are actually quite open. If someone says the non-religious hate the religious, it’s not true. Friday night, when I go to the Holy Wall, I see the non-religious. They want so much for something to happen to them. They want so much for someone to say ‘Gut Shabbos’ to them.
“At the beginning of my career, I played the Berkeley Folk Festival. Friday morning, when I was performing, I said to the kids, who were about 70 percent Jewish, ‘I don’t know what you are doing tonight, but I am going to the synagogue. If anybody wants to join me, wait for me in front of the hotel at seven o’clock and we’ll go together.’
“You know what? A thousand kids showed up!”
Despite what others may have thought, Reb Shlomo felt that ultimately there was no conflict between himself and the various segments of the Orthodox community.
“They want them [i.e. the secular] to keep Shabbos, I want them to keep Shabbos. They want them to put on tefillin, I want them to put on tefillin…. I don’t tell people what to do; I want them first to get a taste of Yiddishkeit. And I want them to love it so much that they will want to do it.