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Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s Early Years in New York

The twin brothers, Eli Chaim and Shlomo Carlebach, rowing on a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains, probably summer 1948. Courtesy of Hadassa Carlebach and Sheina Carlebach Berkowitz.

The twin brothers, Eli Chaim and Shlomo Carlebach, rowing on a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains, probably summer 1948. Courtesy of Hadassa Carlebach and Sheina Carlebach Berkowitz.

These vingette are excerpted from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach: Life, Mission and Legacy by Dr. Natan Ophir (Offenbacher), published by Urim Publications.

 

Arrival of the Carlebach Family in Brooklyn in 1939

On February 4, 1939, Rabbi Naphtali boarded the RMS Queen Mary from Southampton, England, and arrived in New York on February 9. Shortly thereafter, the rest of the Carlebach family set sail on the Queen Mary on March 18 and arrived in New York on March 23, 1939. Reportedly, the captain informed them: “Now you don’t know what a miracle it is that you are on my ship, but one day you will know.” In September, half a year later, the Nazis invaded Poland and no more ships took refugees to New York. This narrow escape left a profound impression on Shlomo that was later to shape his life career.

The Carlebach family settled in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, renting an apartment for $43 a month on 163 South 9th street. R. Naphtali was hired as rabbi of the Young Israel of Crown Heights on Eastern Parkway, and his total net salary for the 30 weeks that he worked in 1939 was $750. R. Naphtali suffered from a heart condition, and his wife Rebbetzin Pessia helped support the family, earning money as a bookbinder.

 

Torah Vodaas and Lakewood

Shlomo spent his teenage years studying in the haredi yeshiva, Mesivta Torah Vodaas, in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn. There he was influenced by Rabbi Shlomo Hyman (1892–1945) who had come from Vilna in 1935 to teach at the yeshiva. One day in 1942, Rabbi Aharon Kotler visited Torah Vodaas. With the encouragement of R. Shraga Faivel Mendelovitz, principal of Torah Vodaas, R. Kotler began planning a kollel program. He chose the small resort town of Lakewood, New Jersey, outside the bustle of New York, as an ideal place for intensive full-time Torah learning. A building was found on 617 6th St. The program began in April 1943, shortly after Pesach, with fourteen students, some of whom had known R. Kotler from his days teaching in Kletzk in Poland. Shlomo and his brother Eliyahu Chaim, aged 18, joined this first group. Shlomo learned for six years with avid enthusiasm. In later years, Reb Shlomo recalled:

When I was in yeshiva, I was learning so much, that not only did I not buy a newspaper; I didn’t even look at the headlines! I didn’t want anything in my head but the Torah.

Chazkel (Charlie) Roth visited Lakewood and saw the Carlebach brothers studying: “Then, it was Reb Eli Chaim who joked around and always sang niggunim, while Reb Shlomo was quiet and studious.” Shlomo was considered “one of the most promising young Talmudists in the country and pronounced an illui, a Torah genius, by R. Aharon Kotler.” It is reported that a particularly brilliant classmate, Willie Low (Ze’ev Lev), stated that there were only two students in Lakewood at the time who understood R. Aharon Kotler’s class – himself and Shlomo.

…Shlomo’s disciples often stated that not only was he an outstanding student and protégé of R. Kotler, but that his mentor viewed him as his potential successor. The story is told that the Lakewood Yeshiva students had a hard time following Rabbi Kotler’s discourses and understanding his Talmudic references. Shlomo would summarize and review the class for them. According to one report:

Once a week the top class in the Mir Yeshiva would come from Brooklyn to listen to the discourse of Rabbi Aharon Kotler. It was not easy to follow the sources and reasoning, but after the class was over, there was one person who would explain and review the class for everyone else. This was Reb Shlomo.…The learning under R. Kotler established a chain of tradition for Shlomo which enhanced his reputation as a standard bearer of Orthodoxy even when he was ostracized because of his maverick style.

 

Manhattan (1946–1951)

In 1945, the Carlebach family moved to Manhattan as R. Naphtali assumed leadership of Congregation Kehilath Jacob on 305 West 79th St. replacing Rabbi Jacob Meyer Segolovich. Originally from Danzig, R. Segolovich had founded the synagogue in 1941. After he passed away in 1944, R. Naphtali purchased the rights to the synagogue, including the lease on the building, and the Carlebach family lived on the second floor of the synagogue.

Shlomo’s father suffered a heart attack in 1948. Shlomo stopped learning full-time in the Lakewood Yeshiva to spend more time at home in Manhattan. He also began to frequent the chasidic courts more often, especially Chabad, Modzitz, and Bobov. Sometime around 1950, when his father wasn’t feeling well, Shlomo filled in to teach his weeky Torah portion class. The students enjoyed it so much that they requested that he continue giving the class. Soon Shlomo set up a learning group called T.S.G.G. (pronounced TASGIG), an acronym for Taste And See God Is Good, based on the verse in Psalms 34:9. He explained this verse using a teaching of R. Nahman of Breslov to say that “you cannot begin to talk to people about God unless you have first given them a taste of how God is Good.” T.S.G.G. operated for a number of years as a co-ed program, the first such chasidic outreach program in America. Chaim Waxman, who participated in this group when he was 15 years old, described how TSGG included “small groups of maybe ten to fifteen teenagers and young adults” who joined together “for singing and inspiration.”

Marilyn Schwadron (Hittner) was one of the participants in TSGG. One day in 1951 or 1952, Shlomo took his class to 770 Eastern Parkway for a yechidus with the Rebbe. Marilyn began corresponding with the Rebbe. When the question arose of finding suitable employment that would not hurt her Shabbat observance, the Rebbe advised her to have Shlomo contact Rabbi Chaskel Besser. This was the beginning of a unique friendship between the two men which, forty years later, led to Shlomo’s pioneering concert tour of Poland in January 1989.

In 1950, Shlomo and his father attended a Hebrew language ulpan taught by Prof. Isaac Barzilay. The class was held at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), just four subway stops from their Manhattan residence. Shlomo would practice playing the piano at JTS (only later in 1955 did he take up the guitar). At JTS Shlomo made some lifelong friends with future rabbis who later opened the doors to his performing at non-Orthodox congregations. Jack Riemer was a student at JTS when he first met Shlomo in the early 1950s. Riemer, who became one of the best-known and most-quoted writers in the rabbinate, invited Shlomo to perform several concerts over the years:

I arranged several visits for Shlomo at the synagogues where I served as rabbi in Boston, Massachusetts at Temple Sinai of Swampscott and Marblehead (1957–1961), and Temple Beth Hillel in Mattapan (1961–1964); then in Dayton, Ohio at Congregation Beth Abraham (1964–1978), and finally in La Jolla, California at Congregation Beth El (1978–1986). Each time that Shlomo came he had a wonderful impact.

When Shlomo would play the piano at JTS, people would stop to listen. It was an unusual sight to see a Chabad fellow playing chasidic melodies at JTS. Sara Schafler-Kelman was one of those impressed. She invited Shlomo to a pre-Shabbat program at the Hillel Center on Convent Avenue. Shlomo was afraid that his English was not fluent and that his accent was Yiddish, but Sara answered that he could sing chasidic tunes and need not speak much. She prepared a poster entitled The Place of Music in the Hassidic Tradition. This was Shlomo’s first invited performance for college students.

Nine years later, in 1959, Sara attended a concert by Shlomo on motzaei Shabbat. When she walked in with her husband, Rabbi Shmuel Schafler, and three of their children, Shlomo immediately recognized her:

As soon as I entered the auditorium Reb Shlomo spotted me. He jumped off the stage, ran to meet and embrace me. I couldn’t believe that so many years later he still remembered me. He said, Sara – Do you know that you were the first person who invited me to perform before an audience? You were my very first sponsor. You gave me a title for my life’s work.

During his early years in New York, Shlomo had been learning and conversing mostly in Yiddish. He began learning English in a special Columbia University program in 1951. His teacher happened to be a vice president of the League for Arab Refugees, but Shlomo credits her not only in instructing him in “phonetic rudiments” of English, but also for encouraging him towards a singing career by pointing out that he had a “fine ear for sounds.” Becoming fluent in English at the age of 26, Shlomo developed an idiosyncratic grammar that became his hallmark. His mixture of Yiddish words such as “mamash,” gevalt,” heilige,” and “nebech” provided his listeners, some of whom were quite assimilated, with a nostalgic reminder of a chasidic Eastern European life and culture that had been lost in the Holocaust. These expressions eventually became part and parcel of the modern Carlebach followers’ mode of speech and a linguistic part of what one might call a neo-chasidic identity.

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8 Responses to “Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s Early Years in New York”

  1. Natan Ophir says:

    The footnotes were apparently omitted here because of space considerations. Whoever would like to read them please write to me at CarlebachBook@gmail.com

  2. Karen Blake says:

    Natan has done a wonderful job on his book, (Shlomo and I were extremely close)

  3. Avi Kunstler says:

    I believe at the time Torah vodaas was located in williamsburgh and not kensington (where it is today)

  4. Natan Ophir says:

    Dear Avi, Thank you for the correction. Might you know the address of Torah Vodaas before it moved to 452 and 425 East 9th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11218, where it is located today? And when did it move?

  5. Avi Kunstler says:

    Not exactly sure when they moved but chances are in r shlomos day they were on Wilson st ….then they went to south third and after many many years there (at least into the mid to late 60s (or later) to the current location

  6. Paula George says:

    it is so amazing how much the present Rabbi Naftali of Carlebach Shul looks like his grandfather, Eli Chaim

  7. Dvorah Halevi says:

    That's correct , it w as located I Williamsburgh. My great uncle was a Rebbe there at the time.

  8. Nachum Meir Grafstein says:

    gevalt

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