Growing up, my family sang long, soul-stirring, chassidic nigunim at our Shabbos table, but during the week, we listened to the music of our uncle Shlomo, a”h – the twin brother of my father, Rav Eliyahu Chaim Carlebach, a”h. His records played all day long. We five Carlebach girls could sing his early tunes at the drop of a hat: “Esah Einai,” “Haneshama Lach,” “Hashmi’ini,” “Rachmana Prok,” etc.
Shlomo wasn’t a traditional uncle. He was always traveling and giving concerts. He performed in Israel, where he infused new spirit into the soldiers. He performed in Russia when it was still communist. There were few Jewish communities in the world that he did not visit. So, we didn’t see him much. And he didn’t call often either.
But when he did call, he and my father would talk on the phone for a long time. They discussed the sefarim they had learned and the chidushim they had heard. They also had their own language, which they had made up sometime in their teens – apparently twins do that sometimes – and which they used when they did not want anyone else to understand. (When my parents got engaged, my father taught the language to my mother Hadassa Carlebach, may she live and be well.)
When the two of them got together at a simcha, maybe a bar mitzvah of one of our Levovitz cousins – the twins had an older sister Shulamis Levovitz, a”h – you had to beware. If a speech sounded long-winded and pompous, the brothers would look at each other, one would start laughing, the other would join in, and that was the end of it. They had to make sure not to even glance at each other lest they break out in unstoppable laughter.
Every once in a while, we did see him. We girls would wake up in the morning, and there would be someone sleeping on the couch who looked uncannily like our father, only his beard was much longer. (My uncle rolled it up neatly every morning.) And he wore a snazzy vest. He was always very warm to us, opening his eyes wide in surprise and delight and calling us “Tzuker zis” (sweet like sugar).
I was nine when the news suddenly spread in Camp Emunah that Shlomo was in the area and was going to stop by and give us a concert. That day I was the darling of all the counselors. Each one vied to have me sit in her lap. Perhaps that would get them the attention of my very eligible bachelor-uncle. (Of the concert itself, I remember almost nothing.)
Once, when my father organized a benefit concert for our shul in Hillside, New Jersey, my uncle arrived two hours late, just as the audience was about to give up and go home. Baruch Hashem, the almost-fiasco turned into a memorable, joyful event. So my parents were not upset. Anyway, it was hard to be upset with Shlomo. He was charming! More importantly, any money he made at a performance he immediately distributed to the needy people in his chevra, leaving for himself barely enough for basics. How could one be upset with a person like that?
As for our chassunos, despite his best intentions, he did not make it, neither to mine nor to those of my next three sisters. When it came time for the youngest to get married, Shlomo let us know he would make every effort to come. The family was touched and excited, the kallah most of all. The chassunah took place on a Motzoei Shabbos. The kabbalas panim passed, the chuppah passed, the se’udah was halfway through, and still no sign of Shlomo. It wouldn’t be the first time my uncle came late to an event, so the kallah continued to hope.
The chassunah was two-thirds through by the time our uncle arrived. When people heard he was there, electricity coursed through the hall. Shlomo’le was there! He and my father danced together. It was something to behold! The guests stayed on, the simcha continuing way into the night. My sister cherishes those photos, heartwarming mementos of that special occasion.
I think we kind of understood then – though we now understand completely – that Shlomo could not be our own private uncle. He was, in a sense, everyone’s uncle. Whoever he met, he’d remember their name forever, even if they spoke only once. He’d spend hours on the phone with people dissatisfied with their lives, missing something but not knowing what they were missing. His mission was to awaken the spark in Jews who were spiritually asleep, who had no inkling of the treasures in their own Jewish heritage.
Some of these ignorant Jews were exploring Buddhism, lo aleinu. Shlomo was not afraid to go into ashrams and shlep out those estranged Jews. Any Jew needing a spiritual injection – he was there for them. What could compare to that in importance?
Once that pintele Yid was aroused in these disenfranchised Jews, there was no knowing how far they would go. While some of them remained Shlomo’s hippy-style followers, many more went on to become fervent, committed religious Jews. But no matter what path they chose – mainstream Orthodox, yeshivish, Chabad chassidic, or Shlomo-style chassidic, as in Mevo Modi’im, Israel – they always acknowledged Shlomo as the one who nudged that latent spark, that nascent love of G-d they were not even aware of, and pushed and prodded it until it caught fire.
Shlomo was the first of the modern Jewish singers. Neither a chazzan like Yossele Rosenblatt, a”h, nor a Bentzion Shenker, a”h, who captured the lively Moditzer niggunim on records (we listened to those too, along with my uncle’s), Shlomo was a singer of original compositions, of melodies that welled up from deep within him, melodies inspired by pesukim from Tanach or lines from the siddur. (His vast repertory of songs was composed without his knowing how to read a musical note!)
After him came Mordechai ben David, Dudu Fisher, Avraham Fried, and others. But he was the pioneer, and the ones who followed often modeled themselves after him, consciously or unconsciously.
But Shlomo was not just a singer. He was a teacher, too. In fact, the older he got, the more he interspersed his singing with Torah. He taught through stories, and though they sounded like simple tales, they were anything but. A master-storyteller, he wove Midrash, Gemara, and Chassidus into his stories (allowing himself a little poetic license for spice) for Shlomo was a talmid chacham.
Even as a bachur in Lakewood yeshiva, he was known as an illui. He never went anywhere without a suitcase full of sefarim. He was always learning, especially Chassidus, and most especially the chassidic teachings of Rav Tzadok HaKohen and the Ishbitzer (author of Mei HaShiloah).
In the ‘70s, I heard him in his House of Love and Prayer in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco, where he would address all the free-spirited hippies as “holy brother” or “holy sister.” (My husband and I ran a Chabad House in Berkeley at the time.) My uncle would always make it a point to call and personally invite us to his concerts.
In the ‘80s I heard him again in Los Angeles (where we still live) at the spacious home of Dr. Joshua and Lilian Ritchie in Hancock Park. The place was always packed, people sitting on the floor, on the stairs, wherever there was an empty space. Before each song, he’d strum his guitar and say to his fellow-musicians, “Give me harmony.” The concert would go on late into the night.
He attracted an eclectic crowd, many of whom were not religious but who hungered for spirituality, yearned to connect to something higher. At these concerts, they found what they were looking for.
Like all artists and entertainers, Shlomo aimed to bring delight and joy to his listeners. He wanted them to fall in love with being Jewish, just as he was. He wanted them to experience the delight of being G-d’s holy, chosen people and the joy at having access to His sacred Torah which was “deeper than deep.” And he succeeded.
Not only the marginally-attached Jews, but also the religious and chassidic – all of them were swept up, carried away. By the end of each performance, everyone would be on their feet, clapping and dancing. The same applied to Shlomo’s leading the davening in the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan. The crowd always left uplifted and energized, with a deeper appreciation of what it means to be a Jew.
Shlomo had ties to the chassidic world, his brother (my father) and he having been introduced to the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, as youngsters, before they left Europe. Every once in a while, Shlomo would appear unannounced at a farbrengen of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, HaRav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, zy”a, surrounded by some of his chevra. A ripple of excitement would go through 770, reaching all the way to the women’s section upstairs. Shlomo’le! The Lubavitchers adored him.
But of course they would! Like them, my uncle did not believe there was a Jew anywhere who was so far from Yiddishkeit that he could not be reached and his hidden love for G-d revealed.
Reb Shlomo, as he began to be called, got married late, at the age of 47, and had two daughters, Neshama and Nedara. They are my first cousins though they are the age of my children. Shlomo was a very caring and devoted father to them.
My father passed away in 1990 at the age of 65. Shlomo became a bit of grandfather figure to my children in the absence of my father – not surprising since the brothers looked alike and both were learned and unafraid of questions. I worried about one thing, though. Shlomo, who was so full of ruach, sometimes disparaged religious Jews who, he felt, lived only by the letter of the law and not by the spirit.
Shlomo lived four more years after his twin’s passing. Ironically enough, it was those same religious Jews whom he disparaged who ultimately appreciated him the most. It was mainly they, the Orthodox, the chassidim – Chabad, Bobov, and other kinds – who showed up at Shlomo’s levaya on that sad day of the 16th of Cheshvan (October 21), 1994.
A miserable rain kept many of the others away, but not them. They came with their throng of black raincoats and black umbrellas and stood somberly outside the shul on W. 79th Street to accompany the sweet singer of Israel on his last journey. They felt his loss most keenly, for they understood how he had infused spirit and joy into Judaism – not just for the thousands of lost souls – but for all Jews.
Most of all, they understood that, while his music might live on – as indeed it does – there would never be anyone to take his place.
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Shlomo Carlebach’s Top 10 Songs
Asking someone to rate the songs of the father of modern Jewish music is like asking a parent of multiple children to pick his or her favorite child. Despite the daunting task, though, here is a list (in no particular order) of the most popular/influential/ubiquitous songs from the over 600 compositions that appear on nearly 50 recordings by the late, great Reb Shlomo:
- “VeHa’er Einenu” – Released in 1969 as an entry to the Chassidic Song Festival in Israel, this song won third place and quickly became a favorite and standard at weddings and bar mitzvahs during the 70s, and continues to be sung worldwide today.
- “Od Yishama” – There isn’t a Jewish wedding in which Reb Shlomo’s “Od Yishama” isn’t heard. Over the years, nearly every chassidic singer and band has an adaption of these lyrics, but the Carlebach version remains the golden standard.
- “Od Avinu Chai” – This song, released in 1967, was widely recognized as the anthem of the Soviet Jewry movement and continues to be sung at rallies and gatherings of Jews worldwide.
- “Lema’an Achai veRe’ai” – In these turbulent times, this classic calls out to us to come together as brothers and friends for the sake of peace.
- “Yisrael Betach BaShem” – For years, this song was heard by hundreds of thousands of radio listeners in Israel as it was played on the radio each morning. It sends us the powerful message to place our trust in Hashem.
- “Shifchi KaMayim” – A soul-stirring composition that used to bring the “singing and dancing rabbi” to tears in many of his performances, “Shifchi” can still be heard at kumzitzes worldwide.
- “LeShana Haba’a B’Yerushalayim” – Thousands upon thousands of Jewish wedding dance sets and Simchat Torah hakafot playlists have concluded with this classic prayer and hope to celebrate next year in Yerushalayim. Its staccato rhythm is unmistakably Carlebach.
- “Mizmor LeDavid” and “Veshamru” – The proliferation of “Carlebach minyanim” caused these two tunes to be adopted as Friday night standards. Many shuls across the globe now feature these two compositions in their “mainstream minyanim,” leading to familiarity among the next generation of shul-goers.
- “Niggun Krakow” and “Niggun Neshomele” – One of Shlomo Carlebach’s greatest gifts to us are his catchy and meaningful nigunnim. There are times when no lyrics were needed to convey the emotions and feelings, and he captured this with dozens of niggunim that have stood the test of time. These two are, perhaps, the most famous.
- “Esah Einai” – This catchy tune dates back to 1959 and appeared on Reb Shlomo’s first record. Whether adapted to Anim Zemirot or sung with its original lyrics, this song still sounds contemporary and fresh and exemplifies the simplicity of his arrangements and compositions.
Other notables: “Atah Takum,” “Yachad Yachad,” “Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov,” “Yibaneh,” “U’Vau HaOvdim,” “Anah Hashem,” and “Gam Ki Elech.”
Roni is the longtime host of Florida’s Sunday morning Jewish music radio show Shalom South Florida. He has an M.S. in Journalism and Communication and has one of the largest collections of Jewish music in North America. He was also the writer of the Top Chai music column in The Jewish Press for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ShalomSouthFL. For more information, visit www.ShalomSouthFlorida.com.