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Life and Fate of Shlomo Carlebach

By Zanna Linskaia

He was loved by admires and was hated by losers. Fans followed him on his tours, others came after his death with allegations of unappropriated behavior. While musical critics admitted that he has transformed Jewish music and left us a legacy, a progressive feminist - journalist from the movement “me too” in 2012 called him “sexual predator” because of his

hugging, kissing and flirting with women during the concerts and required to ban his music and storytelling. His daughter Neshama, who became songwriter and singer on her fathers’ steps, wrote an open letter to his accusers - “ I accept the fullness of who my father was, but I refused to see his faults as the totality of who he was”. His followers rejected these

accusations and appreciated his spiritual impact that brought them back to their Jewish heritage.

Who was this “singing and dancing rabbi” as his admires called him?

His name was Shlomo Carlebach - a rabbi, teacher, spiritual leader, composer and singer who considered by many as the most famous Jewish religious songwriter of the 20th century.

He was born in Germany in 1925 in traditional Orthodox family from old rabbinical dynasty, and left country with parents in 1931 when Hitler took power. He lived in Austria, Switzerland, then in USA, studying in Jewish Theological seminar and learning English at Columbia university. He developed an unusual mixed Yiddish and English slang that became his hallmark. He worked few years with Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and then left this movement.

The singing début of Shlomo Carlebach was in 1950 at the Hillel center, the place of music in the Hassidic traditions. At the same time he began to write songs based on verses from the Tanah or the Siddur. Although his roots came from Orthodox yeshivot, he succeeded to create his own style with combination of Hassidic Judaism, his attractive personality, public shows and ritual services. Even though he could not read musical notes, his songs became standards in the Jewish community like “Am Israel Chai”, composed on behalf of Soviet Jewry, “Pitchu Li”- Open Gates for me, or “Borchi Nafshi”- May my Soul Bless. He participated in Israeli Hassidic Song Festival, that was a great opportunity to popularize his music with short melodies and traditional lyrics. His tunes were easy to learn and became part of the prayer services in many synagogues around the world. His performances had also

included storytelling of inspirational subjects noted in Hassidism and Kabbalah. His favorite places to live have been Manhattan,San Francisco, Toronto and a moshav he founded in Israel - Meor Modi’im.

The tragical death of Shlomo Carlebach in October 20, 1994 was a shock for his fans and followers. He died of a heart attack on his way to Canada while the plane was still on the ground at airport in New York. His body was flown to Israel to burial at Har HaMenuhot in Jerusalem. Being a journalist of Israeli newspaper “Davar” at that time, I was sent there by editor to write an article. The funeral of Shlomo Carlebach became his own performance -

the mourners sang his songs while women were dancing. Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lay gave an eulogy in which he said that Shlomo Carlebach changed the expectations of the prayer experience from decorous to uplifting as he captivated generations with elemental melodies and stories of miraculous human modesty and unselfishness.

Music of Shlomo Carlebach after his death has influence on many faiths as spiritual music and can be heard not only in synagogues, but also in churches, gospel choirs and temples. In 2008 at the “Jerusalem Film Festival” was shown documentary “You never know”about Shlomo Carlebach, directed by Boaz Shahak and in New York was opened Carlebach shul. Later “The Shlomo Carlebach Foundation” was established by his family and friends to preserve his teaching, music and stories and inspire communities to share his love and joy to people.

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1 Comment

Gideon Stuhler
Gideon Stuhler
Jan 09, 2023

Zanna, many thanks for this very interesting article. I saw Carlebach on stage as a youngster in Israel and was very impressed by his and his groups rhythms and enthusiasm.

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