Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (Hebrew: שלמה קרליבך), known as Reb Shlomo to his followers, was a singer, rabbi, and spiritual leader.
Known as “Rabbi Shlomo” to his followers, Carlebach (14 January 1925 – 20 October 1994), was a Jewish rabbi, religious teacher, composer, and singer who was known as "The Singing Rabbi" during his lifetime.
Although his roots lay in traditional Orthodox yeshivot, he branched out to create his own style combining Hasidic Judaism, warmth and personal interaction, public concerts, and song-filled synagogue services. At various times he lived in Manhattan, San Francisco, Toronto and a Moshav he founded, Mevo Modi'im, Israel. Carlebach is the subject of Soul Doctor, a musical that debuted on Broadway in 2013.
Carlebach is considered by many to be the foremost Jewish religious songwriter of the 20th century. In a career that spanned 40 years, he composed thousands of melodies and recorded more than 25 albums that continue to have widespread popularity and appeal. His influence also continues to this day in "Carlebach minyanim" and Jewish religious gatherings in many cities and remote pristine areas around the globe.
Carlebach was also considered a pioneer of the Baal teshuva movement ("returnees to Judaism"), encouraging disenc
heritage, using his special style of enlightened teaching, and his melodies, songs, and highly inspiring story telling
Shlomo Carlebach was descended from old rabbinical dynasties in pre-Holocaust Germany. The Carlebach family is a notable Jewish family originally from Germany that now lives all over the world. He was born in 1925 in Berlin, where his father, Rabbi Hartwig Naftali Carlebach (1889–1967), was an Orthodox rabbi. He had a twin brother, Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach and a sister, Shulamith Levovitz.. His family left Germany in 1931 and lived in Baden bei Wien, Austria and by 1933 in Switzerland.
Carlebach emigrated to Lithuania in 1938 where he studied at a yeshiva. In 1938 his father became the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jacob, a small synagogue on West 79th Street in New York City's Upper West Side. Carlebach came to New York in 1939 via Great Britain. He and his twin brother Rabbi Eli Chaim Carlebach took over the rabbinate of the synagogue after their father's death in 1967.
Carlebach studied at Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, New York, and Beth Medrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. His aptitude for Torah study was recognized by great Torah scholars and teachers, among them Rabbi Shlomo Heiman, and the Rosh Yeshiva of Bais Medrash Gevoha, Rabbi Aharon Kotler. He was considered one of the top students of Rabbi Kotler. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, who gave Carlebach Semikha, considered it a loss to the Torah world that he chose a career in musical Jewish outreach over one as a scholar and teacher. During his yeshiva studies he was often asked to lead the services as a hazzan.
In 1950, Carlebach set up a small Torah learning group which he called T.S.G.G. (pronounced TASGIG), an acronym for "Taste And See God Is Good".
That year, Carlebach attended a Hebrew language ulpan at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where he used to play hasiddic melodies on the piano. One of those impressed with his playing was Sara Schafler-Kelman, who invited Carlebach to sing chasidic tunes at the Hillel Center on Convent Avenue, an offer which he reluctantly accepted. Schafler prepared a poster for the event, entitled "The Place of Music in the Hassidic Tradition". This was Carlebach's first invited performance. Years later, Carlebach said to Schafler-Kelman, "You gave me a title for my life's work."
In 1951, Carlebach began learning English in a special program at Columbia University, having previously conversed mainly in Yiddish. Becoming fluent in English only at the age of 26, he developed an unusual grammar, mixing Yiddish and English, that became his hallmark, and later influenced the language of his followers, as well as many other members of the neo-hassidic movement.
Carlebach became a disciple of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, the sixth Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. From 1951-1954, he worked briefly as one of the first emissaries (shluchim) of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe who urged him to use his special skills and go to college campuses to reconnect Jews to Judaism, but would later disapprove of the non traditional tactics he used to do so. Carlebach left the movement in 1954.
In 1972, he married Elaine Neila Glick, a teacher. They had two daughters, Nedara (Dari) and Neshama. Neshama Carlebach is a songwriter and singer in her own right, basing herself on her father's style and name.
Carlebach began writing songs at the end of the 1950s, primarily based on verses from the Tanakh or the Siddur set to his own music. Although he composed thousands of songs, he could not read musical notes. Many of his soulful renderings of Torah verses became standards in the wider Jewish community, including Am Yisrael Chai ("[The] Nation [of] Israel Lives"—composed on behalf of the plight of Soviet Jewry in the mid-1960s), Pitchu Li ("Open [for] Me [the Gates of Righteousness]") and Borchi Nafshi ("[May] My Soul Bless [God]").
The New York Times reported in its obituary of Carlebach that his singing career began in Greenwich Village, where he met Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and other folk singers who encouraged his career, and helped him get a spot at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966 But Carlebach was actually recording well before this and was invited to the festival by one of its organizers after she heard a recording of Carlebach.
After his appearance at the Berkeley Folk Festival he decided to remain in the San Francisco Bay Area to reach out to what he called "lost Jewish souls"—runaways and drug-addicted youth. His local followers opened a center called the House of Love and Prayer in the Inner Richmond district of San Francisco, to reach out to disaffected youth with song and dance and communal gatherings. He became known as "The Singing Rabbi". Through his infectious music and his innate caring many Jews feel that he inspired and reconnected thousands of Jewish youngsters and adults, otherwise lost to Judaism.
Some Carlebach melodies were entered in Israel's annual Hasidic Song Festival, In 1969, his song Ve'haer Eneinu, sung by the Shlosharim won third prize. The Hasidic festivals were a yearly event that helped to popularize his music. He also produced albums with a more liturgical sound. Some of the musicians he worked with during this period added a psychedelic tinge and a wider range of backup instrumentation. Carlebach now spent much of his time in Israel, living in Moshav Me'or Modi'im.
Carlebach's songs were characterized by relatively short melodies and traditional lyrics. His catchy new tunes were easy to learn and became part of the prayer services in many synagogues around the world.
Returning to New York City, Carlebach also became known for his stories and Hasidic teachings. As part of his performances he spoke of inspirational subjects, rooted in Hasidism and Kabbalah. Some of his teachings have been published by his students and appear alongside his recorded songs. Carlebach spread the teachings of Chabad, Breslov, and popularized the writings of, among others, the Rebbe of Ishbitz, Mordechai Yosef Leiner, and Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piasetzno.
Carlebach became the Rabbi of the Carlebach Shul on West 79th Street. He continued to perform regularly at concerts, and to record various albums of his original melodies.
Carlebach died of a heart attack on a flight to Canada. The Hebrew date was 16 Cheshvan 5755. His body was flown to Israel for burial at Har HaMenuchot. During the funeral the mourners sang Carlebach's songs, including Chasdei Hashem Ki Lo Samnu. Israel's Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau gave a eulogy. An annual memorial service is held on the 16th of Cheshvan at Carlebach's grave site. Additional memorial events take place throughout Israel and around the world.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt, Carlebach "changed the expectations of the prayer experience from decorous and sombre to uplifting and ecstatic as he captivated generations with elemental melodies and stories of miraculous human saintliness, modesty and unselfishness."
During his lifetime, Carlebach was often relegated to pariah status, marginalized by many of his peers. Because in his yeshiva years he had excelled in Talmud studies, many had hoped that he would later become a Rosh Yeshiva or a similar figure; many harbored ill will toward his chosen path in music and outreach. In addition, his activities in public were often not considered proper according to traditional orthodox teachings. This included encouraging and listening to women singing (not relatives) and touching women affectionately (violating Orthodox standards of shomer negiah).
In the years since his death, Carlebach's music has been embraced by many faiths as spiritual music. His music can be heard today in synagogues, Carlebach minyanim, churches, gospel choirs and temples worldwide. Many musical groups state that they draw inspiration from Carlebach and his music including Matisyahu, Chaim-Dovid Saracik, Sam Glaser, Moshav Band, Benyamin Steinberg, Reva l'sheva, Naftali Abramson, Gili Houpt, Yehuda Green, Aharon Razel and others. Various community leaders and rabbis were also influenced by him.
A musical written about his life, Soul Doctor, by Daniel Wise was presented as a limited engagement off-Broadway in 2008 and in New Orleans in 2010, and was received with critical acclaim. The musical had a brief off-Broadway run as a guest attraction at New York Theatre Workshop in the Summer of 2012, and earned Eric Anderson a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical nomination for his portrayal of Shlomo Carlebach. Soul Doctor opened on Broadway August 15, 2013.
A documentary film about Carlebach directed by Boaz Shahak, You Never Know, was released at the Jerusalem Film Festival, also in 2008.
In 2014 the story about Shlomo's last day on earth came out.
"The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach" is a series of books based on his teachings.
The Shlomo Carlebach Foundation was established to preserve and disseminate the teachings, music, and stories of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, zt"l, and to develop communities that will share the love and joy which he radiated.
Carlebach's approach towards kiruv (the popular Hebrew term for Orthodox Judaism outreach) was often tinged with controversy. Put most favorably, "He operated outside traditional Jewish structures in style and substance, and spoke about God and His love in a way that could make other rabbis uncomfortable."
After his death, Lilith magazine, a Jewish feminist publication, catalogued allegations of sexual impropriety against him. Specifically, named accusers are quoted in this article, as well as unnamed sources and Jewish communal leaders with knowledge of the allegations. His followers reject these accusations and claim that it is unfair to accuse him at a time when he could not respond to his accusers. However, accusations had already been made as early as the 1970s. Especially in light of the #metoo movement some have begun to question whether Jewish communities should still use his music. In January 2018 his daughter Neshama wrote an open letter to the women who were harmed by Carlebach. She wrote "I accept the fullness of who my father was, flaws and all. I am angry with him. And I refuse to see his faults as the totality of who he was."
May the merit of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach protect us all.Amen