A chasidic elder sat at his Shabbos table, holding a piece of silverware at the height of his eyes, until the table grew silent. The elder’s voice slowly rumbled, in the cadence of a Talmudic chant: “This is the spoon of the Great Maggid!” A shiver rippled through the room, chasidim awed at the idea that the iconic Maggid of Mezeritch — 18th century rebbe and heir to the Baal Shem Tov, founder of chasidism — once held that very same spoon in a European forest on a long forgotten Shabbos afternoon, an afternoon suddenly alive.
Sometime this spring, the spoons, candlesticks, an appointment book inked with names and telephone numbers from 1991-92, almost all the earthly belongings of Reb Shlomo Carlebach — as much of an heir to the Baal Shem Tov as anyone — will be auctioned off by his family. Also for sale are his guitar (another of his guitars sold for $10,000 last year) and the stand-up piano upon which he often composed (no bidding price has yet been established). The bidding starts at $12,000 for his tefillin, “worn from usage,” says the auction catalogue, “that he had in his hand luggage on the day that he went to the Other Side.” The greatest composer and maggid (mystical storyteller) of modern times died of a heart attack in LaGuardia Airport in 1994.
Also up for auction are a silver kiddush cup engraved to Shlomo (as he preferred to be known) from Me’or Modi’in, Shlomo’s Moshav in Israel (bidding starts at $3,000); a silver spice tower for Havdalah given to him as a wedding gift (also $3,000); his father Rabbi Naftali’s tallis bag, from pre-war Vienna, given to Shlomo as a gift ($1,200); and silver flatware, 14 forks, nine soup spoons ($4,000).
J. Greenstein & Co., the Cedarhurst-based auction house handling the sale, estimates that the more than 30 items could bring in $100,000 or more. Neshama Carlebach, Reb Shlomo’s daughter, tells us the money will primarily go to the family-controlled Shlomo Carlebach Foundation, which has operated only in fits and starts in the 21 years since Reb Shlomo’s death. The latest “fits and starts” have to do with this very auction, originally scheduled for February, now postponed until the Carlebach family and the auction house resolve unspecified differences, though both sides say that they’re committed to the auction taking place.
Their mercantile dispute is of no concern in the realm of the spirit, where relics, even ones as obscure or tertiary as the Maggid’s spoon, often attain mystical status, tangible souvenirs of a time when Heaven and earth seemed to kiss, even if that kiss was followed by a break-up. When Moses smashed the Tablets at Sinai, the shards were gathered and for centuries shared the Ark with the second Tablets. The Holy Wall in Jerusalem is but a relic of the Temple on the hill above it. Can relics be priced? No matter how poor or desperate Shlomo’s mother was, fleeing from the Nazis, she never sold her Shabbos candlesticks that she carried across borders. Now, those silver candlesticks from Europe, later given to Neshama’s mother by Shlomo’s mother as an engagement gift, is yours for the bidding.
Neshama says, “I happen to feel very whole [at peace] about the decision to sell. The Foundation is more important” than candlesticks, than a challah knife. The candlesticks, like the knife is “probably German,” says the catalogue. “Shabbat Kodesh” (the Holy Sabbath) is engraved on the knife’s handle. “Reb Shlomo used this knife in both the home he shared with Neila (his wife) as well as in his parents home. Wear and damage from use.” Bidding starts at $1,800.
Did it hurt Neshama to sell the knife that was used to cut challah every Shabbos in the twilight of pre-war Europe, and later used by her father? Wouldn’t she want her sons to someday cut challah with that same knife, with its “wear and damage from use”?
“Anything about my father is always very emotional for me,” says Neshama. “When people pass away there is so much sentiment attached to their things because they are not actually here anymore. But my father is everywhere. He’s alive, more than any object, almost more alive than were he actually alive.”
Up for auction is the scrapbook kept by Shlomo’s mother, all the newspaper clippings and concert posters when he was just starting out in 1959 and into the ’60s. It will go to the highest bidder.
You can bid on Shlomo’s famous vest, says the catalogue, the one with the “black and shiny material.”
How many pennies for a memory? On Simchas Torah, when there would never be enough Sifrei Torah (scrolls) for everyone to dance with, Reb Shlomo would hand out the holy books from his library, “Dance with the books!” He would give each particular book to the specific person whom Shlomo felt most needed the blessing contained within those covers. You might find yourself “dancing” with Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the 18th century kabbalist and philosopher.
Soon, at the auction, you could buy Luzatto’s “Yalkut Yediot He’emet” — bidding starts at $1,200. Inside the binding is a stamp from the House of Love and Prayer, Reb Shlomo’s legendary shul, located, says the stamp, at 1456 Ninth Avenue, San Francisco,” in the heart of Haight-Ashbury’s hippie kingdom in the Summer of Love. Surely there’s a story behind Theodore Bikel’s signature and phone number in Luzatto’s book, a story for a Shabbos afternoon in another world.
What are the bids for Reb Shlomo old scratched stand-up piano, the one he played by ear, or rather, the one he played by soul? Rabbi Sam Intrator, Reb Shlomo’s globetrotting manager, told us, “Shlomo couldn’t read music, but he’d close his eyes like he was davening, leaning into the piano as if to hear the music better, and on the spot compose and create — it was hishtapchus hanefesh, an outpouring of the soul.” And yet, he never played piano in public, says Intrator: “He didn’t feel proficient at it.”
You can bid on his silver esrog box, “hand spun filigree in citron shape,” says the catalogue. Greenstein estimates the bidding could reach $6,500. The esrog always meant more to Shlomo than the box. Intrator remembers, “He always held the esrog next to his heart, and brought it back to his heart, when he would do nanu’im,” the shaking of the lulav and esrog in the six directions, “sweeping the world.” His nanu’im could take 45 minutes, what could be five minutes for anyone else. Intrator remembers, “He was so engaged, so intense in what he was doing, nothing else existed; he was in another world.” Of the “four species” used on Sukkos – the willow, palm, myrtle and citron (esrog) – the esrog is symbolically associated with the heart. On his last Hoshana Rabbah, before his fatal heart attack, Shlomo lost his esrog, and was almost crying, “The esrog is your heart, I need my esrog.”
Intrator recalls visiting Majdanek with Reb Shlomo and the chevra, when Reb Shlomo said, “Chevra, sometimes a second can be an eternity.” It was his key for saying Yizkor, as well: no schlepping, no kitsch. “When there’s an opening between worlds,” he’d say, you can’t waste time, “it’s one-two-three.” The more you believe in the Other World, he’d say, the less time is needed for Yizkor, a second can be eternity.
Intrator says, “We had a long trip ahead of us.” So, after touring the death camp, “We were back on the bus, all except Shlomo. I found him in the room with the thousands of shoes. He was wearing his long black raincoat,” bidding starts at $800. “He was shaking, davening — he was ‘somewhere else.’ He had his microcassette recorder and was recording all these new niggunim that were coming to him. The next day, says Intrator, the microcassette recorder got lost; “Those songs weren’t meant to be heard.”
On a long ago Friday night, Reb Shlomo joined several of his chevra for a Shabbos meal in a dimly lit Upper West Side apartment. No one, including Shlomo, had any money but “all we need is wine and challah,” he said. "The main thing is to be together." We splurged on seltzer, turkey slices, paper plates, and plastic forks and spoons.
Reb Shlomo was overheard saying to one of the chevra, “… Your three rebbes are Reb Nachman, the Sefas Emes and the Ishbitzer.”
“And you, Shlomo.”
Reb Shlomo, who never put on airs, said quietly, “No, I’m your best friend.”
After the meal we threw the plastic forks and spoons into a garbage bag. Who knew?
Then Reb Shlomo spoke of Torah, and lesser things, until the wee small hours.