After Reb Shlomo Carlebach’s passing in 1994, “Carlebach minyans” have blossomed around the world, driven by the fact that anyone can sing (and daven) along with the music famously recorded by him. But if the music lives on, Reb Shlomo’s Torah teachings have suffered a more elusive afterlife. Singing along is one thing, but how can one study along with, or even find, his unrecorded, unpublished teachings that were often casually spoken in situations as ephemeral as they were enchanted?
“The good news is that Reb Shlomo was, by far, the most bootlegged Jewish artist of all,” says Shlomo Katz, director and editor of the recently created Shlomo Carlebach Legacy Trust. “He was recorded everywhere, constantly — concerts, classes, conversations. It became clear,” says Katz, a musician and teacher in his own right, “that we had to form a central place to house everything, not just for archival purposes but for disseminating and publishing, and for the kovod [honor] of Reb Shlomo.” It’s something that Katz, who at 31 never met Reb Shlomo, has been working on informally and now professionally for several years.
Reb Shlomo’s teachings were mostly unstructured, jazz-like expositions ranging from the Zohar to stories of Moishele the Water Carrier, to the Holy Thieves, improvised without notes, and differing — depending on his evolving scholarship and consciousness — from one session to the next. In his endless travels, he would often take at least two suitcases, one for clothes, one for a portable library — volumes of Ishbitz, Rav Kook, Reb Nachman — a moveable feast that fueled his teachings at the next port of call.
The trust, a project administered by the Carlebach family, has collected some 21,000 hours of Reb Shlomo bootlegs — mostly audiotapes, with about 1,000 hours of video — according to the trust’s website. More than 95 percent of these tapes have yet to be transcribed and processed, says Katz, who is editing the tapes from his home in Neve Daniel, Israel.
The gathering and transcribing of tapes began, in fits and starts, even before Reb Shlomo's death in 1994. However, the coordination of the project under the trust, based in Jerusalem, began in 2009, says Katz, who is being assisted by about a half-dozen people working on the tapes in various locations.
The tapes have already yielded nearly 300 previously unknown or unrecorded niggunim, snippets of songs, sung or whistled or strummed on guitar by Reb Shlomo impromptu in the midst of his teachings. Reb Shlomo can be heard on tape dismissing the quality of some of these off-the-cuff tunes, but to his aficionados they might be comparable to the Beatles’ unfinished or unrecorded music that is now appreciated and available on the “Beatles’ Anthology.”
The tapes, adds Katz, are on loan from the individual collections of “the chevra” (Reb Shlomo’s students and friends — and who had more?) and are being sonically cleaned up, digitized, tracked and cross-referenced by topic in a database, before being returned to the lenders in digital format or DVD.
The project, so far, has yielded a newly published 263-page book, “Evan Shlomo” (“The Rock of Shlomo,” its Hebrew title), “The Torah Commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach” (the English title, published by Urim Publications and the Carlebach Trust); it’s made up of 84 teachings on the first six portions of Bereshit (Genesis). At the website, Carlebachlegacy.com, where one can purchase the book, “all registered chevra” (that means everybody) can sign up to receive free weekly e-mails containing Reb Shlomo’s insights for that Shabbat’s Torah reading, and links to the video archive.
Though Reb Shlomo is primarily known as the foremost composer of Jewish music, and a countercultural icon since his 1960s performances in Greenwich Village and at major folk festivals, he actually came to his musical career relatively late in life, not making his first recording until 1959 when he was 34. Before that, among the cognoscenti, he was considered a unique master of rabbinic scholarship, though this side of him came to be dwarfed by his musical reputation, an imbalance that the new project is attempting to correct.
“I don’t think one can really understand his songs and the davening without the [teachings and the] stories,” says Rabbi David Silber, founder and dean of the Drisha Insitutute. Reb Shlomo's approach represents “a kind of authentic chassidut that focuses on the human being as a broken but holy vessel, emphasizing the challenge of discovering or uncovering the real self who is then able to stand before God and fully empathize with a fellow human being. At the end of the day there is something deeply humanistic and democratic about his approach.”
Rabbi Silber adds, for Reb Shlomo, “Everything starts with the human condition of brokenness. I suspect that he saw his own role as a consoler of the Jewish people.”
The teachings collected in the new book, rarely identified by time or place, nevertheless present something of an autobiographical jigsaw: “I had the privilege of learning in Lakewood [N.J.] with Rav Aaron Kotler,” at the famously rigorous Beth Medrash Gevoha, says Reb Shlomo at one point. “In 1946, after the war, Rav Aaron told us that the chief rabbi of Tehran is coming to be with us in the yeshiva for Shabbos. … In Lakewood there’s a beautiful lake in the middle of the city,” and after Shabbat, after midnight, the Iranian rabbi and young Shlomo went for a walk around the lake. Reb Shlomo remembers the chief rabbi saying, “Before I tell you the story, you have to give me a tekias kaf (a binding handshake). You have to swear to me that whenever you have a chance to tell this story, you will tell this story…”
At other times, Reb Shlomo speaks of the biblical families — “Here comes the Heilige Zeide [the Holy Grandfather], Avraham Avinu [Abraham]” as if they were his immediate family, complete with diminutives and familiarity: “Avraham Avinu was the first person in the world who had a son and taught him, ‘Itsikl, do you know who God is? You can talk to him.”
Or, muses Reb Shlomo, speaking of family intimacies, “If I ask a husband, do you know your wife? ‘Yeah, I know her.’ Their marriage is on the way out. But then there are people who when you ask them if they know their wife, they say, ‘She is so holy, I have no idea who she is.’”
When the angels ask Abraham where Sarah is, says Reb Shlomo, what they really meant was, “Do you know who she is, do you know how holy your wife is?’ Avraham Avinu answers in the holiest way. ‘Hineni b’ohel, I haven’t the faintest idea who she is, she is hiding in the tent….”
Where it is written, “And these are the offspring of Isaac, the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac,” a seemingly ordinary verse, Reb Shlomo says the Torah is really telling us “the greatest secret in the world.” Abraham is being asked who Isaac is, says Reb Shlomo, and Abraham says, “The only thing I can tell you is that I am his father. I have no idea who he is.” When Isaac is asked about Abraham, Isaac says, “I can tell you he is my father, but who he is, is beyond me. It’s beyond me!”
Says Reb Shlomo, “You know friends, the essence of Yiddishkeit is the beyond-ness of everything, the heavenliness of everything. It’s always so much deeper than we think, so much deeper.”
Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman Schachter were the first travelling emissaries sent by the Lubavitcher rebbe to college campuses, and Shlomo worked intimately with the rebbe until a moment in the early 1950s when the rebbe told him, “I can’t see you again until you get semicha,” rabbinic ordination. Katz tells how the rebbe steered Shlomo to Rav Yitzhak Hutner, a revered scholar, a member of Agudah’s Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages), and an old friend of the rebbe’s dating back to their student days in Berlin.
Not long after, young Shlomo sat in Rav Hutner’s home, explaining a page of Gemara. Then the room filled with quiet. Rav Hutner stood up, turned off the light, lit candles, and asked his wife to prepare a seudah (a holy meal). In the candlelight, Rav Hutner placed his hands on Shlomo’s head and ordained him.
One day in the subway, Reb Shlomo, so in love with learning, saw someone playing a guitar and he wondered if he could learn that, too.