Slivers of light in the black eastern sky over Manhattan, a time, says the Talmud, when mothers nurse their babies, lovers talk in whispers, and when Reb Shlomo Carlebach felt most alone. He had fallen asleep calling friends, even acquaintances, in distant time zones, anyone who might be awake.
His ex-wife, whom he loved, was in Toronto with his two young daughters for whom he’d interrupt his evening events so he could telephone them goodnight. If he wasn’t gone, he was leaving, off to another concert, his own version of Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour.” He traveled with a guitar and two suitcases, one filled with chasidic books, the other filled with more chasidic books and a change of clothes that looked just like the white shirt, black vest and pants he was wearing.
Once considered one of the most brilliant yeshiva prodigies of the 1950s, on Simchat Torah in the Carlebach Shul, instead of only dancing with Torah scrolls, he’d hand out his chasidic books and volumes of the Talmud for congregants to dance with, like a matchmaker, introducing each congregant to a specific book and a rebbe to get you through the winter.
If you would have told Shlomo (and he was always on a first name basis with everyone) that there would be a cartoonish musical comedy — “Soul Doctor” opening on Broadway this summer, 19 years after his death — a show based often fictitiously on his early life and musical career, he would have laughed; one more time he wouldn’t live to see a dime off his own product and other people’s distortions. His folk melodies were so natural and universal, sung or played at almost all weddings, synagogues, Shabbat tables and campfires, with no more verbal credit than, say, “Amazing Grace,” that generations of musicians who grew up knowing these songs had every reason to think that the tunes sprung up from the people instead of from one man’s work, deserving of royalties.
“Soul Doctor,” as The New York Observer points out, “is a bioplay that tells you almost no true details about its subject’s life,” or even about his relationships. He tells one young woman that he’ll never marry, but we know that he married. His father is depicted as going to Selma (which never happened) to march with Martin Luther King, but the Jewish political causes for which Shlomo did march are omitted entirely. He had his share of Orthodox detractors but in “Soul Doctor” every Orthodox Jew with a speaking part, including that of his parents, is depicted as an antagonist when that was hardly the case. And so on.
Perhaps I remember too well, hearing his first album when I was 7 (I never understood the Holy Book until I heard him sing it); to being politicized and spiritually empowered by him at Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry rallies (for which he specifically composed “Am Yisroel Chai”); to thinking in 1969 that the Messiah couldn’t be far off, with man on the moon, Jews on the Temple Mount, the Miracle Mets on the cover of Life and inside that same issue, a photo feature of Reb Shlomo performing an Orthodox “flowers in your hair” wedding in a San Francisco park, with his House of Love and Prayer. (He joked of the House, “If I called it Congregation Beth Torah, who would have come?”). The excitement of this wild man-child of a chasid radiating through American culture had me wanting to say, walking out of “Soul Doctor” to anyone who’d listen: “You should have seen the real thing in the old days, kid. He was something.” As it says on his tombstone, he was “mamesh a gevalt — the sweetest of the sweet.”
A winter night in Poland: Coal-burning furnaces blow smoke-rings out of chimneys as a bus carrying Shlomo and his entourage pulls up at a theater near the old Jewish ghetto in Lodz. Later, those who were there couldn’t wait to tell friends how the audience was packed with the lost and hidden Jewish children from the war years, now grown old, wanting to tell Shlomo their stories.
“Listen, chevra, please,” Shlomo says from the stage, drawing the Lodzians into his inner circle. “A man comes to the Holy Baal Shem Tov and says, ‘Please pray for my sick child.’ The Baal Shem says, ‘I’ll get some people to pray with me.’ He goes down to the street and gets 10 thieves. They pray together and the child gets well. So people ask the Baal Shem, ‘Can’t you pray with decent people?’
“The Baal Shem explains: ‘The gates to Heaven are closed. I need my thieves to break it open!’” The lost children wildly applaud.
“My whole life,” says Shlomo, wide-eyed in the spotlight, “I’m travelling all over the world, collecting holy thieves. So I come to join hands with you, the holy thieves of Lodz!” The thieves roar with delight.
Back in New York, Shlomo telephones in the middle of the night: “Brother, why am I so tired?” I answer him in words I once heard him say: “Dovid HaMelech (King David) never had a good night’s sleep in his life.” The Jerusalem breeze would blow through David’s palace in the middle of the night, the wisps of air plucking the strings of his lyre into melodies for the Psalms. The tune, the words, the world was so beautiful. Who could sleep?
Shlomo wanted to meet at the shul the next afternoon. At the shul, he wanted someone to talk to while he shlepped his dirty laundry from the last leg of his tour to a Laundromat on upper Broadway. He talked to everyone on the street, from the slick to the homeless.
“We have to do Shabbos,” said Shlomo walking home, thinking ahead: “Who’s around [for a Friday night meal]?” Nobody with money. “OK, so all we need is challah and Kiddush.”
There was enough spare change in the pockets to also buy seltzer, packaged turkey slices and coleslaw. The trick was “to taste Shabbos” in the coleslaw, “to taste Shabbos” even in the seltzer, in the singing, in the conversation that went all night. Who could sleep?
Helene Aylon was friends with Shlomo in Borough Park when they both were young. In 1961, Helene’s husband, Rabbi Mendy Fisch, died of cancer the week she turned 30.
All during Shloshim, the month after shiva, Shlomo would telephone Helene, in the middle of the night, after his concerts. He’d sing his most soulful melodies to her over the phone. It was a bitter February. She’d get in her flannel pajamas, waiting for his call. She remembers that he’d ask if she was cold. “I always said yes.”
Now a well-known avant-garde artist, she writes in her autobiography, “Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life As A Feminist Artist,” that with each of his calls “I found myself feeling very much alive, as though he were singing away the sentiment of death, the greyness that receded when I heard his voice. Often in the morning I would find the receiver on the floor. I never remembered when the phone had dropped from my hands, but when I stepped outside my door, I hummed ‘hashmee-ani es kolech,’” (a verse from the Song of Songs, “Let me hear see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is pleasant and your face is lovely.”)
Helene writes, “I believed Shlomo sang to me for techiyat hamaytim (bringing the dead back to life.)”
That summer, I was [religiously] divesting, emptying myself of a whole bunch of laws, yet there I was filling my soul with the holy songs set to Shlomo’s beseeching melodies. … As I listened … I felt a gentle spirit soaring through me, becoming part of my heartbeat.”
One of Shlomo’s favorite rebbes was the Piacezno, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman, who used to teach, “Kinderlach, taire kinderlach,” precious children, “gedenkst shon,” remember, “the greatest thing in the world is to do someone a favor.”
Shlomo would say, do you know how many favors you can do at night on the streets of the world? He’d perform a free concert and give out money to the homeless who slept in the railroad tunnels under Manhattan’s Riverside Park. In 1994, he died at LaGuardia Airport; he was 69. At his funeral, homeless men and women came by with tears in their eyes, to say goodbye.
“I asked him if I could do anything in return,” said one homeless man, “but the rabbi said he was honored just to do me a favor. He’d see me in the street and call out ‘Hey, brother!’ like I was his best friend.”
Kinderlach, he was “the greatest thing in the world.” To those of us who knew him, God did us a favor. If “Soul Doctor” can inspire anyone to learn Reb Shlomo’s true story, it would be worth it, if only for that.