🕯 R’ Shlomo Carlebach z’l (1925-1994) – 16th of Cheshvan

November 2, 2020

Fondly known as “Reb Shlomo,” Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, zt’l was an accomplished Torah Scholar, storyteller, musician, and a friend to endless amounts of people all over the world. We know Reb Shlomo inspired many with his hundreds of heavenly niggunim. Indeed, these niggunim opened up gates in the powerful places in one’s soul to experience emotions that called forth yearning, sadness, and hope. Because of this, Carlebach is considered to have been the one of the most influential composers of Jewish music in the 20th century.

But the music is not just about the music; as was the singer himself, his music is larger than life, calling out for us to be better, to dream, and to love. Reb Shlomo helped revive the Jewish spirit in the aftermath of the Holocaust and helped thousands of disenchanted youths re-embrace their heritage. Even beyond his brilliance as a musician, Reb Shlomo was a charismatic teacher who traveled the world offering inspirational insights that were filled with a love for all human beings. He discovered the good in every person, found holiness in the outcasts, treasures in the beggars, and righteousness in the rebels.

A brief background:
Shlomo was born in Berlin in 1925 and grew up in Baden, near Vienna, where his father, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach, zt’l served as Chief Rabbi. With the ominous Nazi rise to power, the Carlebach family traveled to Lithuania, and eventually managed to immigrate to New York. In 1939, Shlomo’s father became the Rabbi of Congregation Kehlilath Jacob on New York City’s Upper West Side (which is still known as “The Carlebach Shul”). Shlomo and his twin brother Eli Chaim studied at Mesivta Torah Vodaas in Williamsburg until 1943. Then the boys, who were among the top of their class, joined a dozen students who helped Rav Aharon Kotler, zt’l establish Lakewood’s Beis Medrash Gavoah. But, when his father suffered a heart attack in 1948, Shlomo stopped learning full-time in Lakewood to spend more time at home in Manhattan.

It was at this point that he also began to frequent the Chassidic courts more often, especially Chabad, Bobov, and Modzitz. In Modzitz, he would gain from the influence of the musically inclined Modzitzer Rebbe and the likes of none other than Reb Ben Zion Shenker, zt’l – more on him in the coming days. In 1949, Shlomo Carlebach’s destiny was forever altered when he received a summons from the Lubavitcher Rebbe at the time, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, zt’l. At the Rebbe’s request, Shlomo began a career as an outreach emissary, travelling to college campuses all over the world, teaching the beauty of Yiddishkeit. Incidentally, it was also during this time that Shlomo became fluent in English and developed the idiosyncratic grammar that became his hallmark. His mixture of English, Hebrew and Yiddish words such as “mamash” and “gevalt” provided his listeners, some of whom were quite assimilated, with a nostalgic reminder of a Chassidic Eastern European life and culture that had been lost in the Holocaust.

In 1954, shortly after receiving semicha from Rav Yitzchak Hutner, zt’l, Reb Shlomo was dubbed “The Singing Rabbi,” due to his compositional proficiency as well as his ability to incorporate his lessons into the songs that he sang. This is essentially how Reb Shlomo’s music career began. His first records, “Haneshama Lach/Songs of My Soul” in 1959, and “Borchi Nafshi/Sing My Heart” in 1960 were met with great fanfare; each album containing what would become some of his most well-known niggunim. His third LP, “At the Village Gate” was produced by Vanguard Records in 1963, and marked the first time that a religious Jewish artist produced an album with a major American record company. With his fourth and fifth LP’s, “In the Palace of the King” and “Wake Up World!” in 1965, Reb Shlomo was on the way to establishing an international following. In fact, by then, he had already been on six trips around the world, from Rotterdam to Buenos Aires and from Sydney to Rome. And so it was, for the next 29 years, Reb Shlomo would inspire and entertain generations of listeners in his sweet, signature style…

For the sake of brevity (I really do try), let’s fast forward to October 15th, 1994, to what would be Reb Shlomo’s last Shabbos. By now, his failing health was really starting to show. He spent that Shabbos in Hendon, a lovely little part of London, England, and what would normally have been a five-minute walk to shul, took twenty minutes. Reb Shlomo stopped every few moments to catch his breath, but he assured his host that he was fine – that it was only a bad cold. When he was offered any medical assistance, he merely insisted that all he needed was a nice big bowl of chicken soup.

Over the next few days – after a Shabbos full of singing, mind you – he went on to perform at a few standing room only events, concerts that naturally lasted well into the night. On Wednesday morning, he flew back to New York. He still wasn’t feeling well and as soon as he got home he went to sleep. When he woke up on Thursday, he still felt terrible, so his daughters suggested he should come to them for Shabbos in Toronto. He canceled his New York engagements and made his way to La Guardia airport where he boarded a plane. But as the plane was taxiing for take-off, Reb Shlomo’s soul returned to Hashem, fulfilling Dovid Hamelech’s words Haneshama Lach – the soul is Yours – words made particularly famous by the title song of his first record, 35 years before.

Looking back, it’s obvious that Reb Shlomo belonged to all types of people; even though sometimes it appeared that he belonged to none. Although in reality, it often seemed that he had no ally but his guitar. Shlomo Carlebach was undeniably a fixture of the Jewish music world, despite the fractured following. And while, over time, he might have stirred quite the controversy, he was also, dare I say, tragically misunderstood. Tonight, the 16th of Cheshvan, marks his 26th yahrtzeit, a day on which we will look to remember him for his good deeds, his Torah insights, and, as I do for most of the people I write about here, for his music.

In January of 1995, only a few short months after Reb Shlomo’s sudden passing, Camp HASC held their 8th annual “A Time For Music” concert. Carlebach was to be one of the scheduled singers that night, making his absence even more acutely felt by all those in attendance. In his honor, another HASC mainstay and world famous composer in his own right, Abie Rotenberg, found a way to pay tribute to this legendary musical giant. On that cold evening, Rotenberg, together with Mordechai Ben David, Yerachmiel Begun, and one of his choir’s star soloists, Oded Kariti, would perform a heartwarming “Tribute to Shlomo Carlebach.” The recording was subsequently released as part of a collection HASC highlights, appropriately found on the first volume of a series called “Unforgettable Moments.” I could think of no better way to do justice to Reb Shlomo’s music on the night of his yahrtzeit than to feature a medley formed by his music, prepared especially for him.

ר’ שלמה ב”ר נפתלי קרליבך – Yehi zichro baruch.

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